The birth of La Leche League took place in the early 1950s in the U.S. – nearly sixty years ago. At that time, bottle-feeding was considered the best way to feed a baby, because formula was thought to be superior to breast milk – it was sterile and its amount could easily be measured in a bottle. Mothers were told to feed by the clock and to be careful not to spoil their babies by picking them up or comforting them when they cried. Caring was not part of motherhood and breastfeeding rates everywhere were going down.
When Mary Ann Cahill’s first child was born, she was told she did not have enough milk and must supplement with formula. At three months of age, her baby stopped breastfeeding. This was a regret Mary carried all her life. When her second child was on the way, the family moved to Franklin Park, Illinois. She went to Dr. Gregory White, who was considered to be a prophetic maverick and totally out of step with the times because he believed in old-fashioned natural childbirth and in breastfeeding. Mary was delighted to meet him, because she held the same beliefs.
Dr. White’s advice was: A baby’s wants are a baby’s needs.
Mary met up with other mothers in the area who also were breastfeeding in an atmosphere of anti-establishment mothering. They picked up their babies when they cried, were happy to breastfeed on demand, and believed in Dr. White’s advice about caring for their babies’ needs. Mary and six other like-minded mothers formed a group to support each other and were quickly joined by others who heard about them through word of mouth. This was the start of the organization La Leche League, named after a shrine in St. Augustine Florida dedicated to “Nuestra Señora de la Leche y Buen Parto” – Our Lady of the Milk and Happy Delivery. At that time, breastfeeding was frowned upon in the U.S., and even the very word breast was so shocking that it could not be used in polite society, so the name had to be chosen carefully.
These women found that breastfeeding was much easier when you could talk about it with friends and thus learn from each other. So they started having monthly get-togethers in their homes with other women who felt the same or simply wanted to know more about breastfeeding. The idea grew and the meeting groups began to multiply. It is this mother-to-mother sharing of experiences that is at the heart of every LLL gathering, from those early days right on up until today. It is the spirit of caring – caring for the newborn and growing baby, caring for other mothers, caring about giving your baby the best foundation you can, and caring for those seeking support and help – which gave the organization the strength to grow.
When those seven mothers started organizing themselves in 1958, they realized that meeting together in groups was good, but that they could more widely share their knowledge by writing about it. So together at their kitchen tables, they generated 30 handwritten pages. Two of their husbands were health professionals and helped with the technical information. More and more mothers were hungry for this information, and their information sheets grew into a book that was given the title The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. Out of those humble, homemade beginnings, and over the years, the book has grown. Today it is in its eighth edition with over 5oo pages, and the ninth edition is on its way. It is a best seller around the world, translated into many different languages, and it is a testimony to the many years of the caring spirit embodied in La Leche League.
LLL Leaders today share the same caring spirit that motivated those seven founding mothers: to help others in need of support. LLL Leaders are accredited by the organization. We have all breastfed our own babies and parented our children with care. We, too, have struggled through mastitis, plugged ducts, thrush, and sore nipples. We have learnt to survive criticism and self-doubt. Our experiences have made us wish to help others enjoy their babies as we have ours, and thus we willingly share our experience and knowledge with those who come to us for help and support.
Breastfeeding awakens many emotions. It can be a source of doubt as well as a source of great happiness. And it can also be a mystery – amazing that almost all babies’ needs can be satisfied at their mothers’ breasts.
This is how one mother experienced breastfeeding – taken from The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding:
Cathy writes: When I was two, my mother came home from hospital cradling two bundles wrapped in soft blue blankets. One was my new baby brother. She handed me the other. It contained a beautiful doll, which mother explained would be my special baby. My father put a small red wooden rocking chair near my mother’s chair. I vividly recall watching my mother breastfeed my brother, and I followed every move to be sure I was feeding my own baby, even though my breasts looked nothing like hers. My mother and baby brother gazed at each other as he fed. I looked at my own doll with her closed eyes. I wanted so much for her to be real. I told myself, I can’t wait to grow up so I can feed my own baby.
25 years later I gave birth to my first child. I sat in my rocking chair, and I held him close and nursed him. He opened his eyes and gazed at me. An overpowering recollection of that early childhood memory returned and I realized that this is what I had waited for.
(Lovingly abridged from the introduction to the eighth edition.)
By Joanna Koch
Joanna Koch has been a LLL leader since sometime in the 1980s and was one of the founding mothers of Mothering Matters.
Illustration by Albina Nogueira
Albina Nogueira has been a primary school teacher since 1992, and a writer and illustrator since 2006. She currently lives in Switzerland, but her homeland is Portugal. She is also the author of Letters to Grandparents and Hairdresser. To find out more, like her on Facebook or see her books in Amazon.