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When They Criticize LLL

from LEAVEN, Vol. 32 No. 1, February-March 1996, p. 14
by Trisha Noack
LLLI Public Relations Director

It is never easy to hear criticism of a person, practice or cause you love. When the press, an author or even a friend expresses dissatisfaction with La Leche League views, it feels very personal. In fact, the attack seems a criticism of you and the way you parent. No wonder it makes you angry!

What can be done when others express an unfavorable opinion of our organization? It helps to take a step back and analyze why these comments were made. Is it really a personal criticism or is LLL associated with a specific lifestyle? Are they out to profit from popularizing a parenting idea? Do they feel uncomfortable or regretful about a parenting experience? Are they making statements based on false assumptions?

After you determine a possible reason for the unflattering statements, decide if a response is needed. If someone makes a false statement about LLL, of course we would like to respond. For example, if you heard someone say, "Oh, I never went to LLL because they insist you have a home birth," you would feel confident interjecting what LLL really says in its philosophy statement on childbirth.

What if you read or hear something that is an opinion rather than a false statement? For example, two recently published books present unflattering views of LLL. Both contain some untruths; both contain a fair amount of opinion. While we can contact the authors and correct the falsehoods, should we try to change their opinion of us?

Perhaps it all comes back to the basic idea of accepting mothers (or authors) where they are. Living LLL philosophy has been an effective way to educate, enlighten and even change opinion. Hearing another's opinion of LLL can also be a wonderful checkup for all of us. Are we accepting of others' parenting choices or do we sit in judgment when they differ from ours? Reading Bottlefeeding Without Guilt, a Guide for Loving Parents by Peggy Robin can be a reality check.

The author, whose book has appeared in mainstream bookstores across the USA and Canada, makes a direct attack on what she refers to as "breastfeeding cultism." Her critical comments target Dr. William Sears, Tine Thevenin, Motherwear, The Compleat Mother Magazine, Mothering Magazine, The Ecobaby Catalog, The Natural Baby Company and, of course, La Leche League. She devotes an entire chapter to listing the characteristics of cults and why those mentioned qualify as cults. She takes her definition of cult from another author, pulling quotes and hearsay together to support her stand. The author's reason for writing this book? She says she was made to feel guilty by breastfeeding advocates about bottle feeding her second child.

What does one say to someone who has read this book and develops a questioning attitude about LLL's approach to helping mothers? It is helpful to discuss the author's research methods. She reports that she ran a newspaper ad asking bottle-feeding parents to contact her. She received 64 responses, 31 reporting they were made to feel guilty about bottle feeding. In addition she downloaded 500 email messages from four online services. Some of these messages were responses to queries she had initiated; others were not. The author ignores or casts doubt on all scientific information about breastfeeding and takes many statements out of context. The validity of her research is a point we can and should dispute with her.

The author seems unaware of the existence of the LLLI Center for Breastfeeding Information (CBI) and the wealth of studies done on breastfeeding and human milk. It is important that anyone with questions be allowed to draw their own conclusions about where to find the more valid information: LLL with its 39-year history and reputation or Peggy Robin's book.

Robin complains that LLL never gives mothers permission to give a bottle or tells them how to do it. Yet in THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING (page 255) it says, "If you decide to wean when your baby is under a year old and perhaps not drinking well from a cup, you'll probably want to talk to your doctor about giving him a bottle and ask the doctor what to put in it." After all, we are breastfeeding experts and have never claimed to possess expertise about artificial feeding, so it is unfair to ask us to step beyond our role.

The other book that criticizes LLL, Baby Bargains by Denise and Alan Field, says we rarely mention employed mothers or fathers in a positive way. In the end the authors do recommend LLL and THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, but it would seem they are completely unaware of the many programs, products and books we offer for fathers and working mothers. The authors will be notified about the incorrect facts contained in their book.

Ultimately, when LLL draws criticism, whether on an international or local level, we must answer with the facts and learn what we can from the criticism. Sheila Stubbs, a Leader who found something she wrote for another publication in Robin's book, writes, "Certainly no mother should feel guilty about her decision to bottle feed her baby. She is only doing what she feels is best for her family in her situation and guilt won't help her relationship with her child."

As THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING (page 254) says, "Each of us must make decisions about breastfeeding and weaning in keeping with our family situations and personal circumstances." Apparently we are in complete agreement with Robin when we train Leaders to tell mothers to listen to their babies and follow their instincts about what is best for their family.

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