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LLL and the Internet

From: LEAVEN, Vol. 32 No. 5, October-November 1996, pp. 69-73
by Melissa Clark Vickers

Name, address, phone, now email address or web site. From friends to businesses, so many seem to have one. It is definitely a sign of the times! And La Leche League is finding its niche in this new form of communication--successfully putting itself in the midst of global communication by computer, while maintaining our mission and continuing more traditional forms of mother-to-mother support.

You may have already received a call from a mother who found out about LLL through the Internet. Perhaps she saw LLLI's web site, found the 1-800-LA LECHE number and was referred to you. Perhaps your Group has its own web page and she found you directly. Maybe she was part of an online discussion group that suggested she call LLL for help. She may have participated in a realtime chat hosted by LLL Leaders.

More and more Leaders are able to access the Internet by personal computer or through a free service offered by a local library, school or business. They find it an exciting way to meet new people and help mothers who might not otherwise find out about LLL. Are you wondering what kinds of things are happening on the Internet and if guidelines exist for Leaders using the resources there?

LLL and its Leaders are participating on the Internet in a number of different ways: the LLLI World Wide Web Site; The Leader Connection (TLC) email discussion group; the Lactnet email discussion group; and realtime chats on major service providers, most notably Parent Soup on America Online.

The Leader Connection

[Ed note: this article is from 1996 and thus is not current. Check your current LEAVEN, more recent articles listed at left, or your LLL support person for accurate information on LLL and the Internet. Most important, TLC and LactNet both changed servers a few years after this article was written and now are hosted by ListServ, as a courtesy to nonprofits]

An exciting resource for La Leche League Leaders is TLC, an email discussion group with a membership limited to accredited LLL Leaders. Nearly a year old, this group has grown to more than 300 Leaders from all over the world.

All email discussion groups have a computer which serves as the host for the group. The host computer runs a program called listserv which manages the computer side of the discussion list. Our host computer is at the University of Massachusetts (USA) Medical Center. The people side of our list is managed by list co-owners and dedicated Leaders: Sue Ann Kendall (list maintainer), Kathleen Bruce (technical support) and Cindy Smith (administrative support).

Once a Leader has joined the list, she may post a question or comment by sending it to the list on the host computer ( where it is distributed via email to everyone who is a member of the list. Other Leaders can then respond publicly, by sending their reply to the host computer for redistribution, or privately, by sending their reply directly to the Leader who wrote the original note.

The atmosphere on TLC is much like a giant ongoing Chapter Meeting--with one major exception. It is important to note here what TLC is not, as stated in TLC's disclaimer:

TLC is a personal email chat list and is not officially or unofficially related to LLLI. Unless explicitly stated otherwise by authorized LLL personnel, information provided on this list is personal opinion, not LLLI policy. For official local LLL policies and procedures, please contact your immediate local LLL support person (DA, DC, ACL or PL representative). Redistribution of this digest without express permission of its authors, other than for personal use, is prohibited.

TLC is a forum for Leaders to discuss the kinds of things that get discussed anytime Leaders get together in person. Discussions range from sharing meeting ideas to the joys and frustrations of parenting, from birth announcements to serious illness worries, from heart-wrenching stories to side-splitting funnies.

Sometimes a Leader will post a situation and ask others for help. This can be done anonymously, in order to protect privacy, by first sending the note to Sue Ann. She will give the original Leader a pen name such as "Lucy" or "Lisa" before sending it to the list.

The responses a Leader receives are just like the kind of help we give mothers when we brainstorm difficult problems with them. A Leader is given ideas to consider and is almost always reminded to take the problem up with her LLL support person--if she hasn't already done so.

TLC provides "co-Leaders" for the lone Leader. These co-Leaders can't lead meetings for the lone Leader or take phone calls, but they are there to offer support and ideas. This support is invaluable--more than one Leader has changed her mind about retiring from LLL because of the support she's found online. This support is especially helpful to a Leader who is the only one within hundreds of miles, perhaps the only Leader in her country!

Judy Mieger, a former Oregon USA Leader, is now on the tiny island of Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia in the Pacific. She wrote in her introductory online note:

To actually feel connected is a foreign and very welcome feeling after nine months of Island Fever. I have been reading the postings for several days and thoroughly enjoy the international aspect, the recipes (even though virtually none of the ingredients are available here), the camaraderie, the wonderful quotes and culture, especially the great information about breastfeeding and LLL, seeing names of old friends and knowing there are hundreds of new friends just a button away. It's wonderful to meet you all. You simply cannot imagine how much it means to me that you're out there!

Leaders from various cultures share family traditions, recipes and occasionally world concerns. It is a place that beautifully underscores both our shared commitment to helping mothers breastfeed their babies and the diversity of passions and beliefs outside that commitment.

Jeanne Badman, from Minnesota, USA comments on the influence TLC has had on her as a Leader:

I do great brainstorming as a result of my exposure to hundreds of Leaders and their ideas. I get great meeting inspirations from the other women on the list. My understanding of the human element of LLLI and Leaders has expanded. We have more heart than any group of people I have ever known. I have new insight into the ways in which the world views LLLI and my role as a Leader. The effort I put into acceptance of mothers as they are, tolerance of opposing views and my role as a representative of LLLI has intensified.

Posting on TLC requires common sense and a few important guidelines:

  • TLC cannot supersede or replace input from official channels. Areas, Divisions, and Affiliates choose to handle situations differently. While sharing between these areas may generate interesting suggestions, your Area/Division/Affiliate support people are your official source of support and guidance.
  • TLC is a closed list; only LLL Leaders are accepted as members. It is not appropriate for Leader Applicants or Group members. Cindy Smith checks each new TLC member against official LLL Leader files before permitting her to post to the group. This allows for free discussion without worry about a mixing-causes perception on such issues as home schooling or birthing choices. It also allows for open discussion about working with Leader Applicants, Group management issues, etc.
  • TLC posting is restricted because it is a closed list. However, it is important to realize that what is written online can be printed out; those printed copies need to be protected as well. This is one reason list members are required to get permission from the poster before showing copies of a post to anyone off the list.
  • A major difference between online communication and person-to-person communication is that you cannot see body language. It's harder to judge humor, sarcasm, anger (or anything in between) without facial expressions and tone of voice. A statement intended to be funny might just as easily be interpreted as an insult. This requires careful wording of responses so as to not offend the poster even if you disagree adamantly with what she posted. Reread each post before you send it to make sure it can't be misinterpreted. Assume that each post written by someone else is not intended as an insult to you or your beliefs. We must be as accepting of our sister Leaders as we are of the mothers who come to us for help. If in doubt, don't send it! You could also send it to one of the list owners first to get a second opinion.

Sue Huml, an Illinois, USA Leader subscribes to TLC and Lactnet, and has found that there seems to be an addictive element to keeping up with all the postings. On an average day it could take an hour and a half to read all the posts, even more time if one responds. It's not unusual to find that a couple of hours have passed without being aware of it. Sue's children are grown, allowing her more time to keep current on TLC. She cautions Leaders with young families to be vigilant of their online time in the same way they monitor their phone time.

TLC also has its own password-protected web site. It has everything from profiles of its members (right down to their favorite color!) to Series Meeting ideas and favorite Area Leaders' Letter articles. It is wonderful resource that continues to grow.

To make it clear that this email discussion group is not an official arm of LLLI, its name recently changed from La Leche Leaders Online (LLLOL) to The Leader Connection (TLC).

To join TLC, send an email message to Leave the subject blank. In the body of the message type: subscribe TLC your first name your last name. Once this message is sent, you will receive detailed instructions on using the list.

Lactnet--Another Email Discussion Group

Lactnet is now in its second year. Like TLC, it is an email discussion group, also hosted by the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Kathleen Bruce is also co-owner of Lactnet, along with Kathleen Auerbach. This is a list for people involved in the profession of helping mothers breastfeed. "Profession" is defined to include the volunteer LLL Leader along with doctors, nurses, midwives, dietitians, public health workers and lactation consultants.

Lactnet works like TLC. Members post notes to the host computer, which in turn sends them to everybody in the group to read and respond as desired. There are now more than 1000 members from over the world, including many well-known in the lactation field.

Not surprisingly, the tone on Lactnet is different from TLC. The discussion stays focused on lactation and out of the fringe areas that make up a large part of TLC exchanges. Major discussions center around topics such as case studies (How can I help this mother?), drug interactions (What effect does this drug have on the nursing baby?), professional issues (I'm looking for strategies to make my hospital more "Baby Friendly"), breastfeeding advocacy (Letter-writing campaign needed!). It is an interesting blend of research and opinion--and at times that line gets blurred.

Sources are quoted, techniques shared, opinions stated, and the burden is on the reader to decide if the information is accurate and applicable to his or her particular discussion. Remember, just because it is "in print" on Lactnet doesn't guarantee authenticity or accuracy.

The same guidelines for posting on are relevant to posting on Lactnet, including using LLL resources first and wording posts carefully to project acceptance. A major difference between the two groups is that Lactnet is open to anyone interested in the field of lactation; no identity check of subscribers is made. In the past, there been evidence of Lactnet members whose motives were not guided purely by the promotion of breastfeeding. The list owners remind us, "What you write should be something that you would be willing to see printed on the front page of The New York Times."

This bears special relevance to the Leader on Lactnet. If you post as an LLL Leader, you are representing the organization. According to Linn Hodder, EUS Professional Liaison Program Administrator,

Leaders must offer LLL-approved information first and keep careful records, otherwise liability insurance may be invalidated. We should not offer our opinions or discuss LLL business. We need to be doubly careful as there is no review for this type of public "appearance." Also, there is concern about LLLI copyrighted material being shared in this way. If we disseminate copyrighted publications, we threaten the financial well-being of our organization. We must remember that information on these public pathways may become accessible to anyone. We can never be sure who is "listening" or what they might do with the information they pick up.

For more information on LLLI-recommended versus non-LLL sources, see the LEADER'S HANDBOOK, p. 26-29.

Betty Crase, Director of the Center for Breastfeeding Information (CBI), echoes these sentiments by reminding us that what we post on Lactnet (and elsewhere on the Internet) is written down and could come back to "haunt" us. We can protect ourselves by quoting from resources accurately and citing the title, author and other reference information.

When, if ever, is it appropriate to post a breastfeeding question on Lactnet? Lactnet is a resource, a powerful resource; the collective experience represented by the 1000+ members is astounding. The potential for help on just about any question we might encounter is tremendous. Remember, though, that this is one of the strengths of the organization we represent as well! We have information at our fingertips: THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, BREASTFEEDING ANSWER BOOK and so much more just a phone call away to our Professional Liaison Leader. We have the incredible database of information at the CBI as well. LLL resources are still our first resort. Lactnet should be viewed as a secondary source for Leaders.

Common sense rules when we do pose a question on Lactnet:

  • Maintain the privacy of the mother and any others involved.
  • Get permission from the mother to post her question, explaining that Lactnet is a source outside of LLL and therefore you may get information that you cannot verify.
  • Use critical reading skills when reading the posts. Hodder says, "Any doubt about the validity of the information should prevent its being used."
  • Obtain the author's permission before using a post from Lactnet.
  • If you are stating an opinion beyond the scope of LLL, make sure you label it as such, using a disclaimer such as, "This is my personal opinion and does not represent the opinion of LLL."
  • Leader Applicants are welcome as Lactnet members but, just as at Series Meetings and other public forums, it is not appropriate to announce her status as a Leader Applicant. Remember that liability insurance does not extend to Leader Applicants and not every Applicant goes on to become a Leader.
  • Consider Lactnet a smorgasbord of ideas. Some will be just what you are looking for, some might be worthwhile down the road, some may be unacceptable to you. Take what you need and leave the rest!

Parent Soup on America Online

One of the most exciting vehicles for sharing LLL information online happens on a specialized area of America Online (AOL)--Parent Soup. Parent Soup is both a message board where parents can post questions to breastfeeding experts, as well as host for twice weekly live chats about breastfeeding. Parent Soup organizers specifically sought LLL Leaders as their official breastfeeding experts.

According to Maura Curtin, Parent Soup producer,

La Leche League fits perfectly into Parent Soup's mission, which is to build communities online and off. LLL has been building communities focused on mothering and breastfeeding for 40 years. Parent Soup's alliance with LLL offers women and mothers across the nation and the world access to vital information about breastfeeding, their bodies and their babies.

The Parent Soup Message Board allows members to write questions for Leader responses within a day. Maura says, "I can't tell you how many members have benefited from LLL's information and guidance. Right now there are close to 500 posts on the message boards."

The live chats that Leaders host are sessions in which members "meet" at a specific time and converse realtime. When a person writes a post, all the people at the chat (online at that time) receive it and type their replies immediately. Message board replies and email messages can be composed offline and then sent all at once.

Helping mothers by computer is a challenge. Imagine trying to understand the nature and scope of a breastfeeding situation without body language and intonation, then typing questions and answers as fast as you can. Of course, you can't watch baby at the breast either. But helping mothers this way is a skill that can be learned with practice.

Deb Wirtel, a Leader from Missouri, USA describes the live chat experience,

Live chats are intense! A large crowd really keeps you on your toes. Officially, two Leaders host a chat and if we have many as 17 to 20 people in a chat room all asking questions at once, you've got your hands full--if they aren't already full of a baby or in my case, a preschooler who feels very left out when I host chats! My brain feels fried after one of the hour-long chats.

All kinds of mothers show up for the chats--new mothers with a lot of questions, "seasoned" mothers who like to talk with the others and also offer their on kind of support. The new mothers usually feel a little shy and apologetic for having so many questions but we offer them kind words and give them time to say (type?) what they need in order to express themselves fully.

This could be a description of a regular Series Meeting--with a twist. Lisa Jones, a newly accredited Leader from New Jersey, USA describes it this way,

Many of the women who come into the chat with a question stay long after they have had it answered, just to give their thoughts and support to other women. This is not very different from what happens in Series Meetings, face-to-face. For the most part, the mothers are passionate about nursing and value the breastfeeding relationship. I think that the computer liberates them in a way, since they don't have to worry about fact expression or body language. They can express deep feelings even more succinctly because, not in spite of, the fact that we can't see them.

JoAnn Barham, a Leader from Oklahoma, USA says, "It's vitally important to ask specific questions and let the mother give detailed answers. In some ways it is similar to phone-helping."

LaJuana Oswalt, from Arkansas, USA has a slightly different outlook,

It is difficult to convey feelings through the limitations of the printed word only. It often takes more sensitive questioning to get at the real question. During a phone call, a Leader can often sense a mother's true concerns. Onscreen it is much more difficult.

What the Future Holds

Forty years ago, the seven Founders of LLL could never have guessed where their dream would take them! I sometimes wonder if the structure and basic methods used by LLL would be different if they had started LLL in the '90s instead of the '50s. I suspect they might have seen ways to make use of the computer in helping mothers, but I can't imagine that they would have chosen online support over person-to-person--mother-to-mother--support for breastfeeding.

It is possible to become very close friends by email. Some of my favorite people I only met after years of email and there are a few I'm still waiting to meet. I have an image of what they look like--that's pretty typical for emailers--and it demonstrates the major obstacle in communicating with people by computer screen. There is a sense of incompleteness that goes with this kind of communication--it's a lot of fun, but there is something missing that can only be realized through real human contact. This is surely as true for mother-to-mother help with breastfeeding as it is for friend-to-friend chitchat.

There is no "danger" that LLL will ever move to making computer help its major form of breastfeeding support. This screen in front of me can never replace the look of a contented new mother with a suckling baby at her breast! But this same screen might be just the tool that gets that mother to seek out a Group or Leader in the first place.

Oswalt sums up the experience with enthusiasm,

The bottom line is, we are helping mothers and babies during our online meetings. Mothers who live in areas without an active LLL Group get much-needed help and support. I have heard many mothers, during the course of a few online meetings, completely change their attitudes toward extended breastfeeding, attachment parenting, nighttime parenting techniques and parenting in general. While my local Group will always be the heart and soul of my commitment to LLL I am grateful for the added opportunity for reaching out in this new and exciting way.


Hoskin, M. and Lewis, D. LLL and interactive computer services. LEAVEN Jul/Aug 1993; 57-58. Tells how email communication differs from face-to-face and telephone communication. Discusses how Leaders should conduct themselves in public online forums.

Noack, T. Finding LLL on the Internet. LEAVEN Nov/Dec/Jan 1995/1996; 84. Gives guidelines for using the LLLI Web site, encourages Groups to let us set up Web Pages for them.

Noack, T. Join the worldwide conversation at La Leche Leaders On Line. LEAVEN Nov/Dec/Jan 1995/1996, 84. Introduces LLLOL to Leaders; gives incorrect sign-on email address.

Noack, T. Leader's chat line gets new address. LEAVEN Feb/Mar 1996; 6. Provides correct email address for signing onto LLLOL.

Vickers, M. Breastfeeding travels the information superhighway. LEAVEN May/Jun 1995; 37-38. Describes a realtime chat on CompuServe with LLL Leaders as breastfeeding experts.

Vickers, M. Using the computer in Group management. LEAVEN May/Jun 1994; 44. Using the computer for financial accounting, correspondence, newsletters, etc.

Vickers, M. World's largest La Leche League meeting. LEAVEN Nov/Dec 1992, 86. Historical background on the first LLL bulletin board on Prodigy.

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