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LLL and the Mother Who Is Blind

Donna Cookson Martin
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 28 No. 5, September-October 1992, pp. 67-69

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time

Would a mother who is blind feel welcome in your Group? Could you offer such a mother the information and support she needs? And what could she, in turn, contribute to your Group and to LLL?

Breastfeeding provides enormous benefits to any mother and baby. But breastfeeding can be especially helpful and rewarding when that mother is blind.

I have been blind since birth, and I have breastfed all of my five babies. I have also encouraged other blind mothers to breastfeed, and, yes, I have observed some who chose bottles. Without hesitation, I can attest to the tremendous advantages of breastfeeding to women in such circumstances.

The instant availability of human milk is more than simply a convenience for blind mothers. Formula feeding for a blind mother could require hours of struggling to mix, measure, pour, scrub and sterilize by touch. Bottle feeding for an inexperienced blind mother with an equally inexperienced tiny baby can be harrowing for both of them. The mother has no accurate means of knowing how much, if any, the baby is drinking. The baby may find himself sucking air one minute, spluttering and choking on formula the next. The closeness, the skin-to-skin contact that breastfeeding naturally encourages, is the first step in building the sensitive, intimate, trusting relationship between mother and baby that will be so crucial for successful parenting in the years to come. Since the blind mother cannot rely upon visual cues as a means of getting to know her child, breastfeeding is a wonderful way to establish very quickly other forms of communication such as touch, smell, sound, and even intuitive sensitivity.

Yet many blind women do not attempt to breastfeed, and those who do often lack the information, confidence and support they need--these are the things that LLL is uniquely equipped to offer.

The initial reaction of the Leader to the blind mother can be crucial. Words of warmth and affirmation are what the mother needs to hear. The Leader may well feel surprised or hesitant when she first encounters a blind mother. But if the mother lacks confidence (and what mother doesn't at times?), she may feel the Leader is critical of her mothering or, worse still, is questioning her fitness to be a mother.

Meeting Considerations

Attending that first LLL meeting may be a real challenge for a blind mother. When the Leader offers meeting information to a blind mother, she should be aware that transportation may be a problem. The blind who travel independently are likely to use public transportation, and meetings are often held in homes, which may not be readily accessible to bus routes, particularly at night. Traveling with a baby or toddler, especially in winter or bad weather, may further complicate the issue.

Once the mother arrives at the meeting, you, as the Leader, play a vital role in making her feel comfortable and accepted. Other mothers, unfamiliar with blindness, may feel uncertain and even apprehensive. They will follow the example the Leader sets.

The blind mother may find even a small LLL meeting confusing, if not chaotic. Even if she is accompanied by a friend, speak directly to the mother and address her by name so that she can be sure that you are speaking to her and not to someone else. Avoid the temptation to ask questions verbally or by gestures through her companion. ("Would she like to sit here?" "Would she like a glass of juice?" "Can she sign the attendance sheet?") Since she can neither recognize faces nor read name tags, you can help her to recognize your voice by identifying yourself when you begin a conversation with her. If name tags are used, write one out for her and offer to fill out the attendance sheet before it is passed around.

The problem of keeping track of her child may discourage the blind mother from participating in other Group activities, such as potluck suppers or playground outings. Would you be able to recognize your child's voice among a swarm of excited youngsters at a busy playground? Knowing that she can rely upon other Group mothers will do much to give her a sense of belonging.

Differences in Parenting

You may find that her parenting techniques differ somewhat from those common in LLL. But other mothers will learn from her just as she learns from them.

It can be fascinating to see that, just as she responds to her baby's needs, her baby will quickly learn to adjust to hers, as well. The blind mother may not have eye contact with her baby, but she will be adept at skin-to-skin communication. She may not recognize a skin rash, but she will not need a thermometer to tell her when to be concerned about a fever. She may not carry her baby as much as most LLL mothers, because dealing with the world through touch necessitates free hands. She will use cribs and playpens, because safety is an overriding concern when she cannot monitor a child visually while she is performing household tasks. A baby carrier can be a wonderful help in freeing her hands. But it will have its limitations when she is cooking or doing other chores because she needs to be close to the task at hand and babies often complicate things with their exploring fingers. She can never be the one-armed wonder that so many LLL mothers become.

She may show a tendency to set rules and establish limits that make her mothering methods appear less responsive to her child. Planning, organization, and a measure of control are essential tools in parenting without vision. But her child will readily adapt. He will soon learn, for example, that the privilege of roaming beyond the reach of his mother's arm is contingent upon his willingness to remain within earshot of her call and to answer immediately when she does. He will learn to keep his prized toy out of her path, and he will learn to find his own mittens if he has neglected to leave them inside his coat.

As the meeting progresses, she may hesitate to contribute, because she is not sure when to speak. Again, address her by name and draw her into the conversation. ("Kathy, you were telling me you had a suggestion for sore nipples that worked well for you.") Drawing her out in this way will help to reassure her and other Group mothers that her nursing experience is, in fact, much the same as theirs.

Bear in mind that she may have questions that she is reluctant to ask, fearing that she will be viewed as an incompetent mother because of her blindness. Support and encouragement from the Group will quickly build her confidence. Give her positive feedback about her mothering and about her baby. ("Kathy, your little guy looks so relaxed and content when you're nursing him like that." Or, "Jimmy is so alert. He is watching every move those toddlers make.")

Much of the communication at LLL meetings tends to be highly visual. Don't point to the ladies' room. Say, "The ladies' room is down this hall behind me, first door on the right." Instead of saying, "To burp the baby, try holding him like this," say, "Try holding the baby on his tummy on your lap." You will find this comes more easily if you imagine yourself speaking the same way you would if you were telephone helping. When demonstrating a technique, such as positioning, you might even use the sightless mother as your demonstrator. (Of course, check with her ahead of time if she is relatively new to the Group.) Participating in this way should be encouraged and will help to make her feel more a part of the Group.

If you are showing a breast shell, a breast pump, a supplementer, or some other device, make sure that the mother has the opportunity to examine it herself by touch during or after the meeting.

Wherever there are children, there will be questions about the mother's blindness. Do not discourage such questions, but do encourage children to direct them to her, not to their own mothers. If she brings a guide dog, the dog will become the center of attention. Make it clear that this dog is not a pet. It is a working dog and is on duty.

If her baby is mobile, she may well find supervising him difficult in the unfamiliar, crowded, and cluttered setting of an LLL meeting. Her ability to concentrate on the meeting will be hampered. Another regularly attending mother might offer to keep an eye on him and can reassure her periodically by telling her what her child is doing. Someone can ask her to come along to the snack table or can offer to bring a snack to her. An unfamiliar room filled with baby bags, toddlers, and toys can be quite an obstacle course.

LLL Resources

The information and inspiration provided by the Group Library are as valuable to the blind mother as they are to others in the Group. Be sure to tell her that THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING is now available on tape and can be ordered from LLLI. Many other LLL books and even some issues of NEW BEGINNINGS and LEAVEN have also been taped, sometimes professionally, sometimes rather poorly But a blind listener will tolerate and appreciate a tape of even the poorest quality when she has no other means of getting the information.

Many Area Libraries have audio tapes, which should be made available to any interested blind mother. She will probably be aware that all taped materials for her use, including correspondence, can be mailed postage-free throughout Canada and the United States. When funding can be obtained, it is quite possible with present computer and recording technology to transcribe almost any written material onto tape or into Braille with relative ease.

Perhaps another Group mother would like to volunteer to read to her. The volunteer will enjoy the added benefit of expanding her own reading, and a new friendship might well be formed. Even a legally blind person whose remaining vision permits her to do some of her own reading, as in my case, will savor the luxury of a volunteer reader or a tape-recorded book.

The Mother's Feelings and Approaches to Helping

With the best family and group support, the mother who is visually impaired will still sometimes feel alone. Unless she lives in a large urban area, she may not know any other mothers with a similar disability who have young children. (More than half of all the legally blind are over the age of sixty-five, and most of those have lost their vision late in life.) Putting her in touch with other breastfeeding mothers who deal with disability would be a most valuable service for Leaders to provide.

Knowing when it is appropriate to offer help can be difficult. The degree of useful vision that a blind person might possess varies a great deal. Sighted people often worry that they are describing something that the blind person can, in fact, see. I advise people simply to assume that I cannot see anything in whatever situation is in question (which is usually the case anyway) and proceed accordingly. As is true with any disability, some blind people are much more comfortable with their blindness than others. Please do not be put off if you encounter the occasional negative reaction. If you feel that a suggestion or an offer of help might be in order, make it, just as you would with any other mother.

Above all, remember that, as a Leader, you are not helping a blind person who is a mother. You are helping a mother who happens to be blind. And bear in mind that she can help you and the Group, too.

Encourage Her Involvement

If an Area Conference is approaching and you wish to spark interest among the Group mothers, why not ask the blind mother to discuss a tape from the Area Library featuring one of the planned speakers? Invite her to Evaluation Meetings. You might ask her to present a short enrichment topic, sharing some of the joys and challenges of parenting without seeing. She has discovered tips that any sighted mother would find handy.

Do not forget to consider her for Group jobs. She can bring the snack, although she would probably prefer to have someone else supervise the snack table. She may enjoy being the hostess. If she has a computer with a spreadsheet adapted for her needs, she might like to be Treasurer. If she uses Braille, she can put identifying Braille markings on books and cards and thus take the job of Librarian. In time, you may even want to encourage her to become your newest Leader Applicant. Few things will match the sense of accomplishment you'll feel the day you watch her lead her first meeting.

Materials for the Blind:

LLL BOOKS and MAGAZINES:

Some LLL-published and recommended books, including THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, are available on audiotape through the LLLI Catalogue.

Many issues of NEW BEGINNINGSand LEAVEN, as well as other LLL-published and recommended books, are also available on audiotape and/or Braille.

Conference session audiotapes:

Many Areas offer audiotapes of International and Area Conference sessions on loan through their Area Libraries.

Lists of audiotapes from the 1991 International Conference (No. 497-91 and the 1991 Physicians' Seminar (No. 498-91) and the 1992 Physicians' Seminar (No. 498-92) are available from LLLI. [Note: This list dates from 1992. Check the current LLLI catalogue or our web site for the most recent lists of tapes available.]

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