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LLLI Philosophy

By Leslie Del Gigante
Westerville OH USA
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 14 No. 2, March-April 1997, pp. 36-40

Attend one or two La Leche League Series Meetings or read a few chapters of THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING and it soon becomes apparent that La Leche League is about more than breastfeeding as a method of feeding a baby. Over the past forty years, many mothers have shared the exhilaration of the mother who returned home from her first LLL meeting and enthusiastically announced, "It was so much more than what I anticipated! Sure, I expected to hear why and how to breastfeed, but it didn't stop there. The most important message--more unspoken than spoken--was to listen to my baby and my own mothering instincts!" Like many of us, La Leche League itself began with a focus on breastfeeding, but the Founders soon came to realize that breastfeeding was only the beginning of something much more enduring--mothering.

Forty years ago, as the Founders prepared their first meetings for interested friends in Franklin Park, Illinois, they researched medical texts for "scientific arguments for breastfeeding." Mary White recalled, "We were all gung-ho on every latest scientific finding on lower percentage of allergies and all those medical goodies." It wasn't until eighteen months later that the seven Founders met with local physician and supportive friend, Dr. Herbert Ratner, to "clarify the goal of La Leche League." Mary Ann Kerwin remembered, "We were pretty much ready to zero in on breastfeeding per se, but he felt we should make our goal broader." Edwina Froehlich explained, "He kept saying, 'What else is it besides the techniques of breastfeeding that you talk about?' And finally we said, 'Well--mothering.'"

Mary Ann Cahill later wrote about the meeting for the second issue of the LLL newsletter, July/August 1958.

Dr. Herbert Ratner started the discussion. "What is the purpose of La Leche League? How is it being accomplished?" The League's purpose, Board members agreed, is to help women breastfeed their babies. One of the group explained, "We show mothers how to manage the actual nursing and we talk on the many advantages of nursing to mother and baby. You know, all those impressive statistics on immunities and such." Our discussion leader knew the statistics ... however he continued ... "Do you believe that learning the mechanics of nursing and listening dutifully to statistics--necessary as that is--will sustain a nursing mother when she's struggling to calm a fussy baby?" The Board members paused to ponder ... No, a statistic on immunities or cancer prevention is out the window when the baby is out of sorts. Do member-mothers give up nursing then? Again, no! A phone call, a visit, making another League meeting, and the troubled mother invariably works things out, ends up talking enthusiastically about her nursing baby. This talk ... Talk that has a constantly recurring theme. The quick, strong, love-ties so natural between a nursing mother and her baby. The mother's sure understanding of her baby's needs and her joy and confidence in herself to satisfy them. The happy dividends from this good relationship as the baby grows up. A theme first sensed, gradually understood and absorbed, finally realized by a mother as she nurses her own baby. A goal for La Leche League, the Board members unanimously concluded. Help mothers successfully breastfeed their babies and so successfully mother them.

As word of what La Leche League had to offer reached women beyond Chicago's western suburbs, the Founders compiled a "Course By Mail" for mothers living too far away to attend meetings. "Four years and ten babies from the day it was started," THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING replaced the loose-leaf "Course" as a source of information and support for nursing mothers, and also as the basis for working with mothers preparing to be LLL Group Leaders. As more and more women applied for leadership during the early 1970s, a time of tremendous growth for LLL, the Board recognized the need "to define exactly what constituted League philosophy." In 1972, a committee of three began work "to clarify and define League philosophy." One committee member described the process: "We took the manual and pulled it apart.... We categorized all of the philosophy in it. We kept narrowing it down and narrowing it down, and finally we got it down to eight categories." The Board condensed each category into one sentence and the eight "concepts" were officially adopted. During the next three years, two more concepts were added and, with minor editing, those same ten concepts stand today as succinct statements of LLLI philosophy.

Each of the concept statements appears in THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, seamlessly woven into the text. While each relates to different aspects of breastfeeding and mothering, together they form a whole picture of what LLL believes about breastfeeding and how it affects mothering. La Leche League believes:

Breast milk is the superior infant food.

Many of us decide to breastfeed because we believe breast milk provides the best nourishment for our babies. Nature has perfected human milk for human babies: it is easily digested by baby's maturing digestive system, it contains just the right nutrients in just the right balance for optimal human growth, its immunological properties protect the baby from infection, it minimizes food sensitivities which cause allergies, and it changes as baby grows to meet his changing nutritional needs. Science cannot yet duplicate breast milk's complex and dynamic composition. Human milk is a living tissue, like blood, containing live white cells.

Human milk, produced as baby nurses, requires no paraphernalia, sterilization, or special storage. (Of course expressed human milk must be carefully stored.) Mother's milk is ready when her baby is hungry. Mothers living anywhere in the world can produce milk that is perfectly suited to their babies.

The act of breastfeeding not only provides a baby with all the benefits of human milk, it also places baby where he feels most secure, in his mother's arms. This is where "mothering through breastfeeding" begins.

Mothering through breastfeeding is the most natural and effective way of understanding and satisfying the needs of the baby.

Breastfeeding soothes and satisfies our babies. More than that, "mothering through breastfeeding" means recognizing and learning from the many opportunities breastfeeding provides us to connect with our babies. A baby is born with a natural instinct to seek the breast and to suckle; he is comforted most naturally by the body he has been a part of for the months prior to his birth. In an otherwise unfamiliar world, the familiar sound of mother's voice and heartbeat, and the warmth of her body soothes her baby because it feels like home.

In response to a baby's sucking, the mother's body produces hormones (prolactin and oxytocin) which trigger nurturing behavior. Combine this natural nurturing behavior with the frequent and close mother-baby contact breastfeeding requires and you have the makings of a powerful educational opportunity for mother and baby. The baby feels secure because his needs for warmth, food, and contact with his mother are met. His energy goes not to handling stress, but to natural growth and development. Closeness to an attentive mother who is sensitive to his cues encourages the development of communication skills between mother and baby and builds the baby's sense of trust. At the same time, mother, through frequent and intimate interaction with her baby, has ample opportunity to get to know her baby as an individual and to learn from him how to read his cues and meet his needs. The simple act of breastfeeding, then, meets both a baby's basic needs for mother, warmth, and nourishment, as well as a mother's need to learn about and gain confidence and pleasure in nurturing her little one.

Mother and baby need to be together early and often to establish a satisfying relationship and an adequate milk supply.

Both mother and baby benefit when they can be together and nursing as soon after the baby's birth as possible. A mother's reward for the rigors of childbirth is holding her new baby in her arms, and this is the optimal time to bond with her baby. Moreover, when the baby is put to the breast immediately after birth, his sucking hastens the delivery of the placenta and causes the uterus to contract, resulting in less blood loss for mother.

A baby is comforted by the familiar presence of his mother and, if he's healthy, full-term, and not feeling the effects of childbirth medications, his sucking reflex is usually at its strongest just after birth. This strong sucking reflex coincides with the production of colostrum, or first milk, by the mother. In the first days of life, colostrum helps a baby's digestive system start working, and provides a strong dose of immunological protection against disease.

Colostrum gradually becomes mature milk. The production of human milk is based on supply meeting demand, so the more often a baby nurses, the more milk his mother will produce. If mother and baby are together "early and often," this chain of events unfolds easily, in most cases.

Alert and active participation by the mother in childbirth is a help in getting breastfeeding off to a good start.

Breastfeeding is the natural culmination of pregnancy and birth, and choices made during pregnancy and birth can affect breastfeeding. Mothers find it helps to inform themselves about available childbirth options. They look for a healthcare provider who will work with them to meet their goals of a birth with minimum intervention and an early start at breastfeeding. Learning as much as possible about the course of labor and delivery prepares mothers for the incredible experience of birthing a baby. When a mother chooses to minimize the use of medications during childbirth (whether vaginal or cesarean), both mother and baby are awake and ready to initiate breastfeeding soon after birth.

Even when mothers are informed and prepared, there are no guarantees that childbirth will go according to plans. Even if mother and baby must be separated immediately after birth, with information and support they can establish a successful and satisfying breastfeeding relationship.

For the healthy, full-term baby, breast milk is the only food necessary until the baby shows signs of needing solids, about the middle of the first year after birth.

Adding other foods to a baby's diet before he indicates readiness for solid food is not necessary and may be detrimental to his health and well-being. Human milk remains the perfect food for the healthy, full-term baby well into the first year of life. When other foods are introduced too soon, the baby may nurse less and mother's milk supply may decrease as a result. Early solids can also trigger allergic reactions and fussiness. A baby who is ready for solids will be able to move food to the back of his mouth and swallow, and will have a well-developed digestive system that is ready to handle solid food.

Ideally the breastfeeding relationship will continue until the baby outgrows the need.

Once a baby has started solids, does he still need to nurse? When should a baby wean? Forty years ago women in the US, if they breastfed at all, were expected to wean their babies well before the age of one year. "Everybody told me that you should nurse a baby for nine months," Vi Lennon recalled. Mary Ann Cahill remembered, "Everybody's mind was tuned to the fact that the mother weaned the baby. Weaning was something a mother did." Edwina Froehlich was the first of the Founders to nurse a baby well beyond his first birthday, and the others offered support and encouragement even as they waited to see how it would work out. Betty Wagner and Edwina recalled the evolution of the Founders' thinking. "We started giving a lot of thought to weaning and discovered that although medical textbooks said it should take place no later than nine months, they didn't offer a solid reason why." Edwina continued, "It gradually dawned on us that we were asking the wrong people.... We decided that it would be much more likely to be a woman, a mother, who would know. We finally concluded that if a baby didn't want to wean, there was no good reason for insisting on it."

Weaning is a process, not an event; it begins when foods other than human milk are introduced and is completed when a baby no longer nurses. Breastfeeding is so much more to a baby than a source of food; it means security and comfort. These emotional needs do not end when the first solid food is introduced. Gradually, these needs are fulfilled in ways other than nursing. As each infant has his own style and schedule of nursing, each baby-child has his own style and schedule of weaning. An attentive mother can follow her little one's lead as snacks or drinks, cuddling, and other activities gradually replace nursing.

Good nutrition means eating a well-balanced and varied diet of foods in as close to their natural state as possible.

Many women improve their diets during pregnancy and while nursing. They may also begin to think more carefully about nutrition when it's time to introduce solid foods to their babies. When our little ones have started life with the perfect infant food, it's natural to want to continue to feed them a high quality diet. Wanting to give wholesome food to their babies has led many mothers to improve the entire family's eating habits. One simple rule to follow is to eat a wide variety of minimally processed foods. This minimizes the amount of food additives and sugar that family members eat and maximizes nutrition. Just as human milk benefits babies, wholesome foods contribute to the family's well-being.

In the early years, the baby has an intense need to be with his mother which is as basic as his need for food.

Behavioral scientists verify what breastfeeding mothers observe every day: babies need to be close to their mothers. One might say that nature has designed breastfeeding as a bridge from the womb to the world. Human babies are born without the ability to survive on their own and they depend on someone else to understand and meet their needs. Studies show that these needs are for more than food; like many other mammals, human babies need the stimulation of touch, as well as food, to thrive. It is through touch that babies begin to learn about themselves in relation to others and the world. Psychologists believe that a secure attachment to mother in the early years is crucial to social development. They point to the importance of baby's first relationship as the foundation for future relationships.

Just as the frequency of breastfeeding varies and gradually decreases as the months go by, so does baby's need for mother's constant presence. Having come from mother's body, baby does not at first perceive that he is separate from mother. As time passes, this awareness grows and his ability to feel secure away from mother develops. When his intense need for mother is met, he can move on to new relationships with confidence.

Breastfeeding is enhanced and the nursing couple sustained by the loving support, help, and companionship of the baby's father. A father's unique relationship with his baby is an important element in the child's development from early infancy.

In the breastfeeding family, the father has the dual role of helping the mother continue breastfeeding and establishing his own unique relationship with his baby. The Founders realized that fathers played an important role in supporting the breastfeeding mother and baby. So as soon as they thought about organizing their meetings into a series of topics, they included a meeting for fathers. Marian Tompson recalled, "We felt the father's meeting was very important because we realized from the beginning that fathers weren't getting any support." Mary Ann Kerwin added, "We knew fathers were very important persons who at the time were too often neglected as far as babies were concerned."

A breastfeeding mother who has experienced the support of the baby's father knows firsthand how much the little things mean: his encouragement to continue nursing when times get rough, his explanations to family or friends about breastfeeding and its importance to his family, his realization and appreciation that mothering a baby is important work, and his willingness to lend a hand to keep the home running smoothly. A father's encouragement and support make it possible for his baby to reap the benefits of breastfeeding.

With mother taking care of the feeding, there are many ways father can interact lovingly with his baby. Many fathers are great at calming a fussy baby and making bath time a fun occasion. Each father in his own way establishes a unique relationship with his baby, and his early and continued involvement is basic to the well-being of the infant and the child.

From infancy on, children need loving guidance which reflects acceptance of their capabilities and sensitivity to their feelings.

Mothering through breastfeeding leads parents to learn about their babies, recognize and appreciate their individual temperaments, and respond to their cues. Parents come to understand by experience that children are different and that it's appropriate to respond according to each child's needs. Learning about each child's personality, preferences, and learning style lays the foundation for guiding that child in the years to come.

As babies change, so do their needs and abilities. As we learn about child development, we come to appreciate the inevitable "ages and stages" children go through. This makes it easier to prepare for their developmental needs to explore and satisfy their curiosity, to assert their individuality, and to express their opinions. Knowing what's normal and respecting the child's unique personality allows parents to work in accord with their child's natural development.

Children require guidance to learn to respect others and to acquire self-discipline and a sense of responsibility. Parents' most powerful lesson is their own good example. A child who feels good about himself can participate and cooperate with others more easily. Positive and loving guidance builds the child's self-esteem because it respects the child as a person with individual capabilities and feelings. This trusting relationship with our child, begun with breastfeeding and based on respect, can reap benefits for a lifetime.

La Leche League began with the personal breastfeeding experiences of seven women who wanted to share with other interested women all they had learned about how to breastfeed and how to mother through breastfeeding. Forty years and ten concepts later, LLLI helps mothers around the world with approximately 8,000 Leaders leading over 3,000 Groups in 64 countries around the world. In words very similar to the original Statement of Policy, formulated in 1964, our current Policy and Standing Rules notebook states the following: "LLLI believes that breastfeeding with its many important physical and psychological advantages is best for baby and mother and is the ideal way to initiate good parent-child relationships. The loving help and support of the father enables the mother to focus on mothering so that together the parents develop close family relationships which strengthen the family and thus the whole fabric of society.... LLLI further believes that mothering through breastfeeding deepens a mother's understanding and acceptance of the responsibilities and rewards of her special role in the family. As a woman grows in mothering she grows as a human being and every other role she may fill in her lifetime is enriched by the insights and humanity she brings to it from her experiences as a mother."

Since La Leche League's founding, many thousands of us all over the world have found that its philosophy of mothering through breastfeeding has enriched our lives as parents and as people in ways we never anticipated. As we celebrate LLLI's fortieth birthday, we invite you to see where the power of breastfeeding takes you and your family.

[Ed. note: Quotes from the Founders and details on the history of La Leche League are taken from THE LLLOVE STORY.]

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