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A Kaleidoscope of Memories

Jennifer Hicks
Kalamazoo, MI USA
Report from 2001 LLLI Conference
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 18 No. 5, September-October 2001, p. 164

When I was pregnant with my first son I assumed that breastfeeding was just one of many tools I would use to feed, clothe, and shelter my newborn. Then I nursed him. I was overwhelmed with pride that my tiny newborn could suck and that I had something to offer him. We were a good team. When our early days together became hectic and I felt I was failing as a mother, Elliot would inevitably need to nurse. The two of us would breathe deeply and slowly and suddenly, all seemed right with the world. I quickly realized that breastfeeding was more than a food source—this was the medium through which my son was teaching me how to be his mother.

I naively expected La Leche League's 2001 International Conference to simply be another valuable breastfeeding tool. I thought I might learn, for instance, what to do with a breastfeeding toddler who starts shouting "Nu Nu" in the grocery aisle while diving down my shirt, or how to cut out one of the 57 nighttime nursings. Just like breastfeeding, however, the Conference proved to be much more than I had expected.

So for those of you who weren't lucky enough to be there or for those who want to reminisce, I offer a recap. Here is what LLLI's 2001 International Conference had to offer me, my husband, our nursing toddler, and more than 3,000 others striving to succeed in raising happy babies and building strong families.

Opening Night

On Saturday, July 7, the Hilton Chicago was bursting with people. There were more than 1,400 children in the Grand Ballroom—from tiny newborns to tall and gangly teenagers. Babies and toddlers were riding in slings, bouncing on their fathers' shoulders, asleep on the floor, and busy nursing at the breast. Add to this mix, mothers, dads, and grandparents from more than 50 countries. The room was packed and waiting for the Parade of Nations.

This colorful parade officially opened the Conference. Cheryl Meyer of Mishawaka, Indiana, USA, a Leader who had been accredited since the last LLLI Conference, began the parade, followed by an assortment of other new Leaders from various countries. Then families marched down two long aisles holding signs to represent countries where LLL has a presence. While the parade streamed in to a jubilant tune, an overhead screen showed close-ups of marchers with their signs. From the sign for The Netherlands held low by a little one, to the Argentina sign flying high in the air, the group made it clear—LLL is everywhere. The parade ended with introductions of LLL's seven Founders.

Dr. Steven Tobias gave the Opening Night presentation titled, "Emotionally Intelligent Parenting: How to Raise a Self-Disciplined, Responsible, and Socially Skilled Child." He reminded the audience of a recent study that found children spend an average of two hours per day watching television and only ten minutes per day with their fathers. Tobias said that technology's overbearing presence in our lives handicaps our children emotionally and socially and creates "emotionally dyslexic" children who need our help in exercising their empathy muscles.

Tobias offered some concrete suggestions to help live harmoniously with children. Some of his strategies:

  • Hold family meetings on a regular basis. Doing this places importance on family time. Decide together on a family motto and a family mission statement so that your family's values and goals are clear.
  • Praise. Children need positive reinforcement and lots of it. Be conscious and deliberate with praise.
  • Don't nag. Work hard to find alternatives to nagging. For example, one creative mother called her child and left a message on the answering machine from the child's blue jeans. The blue jeans complained that they were cold, lonely, wrinkled, and desperately wanted to be picked up off the bathroom floor. Humor is often a successful alternative to nagging!

Opening Session

On Sunday, the first morning of the Conference got underway and it was clear that the Hilton Chicago had been overrun by LLL. Families flocked around the elevators and stairs. The wishing pond inside the hotel was a hot spot for little daydreamers. One group of hotel ernployee gathered near the escalators while the supervisor asked all guards to keep a look-out for untied shoes. How often does that happen at a professional conference? How often, in fact, does a hotel guard get an excuse to sing lullabies all day to the people passing in and out of the doors? Not often, but she did this day.

The first speaker of the morning was Randa Saadeh. Having worked with the World Health Organization for 17 years, she had much to say about global breastfeeding strategies for infants and children. She offered grim statistics that illustrated we still have much work to do to tackle both old and new breastfeeding challenges.

Some of our old challenges are:

  • 10.7 million children in developing countries are dying before the age of five from malnutrition. One-third of those deaths are due to improper feeding practices.
  • Only a small percentage of infants are exclusively breastfeeding at four months of age.

Some of our new challenges are:

  • HIV/AIDS: With this new epidemic, experts are struggling to define the role of breastfeeding in transmission of this deadly virus.

Dr. Saadeh pointed out that we must find a way to create and sustain a healthy environment for the 1.5 million refugee or displaced infants and children in the world.

Some of the solutions she offered for these and other breastfeeding problems were:

  • Develop a comprehensive policy on infant and child feeding and include regular monitoring.
  • Stress the importance of exclusive breastfeeding for six months.
  • Place more emphasis on choosing nutritious foods for complementary feeding after the middle of the first year, with a focus on continued breastfeeding.
  • Assign responsibilities and obligations for infant feeding to government and international organizations as well as to civil society such as professional and community based groups.

Margaret Kyenkya-Isabirye, Senior Advisor to UNICEF and former LLL Leader, gave the keynote address. With her warm rhythmic voice, she first called on the audience to give itself a standing ovation. She said that every time we come in contact with a child, any time we interact with one, we are "doing something very special." She praised LLL for its strength and outreach. She joked that LLL could compete with the UN General Assembly in the number of countries it reaches.

Kyenkya-Isabirye discussed the role one strong tree might play in her country. A good tree is vital to the people in a village. The tree often serves as the heart of the community. Beneath it is often where schools would bring children to learn in the cool shade. Committees picnicked below the tree while making plans, and houses were built around a large tree for its protection from the sun. LLL, she said, is a wonderful tree. This tree began with seven seeds, the seven Founders. The local LLL Groups, both nationally and internationally, are the branches of the tree. The branches grow new green leaves—the Leaders. The tree then occasionally seeds and forms other strong trees, helping other people and organizations to grow and thrive. Kyenkya-Isabirye praised LLL for being a phenomenally strong "tree" that is providing protection and support for babies, children, and mothers throughout the world.

The Society Who Mistook Its Children for Bats

James McKenna, PhD, spoke at the Sunday luncheon to an overflowing crowd. A biological anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame, he is a renowned sleep expert. In his presentation, "The Society Who Mistook Its Children for Bats," McKenna discussed sleep patterns from a biological basis. Some people have stated that 60 percent of babies in this country have sleep disorders. This figure, said McKenna, is a sign that our sleep models, not our babies, are wrong.

McKenna said infant caregiving patterns have been changing much more quickly than the stable biology of a baby, and that cultural ideologies often dominate over empirical science. Medicine and science must begin to pay attention to the biological history of an infant and stop ignoring timeless crosscultural realities. He pointed out:

  • Only in recent historic periods have parents actually asked, "Where will my baby sleep and how will my baby feed?"
  • Ninety-five percent of the world still does not ask those questions.
  • Only five percent of world cultures do not cosleep, or as defined by McKenna, sleep within close proximity of their infants—in the same room or in the same bed.

He further explains that the parents of breastfed babies are reading books written for non-breastfeeding babies, thus promoting a model unfit for their infants. Some books, for example, would not encourage cosleeping, even though cosleeping and breastfeeding perpetuate each other, a biological bonus for those little ones who need frequent snacks. His recommendation for families is to find the model that works best for them and not adhere strictly to any one orthodoxy.

The Afternoon Tea

The mood was light as was the meal for the Sunday afternoon tea and fashion show, sponsored by the LLLI Alumnae Association. While attendees enjoyed a meal with fresh fruit and tea, vendors showed off their wares on regular people, not models, who braved the runway. This fashion show was for every age and shape from grandparents to grandchildren.

One big hit was the child's outfit that proudly stated, "Body by Breast Milk." Another popular item was a slinky black nursing nightgown—it got quite a reaction from the crowd. Mary Wu of Naperville, Illinois, USA told others at her table, "They didn't have nightgowns like that when I was nursing." Another showstopper was the sexy black bra by Bravado Designs. This bra looked much like the ones I wore before my breastfeeding days. The Toronto-based company also markets a leopard-print bra.

Settling into Conference Mode

On Monday, a day and a half into the Conference, most people were
becoming comfortable with the frenetic tempo of speakers, sessions, lunches, and meeting friends. The babies seemed to adapt. Many were determined not to miss their naps, even if that meant sleeping during a standing ovation for the US Surgeon General.

Things were running smoothly with the hotel staff, too, though an LLLI Conference required unusual preparations for the Hilton. Bob Geniusz (cq), manager of Hilton's restaurant, The Pavilion, said he ordered 20 extra high chairs and boosters specifically to accommodate all of LLLI's little people. He also said he met with restaurant staff to prepare them to handle children's requests and anticipate mothers breastfeeding.

Lunch with the US Surgeon General

David Satcher, MD, the US Surgeon General, addressed two packed ballrooms and discussed the Health and Human Services Blueprint for Action on Breastfeeding that he released in October 2000. The Blueprint for Action proposes a plan for breastfeeding based on education, awareness, training, support, and research. The plan recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed during the first four to six months of life. The plan also suggests that, ideally, breastfeeding should continue through the first year of life.

Obesity, Type II diabetes, and heart disease are just a few of the problems that Dr. Satcher strongly believes can be greatly reduced by increased breastfeeding rates. He called for a change where breastfeeding is not merely allowable, but is encouraged and is the social norm. He asked for more progressive allowances for breastfeeding mothers in the workplace such as on-site chdcare, as well as pumping and storing facilities.

Dr. Satcher commended LLL for its outstanding effort to promote and support breastfeeding worldwide. "You are saving lives," he told the crowd.

Creating a Breastfeeding-Friendly World

Dr. Raj K Anand, pediatrician and author, followed the Surgeon General's speech and shared his vision on how we might create a breastfeeding-friendly world. In India, mothers get four-and-a-half months paid maternity leave and fathers get two weeks of paternity leave. Author of The Penguin India Guide to Child Care, Dr. Anand says the world is ready to return to healthy lifestyles and commended LLL and the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) for their role in making "a global challenge an intimate success."

An Evening at the World's Fair

At the World's Fair, the Grand Ballroom was filled with displays and representatives from many areas of the world and from different LLL entities. Some had information about their areas, while others had items for sale. Pins and T-shirts were popular sale items. The Alabama/Mississippi/Louisiana table brought Mardi Gras beads. The LLL of Guatemala table was mobbed. Their terra cotta statues of nursing mothers were a premium item this year, along with their colorful, practical tote bags.

Entertainment included a lovely a cappella group singing in harmony and well-known storyteller, Kathleen Zmuda, who engaged the children in interactive storytelling. Even the belly dancing turned interactive, with many members of the crowd gathering on stage to try it out.

Brain Dancing at the Final Luncheon

Who knew the final luncheon would include dance lessons? Anne Green Gilbert illustrated why everyone should be doing what she calls a brain dance. Eight natural patterns of movement that contribute to brain development are instinctive to humans. For instance, certain moves, such as using hands and knees for crawling, create a type of movement that is thought to stimulate the corpus cauosum, a specific part of the brain.

Gilbert said that society has become too sedentary. Today's brains are not getting the stimulation or the oxygen they need to function optimally. This lack of stimulation begins early, with many babies in the US spending too many hours a day in hard carseats used as carriers. Brain development is also hampered by poor nutrition, especially when small children are put on lowfat diets. Further, she said that while the "Back to Sleep" campaign may be important in SIDS prevention, tummy play is important.

Gilbert joked that people can get a natural high from dancing. She proved her point by having the audience perform her brain dance from start to finish. Most in the crowd agreed they felt better after the dance than they did before. (Editor's note: see NEW BEGININGS March-April 2001, pp 44-46, for more information about The Brain Dance for Babies.)

The 2001 Conference Comes to an End

The Conference ended with performances by the Chance to Dance groups who had been practicing throughout the Conference. A ribbon dance was performed by the Rainbow Dancers and a Rockettes-style dance was performed by Conference teens. The lyrics, "San Francisco, I'm coming home again," piped through the ballroom to remind everyone that the next Conference will be in San Francisco, California, USA on July 4-7, 2003.

The Conference offered more than 100 sessions on breastfeeding, parenting, personal development, Leader development, and integrative health options. The single biggest challenge for many Conference attendees was deciding which sessions to go to and which ones to miss. One woman's Conference treasure was the Peggy O'Mara autographed copy of Mothering magazine. Another woman's bliss was reminiscing with old friends. Some were happy to leave with continuing education credits in hand. For six-year-old Gabriella Magalháes, granddaughter of Rebecca Magalháes, the highlight was getting to play at the craft table in the playroom.

Fifteen-year-old Amanda Kuonen from Salgesh, Switzerland was at her third LLL Conference and said she definitely wanted to come back in 2003.

Cindy Grzybowski, from Kalamazoo, MI, USA came as a grandparent to support her daughter, Michelle Davio. Before the Conference, she had never been exposed to or involved with LLL. Grzybowski was awestruck by the Conference and was amazed at how patient the parents were with their children. She also said she had never seen so many kind, well-behaved children.

Mark Hancock, father of Erik and husband to Kimberly, was surprised at lunch to find he was seated across from a woman who had flown 24 hours from the Philippines to attend the LLLI Conference. "The best thing is being around so many people who have made the same parenting decisions we have," he said.

To that I said, "Here, here!"

Relatively new to parenthood, my husband and I are often daunted by this task of helping a new person grow and thrive in the world. I looked around the crowded Hilton ballroom and realized that every person I saw was there to become a better parent or grandparent, or to help others achieve that goal. We left buoyed by the experience and felt reaffirmed and supported in our decision to breastfeed and parent our toddler the way we do. Although I never did find out exactly what to do about that supermarket dive for "Nu Nus" I know I can find the answer to that question and others from people I meet through La Leche League.

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