Breastfeeding Champion: La Leche League

During International Breastfeeding Week I want to highlight the Mothering Living Treasures who are Breastfeeding Champions. Where else to begin but with the organization that started it all: La Leche League (LLL).

In July, 1956, two young mothers breastfed their babies under a tree at a church picnic. Other mothers at the pincic came up to them to express their disappointments about unsuccessful breastfeeding. The two women realized that the difficulties they, too, had experienced were not unique, and they committed themselves to helping others who wanted to nurse their babies. At that time, most physicians assumed that few women would have enough milk to breastfeed their babies and expected that they would bottle feed. And, they did.

The two women were Mary White, who had breastfed all but the first of her six children, and Marian Tompson, who was successfully breastfeeding her fourth child, but had not breastfed any of her other children. Both realized that much of their own success had to do with the confidence that Mary’s husband, Dr.Gregory White, had in their ability to breastfeed and his assurance that their babies were thriving.

In an effort to organize support with other breastfeeding mothers, Marian and Mary started to call people. Marian called her friend, Edwina Froelich, who had successfully breastfed her three sons. She, too, had the support of Dr. White and of his mentor, Dr. Herbert Ratner. Froehlich enlisted the help of her college friend, Viola Lennon.

Mary White called her sister-in-law, Mary Ann Kerwin, who had successfully nursed her first baby with the help of the Whites. She also called another church friend, Mary Ann Cahill. Mary Ann contacted her friend, Betty Wagner, who had helped her nurse her second child.

This group of seven mothers met several times during the summer and early fall of 1956. At that time, babies were routinely separated from their mothers following birth, and solids were introduced between one and three months. There was almost nothing in print about breastfeeding and only twenty percent of US mothers were breastfeeding.

They held their first formal meeting in October 1956, soon attracting standing room only crowds. It would have been socially unacceptable to include “explicit” words like nursing or breastfeeding in the title of an organization at the time that LLL was founded, so a Spanish name was chosen.

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding began in 1957 as “A Mail Order Course in Breastfeeding,” which consisted of several installments. These were all published together in a loose-leaf booklet in 1958 and finally in 1963 in book form, now in its 8th edition. It’s been printed in eight languages and in Braille and has sold over two million copies.

In 1964, the name of the organization was officially changed to La Leche League International (LLLI) and the first international conference was held in Chicago.

LLLI has grown to be an international authority on breastfeeding. More than 3,000 groups reach more than 200,000 people in 62 countries. Over 35,000 Leaders have been accredited in the past 56 years. LLL works closely with international organizations such as UNICEF, WHO, UNAIDS, and the World Alliance for Breastfeeding (WABA).

The founding mothers of LLLI were convinced that many questions about breastfeeding could best be answered by experienced mothers. Their mother-to-mother model is a powerful one that has created real change, not only in the number of babies breastfed worldwide, but also in the way mothers around the world see themselves.

Peggy O’Mara  (101 Posts)

Peggy O’Mara founded in 1995 and is currently its editor-in chief. She was the editor and publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011. The author of Having a Baby Naturally; Natural Family Living; The Way Back Home; and A Quiet Place, Peggy has lectured and conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League International, and Bioneers. She is the mother of four.

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8 thoughts on “Breastfeeding Champion: La Leche League”

  1. Dear Peggy,

    Thanks for the lovely tribute! We seven were the lucky ones finding ourselves on a path we never anticipated which continues to bring the most loving and generous people, like you, into our lives. In the interest of accuracy, I did breastfeed all my children but it was only with my fourth,and the help of Mary and Greg White, that I was able to nurse past 6 months until each of our last four children weaned themselves.

    Love, Marian

  2. Many thanks for your kind words,Peggy, and also thank you for all you have done for breastfeeding and mothering.

    In the ensuing years I have been blessed with five more children, making a total of eleven. I am expecting my 61st. grandchild (Liz’s) and am happy to say that i now have 64 great-grandchildren.

  3. Dear Peggy,

    Thank you for your thoughtful remembrances of the beginning of La Leche League in 1956. At times like this, I especially wish that Betty, Edwina, and Vi could still be with us. When we started La Leche League, the seven of us were very enthusiastic about having succeeded in breastfeeding our babies and were very eager to help other mothers overcome the obstacles to breastfeeding that our culture had manufactured.

    I am pleased that you also mentioned Dr. Greg White. It was he who gave most of us confidence in our ability to breastfeed our babies. In 1955, when I was about six months pregnant with my first baby, he assured me I would be able to breastfeed even though all my friends we’re telling me I would not be able to do so. Happily I did and was able to breastfeed all of our children. I had eight more babies one of whom tragically became a victim of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. All the others are adults now and I have 20 grandchildren,

    Thank you also for all you have done and are doing to encourage and assist mothers– and especially for helping mothers enjoy mothering their children!


    Mary Ann Kerwin

  4. I looove LLL meetings and their work… Love learning the history and its making… thanks for sharing this… A mom “still” breast-feeding my 18 mo XOXO

  5. My mother attended LLL meetings in the 70s, eventually becoming a leader. She breastfed me for over two years, and urged me to do the same for my child. The wonderful women at LLL were so supportive and helpful, they played a huge role in enabling me to nurse my daughter until she self-weaned at almost 2. If not for these pioneering women, we mothers of today would not be receiving this valuable support! Many thanks to you, ladies!!

  6. Thank you, “Founding Mothers,” for what La Leche League is and does. If it weren’t for La Leche League, I am sure I would not have had the successful, long-term breastfeeding relationships I had with all three of my children. I am quite sure that before my first meeting, when I was six months pregnant, I had never heard of nursing toddlers and the like. With the support of the local mothers and the leaders, I was able to overcome the obstacles that came my way and had the confidence to keep going and follow my instincts. I nursed all of my children past the age of three and was even able to tandem nurse for nearly a year. Certainly I would not have known any of this was possible and healthy without LLL.

    Thank you, too, Peggy for this lovely piece.

  7. LLL has made me the mum that I am today. I am so proud to be a LLL Leader, I walk in footsteps of many proud women before me. LLL has had it critics and is still receiving much criticism today, we just battle on. My drive is the essence of LLL, giving “Mother to Mother support. It is important to note that many women receive this support outside of LLL, we are not alone in this battle, so thank you Peggy for what you do.

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