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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