La Leche League: Women’s group helps mothers struggling to feed their babies
In 1956, when more women than ever before were giving their babies store-bought formula, seven women in Franklin Park, Ill., decided to feed their babies the old-fashioned way. They called themselves La Leche League.
They began meeting on a monthly basis, sharing techniques and helping each other at a time when many mothers were following their doctors’ orders but still having trouble keeping their babies nursing. Word spread rapidly about the meetings, the healthy babies and the mother-to-mother support.
A La Leche League group sprang up in Kansas City around 1963 with monthly meetings held at Judy Walthall’s Brookside home. Kathy Kiser waddled into her first meeting there in 1966. She was nine months pregnant with her second child. “I remember lying on my back on a couch in Judy’s living room with my legs up because it was June and hot,” Kiser says.
When she went home that night, she took home La Leche League’s “little blue book,” The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, and read it cover to cover. A year later, Kiser, who joined the league on the suggestion of a church friend, began leading meetings, too. Interest – her own and the community’s – demanded it.
“We grew, and we grew out of Judy’s house,” says Kiser, now 68. “Pretty soon, someone started having south Kansas City meetings and Johnson County meetings. Then somebody started up north of the river. It was like ripples in a pond – one ripple leads to another.”
More than 40 years later, La Leche League of Greater Kansas City hosts more than a dozen meetings all over the metro each month. Mothers are encouraged to come while they are still pregnant, but any breast-feeding mothers, their babies and support persons are encouraged to attend. Attendees may borrow books from the lending library and participate in as many meetings as they wish. Meetings are free, although donations are accepted through an annual membership of $40.
In keeping with the mission of La Leche League International, a nonprofit organization, the local groups exist to provide “mother-to-mother support, encouragement, information and education, and to promote a better understanding of breast-feeding as an important element in the healthy development of the baby and mother.”
As they always have, La Leche League meetings in Kansas City tend to resemble organized chaos. Mothers and their offspring gather at a leader’s home, community center or church. Some sit on the floor, some nurse actively, some walk around to quiet fussy babies and some chase toddlers around the room as questions and insights are exchanged through the din. “We always stress the fact that the most important voice the mom hears is the child’s,” says Karen Urick, a longtime La Leche League Leader in Lee’s Summit.
Urick attended La Leche League meetings in Georgia years before having her first child. At the time she was working as a registered dietician with low-income women, some who shared problems they were having with breast-feeding. “I realized that I didn’t have a lot of knowledge to help these mothers,” she says. “There’s only so much you can learn from books.”
Common but treatable issues for breast-feeding mothers include difficulty with latching and pain while nursing. La Leche League leaders say these challenges can be overcome through technique and attention to baby’s cues.
Although women have been breast-feeding from time immemorial, many La Leche League leaders suggest the mid-20th century emergence of an alternative to mother’s milk – infant formula – along with misguided advice from the medical community led many women to decide against breast-feeding or give up when it didn’t seem to be working. As a result, these mothers were unable to pass on helpful knowledge about breast-feeding to their own daughters.
Rosemary Boudreaux’s mother tried unsuccessfully to nurse all four of her children throughout the 1950s. Part of the problem was the strict, doctor-ordered, four-hour feeding schedule. “They were saying that if a baby needed to nurse more than once every four hours, the milk was too weak or your blood was thin. So she would start giving one bottle, and then that led to another bottle, and soon her milk had dried up.”
Upon joining La Leche League in 1977, Boudreaux learned newborns may need to nurse every two hours or more, and if you don’t use breast milk, you lose it. An empty breast is what cues the body to keep producing. Boudreaux recalls: “After my mother saw me nurse she said, ‘Well, if I had done it that way I would have been able to nurse my babies.’”
Thirty years later, Boudreaux’s daughter walked into her first La Leche League meeting in the same location, led by the same person. Through La Leche League, Boudreaux, now 58, also got affirmation of what Urick learned in college – that mother’s milk is nutritionally superior to substitutes. “Breast-feeding is the way humans were designed to be fed,” Urick says. “There are risks to not breast-feeding.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, the American College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the Centers for Disease Control all recommend exclusive breast-feeding — meaning no solid foods — for the first six months. Yet a 2011 CDC report revealed only 13 percent of babies in the United States were exclusively breast-fed at 6 months old. According to a 2010 study published in Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the U.S. could save $13 billion annually in health-care costs if 90 percent of families would comply with the medical recommendation for six months of exclusive breast-feeding. Also, breast milk is free and formula for one baby can cost thousands of dollars per year.
While La Leche League leaders are quick to cite such arguments in favor of breast-feeding, the group respects every mother’s right to choose what’s right for her family. “Mothers who don’t breast-feed love their children just as much,” says Michelle Sanders, a 31-year-old La Leche League leader in Prairie Village. “Not breast-feeding doesn’t make you any less of a mother. We all do the best we can with the information and support we have at that time.”
Although they continue working to refute the myths of breast-feeding and advocate for greater acceptance of breast-feeding, La Leche League members say they can feel the culture changing. Breast-feeding fits in with overall social trends toward more natural living. Also, the Internet has improved women’s access to information about breast-feeding.
Other local resources also are available to breast-feeding mothers that weren’t in the past. Hospitals now employ lactation consultants and most even provide weekly support groups for nursing mothers. Many La Leche League members are involved in these groups and other efforts to support mothers who want to breast-feed.
Naturally, those who are attracted to and remain active in La Leche League tend to find they have a lot in common. As babies and mothers bond through breast-feeding, so do the other mothers. “My friends who have moved around a lot always connect first with La Leche League in their new location as they build their new life,” Boudreaux says. “It is a wonderful resource for them and a place to make friends right away.”
As a direct result of their involvement in La Leche League, Sanders, Urick, Boudreaux and many other La Leche League leaders have built on their La Leche League training to become International Board Certified Lactation Consultants. Coordinating events, speaking to groups and educating the public always has empowered La Leche League leaders beyond the meetings.
“It kind of gave us credentials to move on to other things,” Kiser says. “Many of the women in those early days went on to get nursing degrees and other degrees. There wasn’t a lot going on for women in that time. It was starting, but Betty Friedan hadn’t written (The Feminine Mystique) yet."
Kansas City’s La Leche League maintains a helpline at 816.361.0909. Meeting information and leader contacts are available at lllusa.org/web/KansasCity.html