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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, August 6, 2007

La Leche League comes far in 50 years

By Julie Deardorff
Chicago Tribune

A friend grimaced after hearing that I attended La Leche League International's recent 50th Anniversary Conference on breast-feeding.

She has no personal experience with nursing or the group, which chose the Spanish word for milk because "breast" was so taboo back then that it couldn't be used in public. Instead, like many people, she has heard stories from women who felt they were royally chastised for not nursing, by people perceived to be connected with La Leche League.

"Right or wrong, I think they've fallen into the same problem as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Greenpeace at different parts in their histories as being too extreme to recognize individual needs," she said. "And I think a lot of moderate people worry that extreme groups end up hurting their own good causes."

What some women of my generation don't appreciate is that in 1956, when seven young Franklin Park mothers hatched the idea for a breast-feeding club during a picnic in Elmhurst's Wilder Park, they had to be extreme to reclaim a natural biological process that was creeping toward extinction.

And today we should thank them for challenging society's backward ideas about breasts and human milk. It's because of La Leche League that women now have options, that science overwhelmingly supports breast-feeding over formula and that breast milk is now considered a birthright.

"Fifty years ago, mothers didn't have a choice," said 92-year-old La Leche co-founder Edwina Froehlich, who had her first child at age 35 and was told she wouldn't be able to produce breast milk because she was over 30. "Bottle feeding was what a doctor knew, and if you mentioned breast-feeding, he'd shrug. He had no idea how to help."

Half a century ago, breast-feeding rates were an abysmal 20 percent. The medical establishment was largely ignorant to the benefits of nursing for both the baby and the mother, a normal biological process as ancient as life.

New mothers were routinely told they didn't have enough milk or that it wasn't good enough. Meanwhile, the conventional wisdom of the day separating a mother from her newborn for 24 hours, spacing feedings every four hours and topping off a nursing session with 2 ounces of formula to make sure infants were full sabotaged breast-feeding.

Today we know the best way to establish breast-feeding is to nurse infants immediately after birth, something that also has important postpartum recovery benefits for the mother. We know that breast-fed babies need to eat 8 to 12 times a day in the early weeks, often every two hours. And we know that breast milk is a baby's perfect food.

We also know that although breast-feeding is best, not all women will decide to do it, something La Leche recognizes and honors. The group, in fact, targets women who are considering or have already decided to breast-feed.

The government, on the other hand, is the agency reaching out to mothers who haven't decided whether they should nurse. It was a public health campaign, not La Leche League, that proclaimed "Babies Were Born to be Breast-fed" and showed a pregnant woman getting tossed off a mechanical bull in a bar. The bold message: not breast-feeding is risky behavior.

La Leche, meanwhile, has evolved to keep up with the times. When Hurricane Katrina left new mothers without access to water and sanitation, La Leche leaders visited shelters and spread the word that breast milk could nourish the infants and help protect against disease.

And at this year's conference, sessions included "Avoiding Unnecessary Guilt When Breast-Feeding Does Not Happen," "Medications & Mother's Milk," "The Effect of Media Violence on Children" and "Complementary Treatments to Postpartum Depression."

There was also "Breastfeeding and the Law: Nursing in Public," a session that is still unfortunately relevant today. Fifty years after seven housewives challenged the status quo, breasts can be used to entice people to eat at Hooters.

But women are still getting kicked off airplanes when they use them for what nature intended: to nourish a child. Last year, the parenting magazine Baby Talk put a tasteful photo of a nursing mother and baby on the cover, which apparently shocked some readers.

It was actually called "gross" in a newspaper article.

Apparently 50 years is just a start.