'I wouldn't have breastfed if I hadn't got support'
Fifty years after it was founded, the La Leche League is still a vital link for mums struggling to nurse newborns
Published 30/03/2016 | 02:30
There's been a huge uproar in the past few weeks about Jamie Oliver daring to venture an opinion on the benefits of breastfeeding. No nipples for nursing? Nothing to do you with you - get your oven mitts off our t*ts, seems to be the dominant school of thought.
But Shirley Butler, a mum of four and a long-time leader with breastfeeding support group La Leche League, feels it's good for men to be engaged in the subject.
"I don't think I would have breastfed if it hadn't been for the support of my husband," says the Portlaoise woman, now 67. When she gave birth to their eldest daughter in 1976, all the advice she'd got was urging her to feed every four hours.
"But I wasn't sure what to do if she needed to be fed before that," says Shirley. "David had grown up in Africa and just kept saying to me 'keep plugging her in, keep plugging her in. Women in Africa don't have watches, they watch the baby, not the clock."
It's advice she's passed on numerous times to the thousands of women she went on to help breastfeed during her 34 years with La Leche League (LLL). Most recently it's been part of the wisdom and support she's offered Claire Haworth, the youngest of Shirley's four daughters, who is currently feeding her three-month-old baby, Olwyn Maebh.
This month the breastfeeding support organisation is preparing to celebrate 50 years in Ireland. Over that time a lot has changed - celebrities now influence opinions on nursing, social media brings both positives and negatives. But many of the challenges remain the same.
The organisation began in Ireland when a Dublin biologist, and mum of seven, Nora Leach, read an article in the May 1963 edition of Readers Digest. The piece, written by Karen Pryor, detailed the health benefits of breastfeeding but also the incorrect advice women were getting about the frequency of nursing, content of their milk and the relationship of supply and demand between breast and baby, leading them to wean before they wanted to.
Pryor championed the efforts of a newly launched mother-to-mother support group in the States, LLL, which had recently released a manual, the 'Womanly Art Of Breastfeeding' (still a best-seller today) for new mums who wanted to breastfeed. Nora, who had nursed all seven of her own children, wrote to one of the women mentioned in the article, Marian Tompson, one of the founding mothers of La Leche League.
The Illinois woman sent her back research literature and letters of encouragement which Nora set about distributing to doctors and maternity hospitals across Ireland. She wrote a letter to a Sunday newspaper, highlighting the need for mum-to-mum support, and received hundreds of replies. In April 1966 the first Irish LLL meeting was held in Dun Laoghaire. Today LLL international has more than 7,000 leaders in 68 countries. There are 36 groups in Ireland and last year over 600 meetings were held, attended by more than 6,000 mothers. Irish leaders received 8,529 phone calls - the 24-hour access that was part of the 1950s founding mothers' vision is still a feature of LLL - but there's now also a busy social media presence with an Irish Facebook page and information for download.
The name, La Leche League, was taken from a Spanish shrine in Florida to the Madonna and translates as 'Our Lady of Bountiful Milk and Easy Delivery'. It fitted with the group's ethos but had a more practical reason - the word 'breast' or anything about breasts couldn't be featured on leaflets in 1950s America.
A similar prudishness persisted in Ireland several decades on. "I remember we used to go to European conferences and the delegates from Italy and Spain always used to call our posters 'the jumper posters'," laughs Shirley. "They would have images with the breast uncovered, very beautiful and natural, and they'd look at ours and say 'why do you cover everything up?'"
Today breastfeeding in public still carries a taboo. And disappointingly the miss-information in Pryor's article still gets bandied around. Jennifer Harrison was just about to leave the hospital with her newborn baby son when a nurse stopped her on her way out. "She told me 'if you don't change your position you'll get mastitis, abscesses and God knows what,' then she walked away," says Jennifer.
"I know now this information was inaccurate but as a new mum, I panicked. I'd thought I was doing okay, and up until that point the support in the hospital had been great but now I felt like I was a failure."
She came home and tried to nurse in a different position to the lying down one she'd found successful in hospital, but struggled. She phoned LLL who reassured her she was fine to feed in the position that worked and invited her along to a meeting. Now a mum of two teenagers, she's also a leader for LLL Dundalk, the longest-running breastfeeding support group in her area.
"I was happy to feel I could give back a little of the support to other mothers that I myself had received," says Jennifer. The difficulties she hears from new mums often echo her own experience or common themes.
"Most of us have little idea of what normal newborn behaviour is and how intense those early days can be," she says. "I try to recommend that new mums come along to an LLL meeting while pregnant to chat with other mums about what it's like and having realistic expectations of yourself and your baby in the early days. This gives mums confidence when baby arrives."
There have been times when LLL has come in for criticism for putting 'bressure' on women who don't breastfeed. An accusation Shirley says couldn't be further from the truth.
"We're here to make sure you have the correct information and help if it's something you want to do," she says. The focus is on breastfeeding, but she's also helped women with weaning, pumping and combi-feeding (bottle and breast).
All mums are welcome at meetings - and dads too.