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A Look Back: A Whole New Way of Life

By Marian Tompson, co-Founder of La Leche League International

Originally published in January/February 1981 La Leche League News

Editor’s Note: The first issue of La Leche League News, the bimonthly publication for members, was published in 1958. The name changed to New Beginnings in 1985. New Beginnings continued to be published until 2014 when it switched to its current blog format at

This article was published in 1981, the year that La Leche League International celebrated its 25th anniversary. La Leche League International celebrates its 60th anniversary this year and will continue the celebration into 2017 with the theme “Celebrate 60: Building a Legacy.” Find out more about the anniversary celebration at

founders-1956_60th_anniversary_webWhat was it like breastfeeding a baby twenty-five years ago? Well, much more difficult than it is today in some ways and pretty much the same in others. You see, I was expecting my fifth child in 1956 so watching our daughters today raise our five grandchildren has given me a great basis for comparison. Back then, the average pregnant mother had probably never seen a woman breastfeed a baby much less met someone who had nursed for more than a few months. It was not until our fourth baby had been born that we actually experienced baby-led weaning, at thirteen months, thanks to the help of Dr. Gregory White and his wife, Mary. But our grandchildren have all nursed for at least two years, except for Mark who is only one year old (and still nursing!). Of course, one of the drawbacks to breastfeeding in those days was that nursing in public was unheard of. You didn’t even nurse in front of your relatives! It was Mary who showed me how it could be done when she sat next to me while we did a panel on parenting at a church function and to my great amazement discreetly nursed her new baby. Today, though, we have no less an authority than the 1980 edition of The Book of Modern Manners to reassure us that nursing in public is not only acceptable, but that “those who disapprove should do so silently.”

Babies were not often taken out in public in those days. Many times our baby was the only one present at a so-called “family type” affair. The few baby carriers available were sling type affairs made to help support an older baby on mother’s hip. I’ll never forget when Mary and I ordered our first Gerry Carriers designed for babies of mountain-climbing parents. We never did use them to climb mountains since Franklin Park is pretty flat, but they sure made it easier to take baby along. We raised a lot of eyebrows then, but baby carriers have become so much a part of our culture now that they hardly merit a second glance.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

Allowing a baby in bed with you in those days was considered something just short of immoral. So powerful were the warnings and threats of what could happen that it was only a few months ago that my mother revealed that I (lucky baby) had spent most of my first year sharing my parents’ bed. Maybe she was waiting to see how I would turn out! Our sweet grandchildren, on the other hand, have all spent time in their parents’ beds. As a progression of the family bed idea, one of our daughters has a bedroom which is a sea of beds, one smack up against the other.

In 1956, many pregnant women never even considered the possibility of breastfeeding. There was only one book on breastfeeding available—Frank Howard Richardson’s The Nursing Mother. Today in many countries the number of women breastfeeding has doubled and tripled. There’s a lot of written information available. In some hospitals women are allowed to nurse right after delivery, and to room-in with their babies, thereby continuing to feed on demand. This is a big improvement from drugged mothers and babies, delayed first nursings, four-hour schedules, and a separate nursery for the baby.

Still, some things remain the same. Many mothers are still not given the help they need from the health professionals they expect to provide it. They worry if their babies are fussy and wonder if it’s caused in some way by their milk. They are not sure what to do about sore nipples or how to prevent them. Weaning still is the solution offered for a variety of problems. These problems used to be nervousness or milk that was too thin or too rich; today it’s jaundice and slow weight gain.

Of course, we’ve got a whole new generation of mothers who have nursed their babies, and they continue to be any nursing mother’s best means of support. Even our children who don’t even have children of their own, still have absorbed so much about breastfeeding that their friends use them as sources of support when problems arise.

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock

La Leche League, I believe, was an idea whose time had come. It grew out of a need that was waiting to be filled. There is no other explanation in my mind for the way the efforts of seven women reaching out to help their friends in a small town in Illinois took off and encircled the world. The early antagonism of some health professionals soon gave way to grudging respect followed by enthusiastic endorsement. Our recommendations on early nursing, late solids, and baby-led weaning have stood the test of time. Or as others have said, “Science has finally proved what mothers have known all along…”

While we can all attest to the changes League has made in our lives I have always felt LLL did not introduce a new way of mothering but instead gave mothers permission to do that which in their hearts they knew was the best way all along. Tuning into their babies instead of a schedule, letting their own baby rather than an expert set the pace, they experienced a motherhood that fulfilled all their expectations though it may have led them into a very different lifestyle from that of their friends. So League meetings became important, not only as a source of information but also as a reinforcement for that way of life. It is a lifestyle characterized by a sensitivity for the individual and a respect for his uniqueness and needs. You have only to attend a League gathering of these families to sense the difference and to rejoice in it. The League has become a gathering place for many of the truly caring people of the world. They are the people who recognize that one of the most important things we can do for that world is to respond in a sensitive and loving way to the people whose lives touch our own. As nursing mothers, we’ve learned that needs can’t be put off to some convenient time, and it’s how we tend to those needs today that is already determining the shape of tomorrow!