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Wondering where to go for support if you run into breastfeeding problems, or where to find like-minded moms? SteadyHealth spoke to a La Leche League leader to find out about the benefits of peer support.
Breastfeeding may widely be hailed as the best and most complete infant nutrition, but that doesn't mean society is breastfeeding friendly. Who really does "the best", after all? Isn't "normal" good enough? The moment a mother runs into breastfeeding problems, she is likely to be advised to turn to formula — if she started breastfeeding at all, that is. The same tends to happen when moms return to work, where they may not be encouraged to pump, and the older a baby is, the less likely a mother is to receive the professional and social support that would allow her to keep nursing.
This is where La Leche League, an organization that offers peer-to-peer breastfeeding support and professional advice, comes in.
SteadyHealth spoke to Ivana Dimitrijevic Robertson, a La Leche League leader from Serbia, in Europe. We set out to learn more about La Leche League's work, why it's still necessary, and where moms can go when they run into breastfeeding problems or just need a little support.
LLL: 'We Fill The Gap And Make A Difference'
"Over the course of the last 100 years, breastfeeding has gone from being viewed as the norm to quite the opposite in our society," Ivana says. "La Leche League, established in 1956, has certainly helped to balance that view globally. Our primary goal is to promote better understanding of breastfeeding by providing support and information."
How do they do that? "Thousands of trained leaders around the world, all mothers who breastfed or are still breastfeeding their children, hold regular meetings and communicate with mothers who need support," Ivana explains. This support can be crucial to new mothers, who don't find the encouragement and solutions they need to keep on nursing elsewhere. Ivana believes "both the lack of support available to women within the medical system and a general lack of understanding of the importance of breastfeeding" are root causes of low breastfeeding rates. She adds: "We try to fill that gap and make a difference."
Only 13.7 percent of babies enjoy the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding by the time they reach six months in Serbia, where Ivana comes from. Babies are routinely separated from their mothers and brought to nurseries right after birth. Once there, they are handed to their moms for breastfeeding a few times a day for a limited amount of time, and formula-fed the rest of the time. Moms who choose a Baby Friendly ward get to keep their babies most of the day, but are still encouraged to place them in the nursery at night.
This rough start can make breastfeeding especially challenging, but problems don't end once a mom-baby pair leave the hospital either. The pediatric nurses that are supposed to provide support in the early days frequently don't know much about breastfeeding, and encourage moms to formula-feed instead.
Ivana shares how she first got involved with La Leche League: "I breastfed my son to two and a half years of age, and I'm still breastfeeding my one and a half year old daughter. With my first birth, which was a c-section in hospital, I had a difficult beginning. The baby was supplemented and kept separate for the first day. I received no support in the hospital and the pediatric nurse advised I start supplementing on her first visit, without giving me a clear reason why."
Despite the pressure to switch to formula, Ivana stuck with breastfeeding: "I persevered because I believed it was important for both my son and me, and because I had support from my husband and from LLL. I decided to join LLL because I realized the importance of this support."
Rebuilding The Image Of The Nursing Mother
"The World Health Organization states that 'in spite of the well-recognized importance of exclusive breastfeeding, the practice is not widespread in the developing world and increase on the global level is still very modest with much room for improvement'. It is true that the global increase has been slow since the late 1960s and the peak in formula feeding," Ivana says. "But there are good examples. We could all learn from countries like Norway, where 80 percent of mothers are still nursing when their babies are six moths old. When you compare this to the 32 percent of babies still nursed at six months in the US, and 20 percent in the UK, the contrast is quite sharp."
What is the answer, then? Ivana says: "To make breastfeeding the norm again, our society has to rebuild the image of the nursing mother. LLL and other similar organizations are doing their best to help solve the problem. But mothers of the world need to be supported in other ways. They also need more time off work, more financial security, and they need to feel more valued as mothers in their environment if they are to breastfeed and raise their children successfully."
"So there are social, cultural, and political aspects of the problem for both the developed and the developing world."
The Benefits Of A Solid Support Network
"Breastfeeding a child past the age of one (or less in some cultures) is uncommon in many parts of the world," Ivana says. "Yet, it is estimated that the global average weaning age is four years. The mothers who face condemnation can always try quoting that, or all the well-supported data on the benefits of breastfeeding past infancy."
And if a mother's already-existing social network is not supportive of breastfeeding, they can benefit hugely from new support networks that do encourage them to continue.
"Some may find the strength they need in support groups such as ours, where they can be reassured that breastfeeding for as long as mutually desired and gently transitioning to other kinds of feeding and comfort is the most natural and mutually beneficial way of weaning."
"Cultural taboos and medical malpractice can be difficult to break," Ivana acknowledges. "It can be extremely difficult for a mother who wishes to carry on breastfeeding past that arbitrary cut-off point to do so if she experiences condemnation of her family members, friends and medical professionals. My hope is that we will soon see a change in the medical practices and the beliefs that affect the mother's ability to follow her instincts and meet the baby's needs."
The internet is a wonderful tool for nursing mothers looking for evidence-based information, whether they're wondering whether there's a core of truth to an anti-breastfeeding comment a nurse or neighbor made, they're dealing with difficulties such as mastitis or inverted nipples, or they would simply like to chat with like-minded nursing mothers.
If you're dealing with a specific challenge, you can "search for answers on the website of La Leche League International where they'll find lots of useful and reliable information, or find a local LLL group and contact a leader by phone or email," Ivana advises. A link to their website is provided in the links box below.
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