In 2021 La Leche League celebrates two special dates: the 65th anniversary of La Leche League International, and the 50th anniversary of La Leche League GB (LLLGB). Over the years LLL has played a part in the lives of thousands of mothers, babies and families, and we look back to how it all began and grew to become the largest breastfeeding support organisation in the world.
How La Leche League started
The idea for a support group for breastfeeding mothers was formed in 1956 in Illinois, USA. Two mothers, Mary White and Marian Tompson, were at a picnic in a park, breastfeeding their babies. At that time the breastfeeding rate in the US had dropped to 20% and it was very difficult for women to have a say in how they wanted to give birth or to get support for breastfeeding. Mary and Marian heard from many women who had wanted to breastfeed but hadn’t succeeded, and they decided to try to offer help to other mothers.
Mary and Marian asked five of their friends to join them in organising a support group, and they set out to learn all they could about breastfeeding. They read books and medical publications, looked at facts and old wives’ tales, and shared their own experiences. Their conclusion was that “Babies were meant to be breastfed and they could be.”1
The Founders of LLLI were Mary Ann Cahill, Edwina Froehlich, Mary Ann Kerwin, Viola Lennon, Marian Tompson, Betty Wagner, and Mary White, and in October 1956 in a home in Franklin Park, Illinois, La Leche League held its first meeting. They chose the name La Leche League because in 1956 the word “breast” could not be used to publicise their group and they thought La Leche (Spanish for the milk) would be meaningful for nursing mothers. The name is the cause of much discussion, but the Founders said it was pronounced “La Lay-chay”.
They thought the group wouldn’t be much work and it would be short-lived, but the monthly meetings proved so popular they had to be expanded, with other women asking if they could run their own groups. These women became known as “Leaders” and were able to run meetings and facilitate the discussions, which also focused on childbirth as part of the breastfeeding relationship. The Founders produced a “Course by Mail” which became the first edition of our breastfeeding manual, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding.
They also asked doctors who were known to support breastfeeding to act as medical consultants, although they concluded that most problems were not medical, and the support and encouragement of another mother was often all that was needed. However, the Medical Advisory Board was consulted when women who wanted to breastfeed were being told by their doctors they were not able to.
LLL began to hold its own conventions and conferences, and as the number of Leaders grew, so did the number of physicians who joined LLL, which provided legitimacy for the mother-to-mother support and wisdom LLL offered. LLL began to challenge the medical establishment on the question of breastfeeding and opposed the heavily drugged childbirth which was also common in the 1950s.
The Founders believed that mothers and babies needed to be together for early nursing and uninterrupted bonding, they talked about “mothering through breastfeeding” and enabled women to be surer of their own judgement and instincts.
Over the years, as it grew from a local, to a national to an international organisation, LLL found itself in the forefront of defending breastfeeding from various attacks, including controversy over contaminants in breastmilk, formula marketing, and legal battles, such as visitation, nursing in public spaces, work-related issues and jury duty.
There are now over 5000 Leaders in over 80 countries in the world, on every continent but Antarctica.
La Leche League comes to Great Britain
La Leche League came to Great Britain at the beginning of the 1970s; at first introduced by American women who were accredited LLL Leaders, but soon British mothers became involved and started new groups. Valerie Powell is recorded as being the first Leader in GB and one of the first groups is believed to have been started in Leicester by Anne Harrison, an American Leader who was living here. Other groups were started around the same time throughout GB.
Feedback was established as our Leader letter in the mid-seventies, but still had to be sent to the USA for approval. GB continued to receive US publications, and all Leader training and communication was done via the US which made it expensive and difficult.
Towards the end of the seventies, it was suggested that LLLGB could best meet the needs of mothers and babies in Britain by becoming a fully autonomous organisation with a democratically elected Board of Directors. We would remain affiliated to LLLI and would be identical or very similar in structure with the same commitments to the same mothering philosophy and Leader support.
There were approximately 70 Leaders in GB at this time and at a meeting in April 1980 the majority agreed with this decision.
Mary Ann Kerwin, one of the Founders of LLL (at that time known as the Founding Mothers) visited Britain to talk about the changes and another Founder, Betty Wagner, set up a committee to discuss it further. In August Mary Ann wrote with a proposed “Pilot Programme for La Leche League Great Britain” and in October she thanked us for our enthusiastic endorsement of the programme which had been accepted almost unanimously. Our Council of Directors was set up after this.
In the Nov-Dec 1981 issue of Feedback, it was announced that we had received verbal confirmation from the Charity commission that La Leche League (Great Britain) Ltd was now a registered charity. We were known as an Affiliate of LLLI. Switzerland, Canada, French Canada, Germany and New Zealand also became Affiliates, although Switzerland and Germany are now part of our European Area Network. GB’s agreement was eventually signed by GB representatives, Jean Waldman and Jacky Simmonds, on June 13, 1987. After this LLLI did not grant Affiliate status for many years (until LLL Alliance became an Affiliate in March 2020), and countries formed Areas or Divisions instead.
GB maintains links with all other Areas of LLL and has always been keen to work with other organisations supporting breastfeeding, taking part in joint collaborations and a number of national breastfeeding initiatives
At the heart of LLL
Mothering through breastfeeding has always been at the heart of LLL’s work, and the foundation of our effectiveness has always been mother-to-mother support. We recognise that all families are unique and we provide information, which is supportive, accurate and available to all, so that mothers and parents can make informed choices that suit them and their families.
LLL accredited Leaders have all breastfed their own babies and know that when you need a bit of help it can’t wait until tomorrow. The core of our work is our network of local mother-to-mother support groups, facilitated by accredited LLL Leaders, with leaflets on a wide range of breastfeeding questions, information on more unusual situations, access to professional medical advisors, and books covering various aspects of pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding and parenting.
In LLLGB, we now have around 250 Leaders and 75 groups which meet regularly throughout Great Britain and the Isle of Man. LLL Leaders are all volunteers. We do not get any funding, either nationally or locally, unless individual Leaders are able to apply for grants or source donations for their groups. Anyone can use our services and access our information without charge or taking up a membership because we want to be accessible to everyone – although we do love and appreciate it when you become members and join our LLL family! Members also received our bi-monthly newsletter, Breastfeeding Matters, which has always aimed to “provide an LLL meeting in an envelope”.
Passionate about providing support and accurate information in today’s world
The world was a very different place back in 1956, but the needs of babies haven’t changed. While each generation of women has to adapt to the demands and challenges of the day, they still have the same concerns and questions as previous generations and need the same support network now as they did then; LLL is there to provide it. There are many more ways to access that support today and LLL has adapted to that.
LLL groups still provide a wonderful way to access good information and meet other breastfeeding mothers, but during the past few years, and especially during the pandemic, we recognised that mothers and parents were increasingly looking for much of their information and support online. Many LLL Groups started to hold regular Zoom meetings to keep offering much needed support.
As well as our website (www.laleche.org.uk), our Helpforms and Helpline, Leaders have built supportive networks using Facebook pages and WhatsApp groups and between them take thousands of calls each year. Our LLLGB because Breastfeeding Matters Facebook page has over 25,000 “likes” and we have accounts on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest and, most recently TikTok.
La Leche League GB is passionate about providing mother-to-mother breastfeeding support and information which is non-judgmental, accurate and available to all both directly and via social media.
Celebrating 50 and 65 years of mother-to-mother support
LLL Founder Marian Tompson has said they weren’t trying to start a revolution, just to give a voice to women to provide what was best for them and their babies.
However, LLL’s influence has been immeasurable and has had a direct bearing on many of the changes that have occurred in infant-care practices since its beginning. It challenged the beliefs of the day, and many of the things the Founders spoke out about are accepted today as optimal practice.
LLL is recognised as an authority on breastfeeding and is respected by health professionals throughout the world, maintaining a close working relationship with the World Health Organisation and also a partnership with the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA). The primary focus of the organisation, however, has remained on one-to-one sharing of information and encouragement to give mothers and families the confidence they need to breastfeed their baby.
Over the past 65 years, countless parents have found the help they needed from LLL and have gone on to enjoy the breastfeeding relationship that felt right for them. LLL Leaders through the years from 1956 onwards have remained passionate about being there for those who need us.
LLL helped to give breastfeeding back to mothers. Seven mothers from Chicago set out to help a few local women – and ended up changing things for the better across the world.
We hope you will join with us in celebrating our anniversaries. Keep an eye out on social media and in your local group for information about our 50th anniversary fundraising and celebrations.
La Leche League. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding. 1974; 152.
Written by Anna Burbidge on behalf of LLLGB, September 2021