La Leche League (LLL) is a pioneer in the field of peer-to-peer breastfeeding information and support.
A Brief History of La Leche League
Our story starts in 1956. La Leche League was formed in Chicago (USA) by seven women who wanted to give breastfeeding help and support to others. Marian Tompson and Mary White were nursing their children at a picnic and found that many people came up to them to express interest or tell them how they had wanted to breastfeed but failed.
At the time in the USA, many traditional breastfeeding practices were no longer the norm. Nursing your baby was not encouraged by the medical establishment, and not practiced widely enough for there to be practical support available. Seeing this gap in information and support, Marian and Mary enlisted the help of five of their friends and acquaintances and the seven began to hold meetings.
These seven Founders of LLL were Mary Ann Cahill, Edwina Froehlich, Mary Ann Kerwin, Viola Lennon, Marian Tompson, Betty Wagner, and Mary White. Read more on our Finding The Founders page.
The meeting series format was established very early in the history of LLL. A series of four meetings is held once a month, with a rotating series of topics including pre-natal issues, childbirth, breastfeeding, nutrition, and weaning. This format is still used in many places around the world today.
From early on LLL was affiliated with doctors who provided medical advice and support for trickier problems. In those days, LLL support was done by letter-writing, and mothers were almost always encouraged to continue feeding their baby with their milk. In doing so, LLL challenged the lukewarm attitude of the medical establishment towards breastfeeding.
La Leche League Grows
LLL grew rapidly. Beginning with groups in the locality of the Founders, it spread to groups all over the world, and has helped millions of people for more than 66 years.
Many of the changes that have occurred in infant-care practices over the past 66 years have been influenced by LLL.
Influence of LLL
LLL has always encouraged breastfeeding mothers and nursing parents to trust their bodies; listen to their instincts, and follow their babies’ cues.
Parenting advice has often been to ‘let babies cry’, to ‘let babies learn to self-soothe’. For over six decades LLL has advocated for mothers and other nursing parents to trust their instincts, that holding or nursing a crying baby won’t spoil them.
LLL meetings have always included discussion on childbirth and its impact on the nursing dyad. Heavily medicated childbirth was common in many countries in the 1950s and was opposite to the practice of active, alert participation in childbirth which LLL has always spoken about. Actively engaging in the birth process helps protect the whole relationship between baby and parent, including early nursing and bonding. The Founders were among the first in the US to promote the presence of partners and husbands in the delivery room and a return to home birthing for those who want it.
Positioning and Attachment
LLL challenged draconian practices around sore nipples, and instead offered support and encouragement to improve positioning and attachment. This meant that many mothers and parents and babies were enabled to continue breastfeeding.
Impact of Separation
LLL knew the impact of separating the birthing mother or parent and baby. LLL promoted the importance of maintaining attachment to the baby and protecting early nursing to increase bonding.
Now mothers and parents the world over are encouraged to hold and nurse their newborn babies immediately after birth. What was once unheard of in the Global North is now common practice and well supported by research.
To further protect bonding with their baby, LLL encouraged families to follow their instincts around sleeping arrangements so that breastfeeding and milk production – and therefore the baby’s health – were best supported.
While the concept of a family bed was challenged in many quarters, the very information that LLL gave on safe sleeping is now being shared – decades on – by health systems and professionals around the world. Check out our infographic for details on safe sleep.
Introduction of Complementary Foods
LLL was established at a time when the social norm in the US was for solids to be introduced very early, compromising the baby’s gut, increasing the risk of allergies, and replacing human milk as a major component of the baby’s diet.
It took decades for healthcare professionals to catch up with LLL’s understanding of the impact of early introduction of solids on the health of the baby.
Importance of Feeding With Health Conditions
Early on, breastfeeding and the use of human milk was discouraged by medical professionals if the mother or other nursing parent or baby had health conditions such as Down Syndrome, HIV, jaundice, or viral illnesses. LLL has always promoted an understanding of impact and risk to ensure a safe continuation of nursing. Over the years, LLL Leaders have helped many parents and babies to maintain their nursing or human milk feeding relationship while managing their medical conditions.
Read these inspiring stories:
Joys and Challenges of Parenting a Daughter with Down Syndrome
Resiliency Comes in All Sizes: Breastfeeding a Baby with Down Syndrome
Bobby’s Dairy: Nursing a Baby with Chylothorx
Human Rights of Babies to Breastfeed, Chestfeed and Have Human Milk
The radical principles of the Founders of La Leche League had a powerful effect on supporting the nursing dyad, even in less usual situations such as adoptive nursing, milk sharing, co-nursing or induced lactation.
The primary focus in LLL has remained on the personal sharing of information and encouragement that provides a new parent with the confidence they need to breastfeed their baby: mother-to-mother, parent-to-parent, heart-to-heart. Leaders across the world offer breastfeeding support and information in their own communities, and many also respond immediately, providing infant feeding support in emergency situations. LLL works to ensure that those who, historically, have been marginalized when trying to access support for nursing and human milk feeding, are included – with the same fervor the Founders showed nearly 70 years ago. And so today, LLL finds itself, once again, leading the way amongst breastfeeding support organizations internationally, protecting and promoting nursing and human milk feeding, with the same radical intention.