Listening and Hearing… Mother-to-Mother Support Skills for Leader Applicants

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Laurence Kher Descourtieux, London, Great Britain

Research today unanimously shows the importance of breastfeeding for human health, whether in the short, medium or long-term. Health organizations are now convinced that breastfeeding is the best choice for feeding a baby. There is no artificial milk equivalent to human milk. While some people continue to say bottle-feeding is just as good for the baby, even industrial milk manufacturers know this is inaccurate and keep ordering studies that aim to know the components of human milk in order to copy it more closely.

For new mothers to become confident about feeding their babies, it is not enough to be convinced that breastfeeding is the healthiest choice. A new mother is vulnerable; she may doubt her ability to take care of her baby, and to produce and deliver enough milk to him. She may know little about breastfeeding and lack self-confidence. She may be feeling very emotional after the birth. Telling her over and over that breastfeeding is the number-one choice while she is dealing with problems or going through moments of doubt is not enough—she needs to feel listened to and have her feelings acknowledged. Otherwise she may feel incompetent, and unable to recognize herself in the ideal image of the mother who proudly nurses her child.

Because we, as La Leche League Leaders, have often felt vulnerable and fragile and may also have doubted our ability to breastfeed our babies, we can empathize with the mother. Even if we haven’t felt that way ourselves, effective communication skills in addition to our personal breastfeeding experiences help us support new mothers. These skills are explored during the application period. Supporting Leaders play a major role in helping Leader Applicants learn the skills they need to be effective as LLL Leaders.

The importance of communication

During the preparation for leadership, Applicants strengthen their knowledge of breastfeeding and related topics. They explore the Breastfeeding Resource Guide (BRG) which helps them to know where to find answers to breastfeeding problems. However, being an expert in breastfeeding is not the most essential component of being a  Leader. LLLI does not expect Leaders to know everything; only to be familiar with the normal course of breastfeeding.

La Leche League (LLL) Leaders are committed to listening to and supporting the mother. They do this by using the communication skills they learn during the application period and by exploring and reflecting on their own breastfeeding and parenting experiences.

Applicants revisit their mothering and breastfeeding experiences by writing their personal history. They share it with a Leader Accreditation Department representative, who responds kindly, and helps the Applicant to realize the road she has taken since the first time she put her baby to the breast. Telling her story and sharing it with someone else is important for the Applicant. Once a Leader, she will only share her own experience when necessary so as not to overshadow a mother’s experience with her own. Leaders learn that it is not effective to tell mothers “I have been where you are and look at me now, so you will get there.”

Looking back on her experiences also helps the Applicant to make peace with herself about difficult aspects of her story. Thus, once she is a Leader, she can turn the challenges she has overcome into assets, without being overwhelmed by the distress of a mother who is experiencing a similar situation.

Listening, without judging, without intervening, without interfering, is one of a Leader’s skills that an Applicant develops during the application period. As a supporting Leader, you help Applicants learn to be silent in the turmoil of their thoughts so they can listen to what the mother says—and what she does not say. This approach can help a mother clarify her thoughts, identify what she wants, and consider ways to solve her problem.

It’s important that Applicants learn these basic communication techniques:

  • The problem belongs to the person seeking help. Mothers don’t need their problem to be taken away from them. They are adults capable of dealing with their problems themselves. With information, help and support mothers are in the best position to make their own choices, those that suit them and their families, so they can find their own solutions.
  • Listening and empathy help one to consider a solution. Mothers need us to listen to them. They need an ear, support, and empathy to have the “wings” to overcome their difficulties. They do not need someone who will cry with them and drag them down further.
  • To be able to consider solutions one needs to feel accepted and respected. It is helpful for mothers to feel accepted by the person who supports them. When they feel sincerely heard in their unique situations and not judged about their choices, they will be able to consider alternative solutions that sometimes go beyond what they had imagined.
  • How information is offered makes a difference. When it comes to supporting and helping others, it is important to offer suggestions appropriately, with a great deal of respect and space for mothers and their ideas. Health care professionals diagnose and write “prescriptions” or give advice. LLL Leaders offer suggestions in the form of possible ideas that may have worked with others.
 Learning to accept ourselves and others

An Applicant can be passionate about “mothering through breastfeeding” and her own life choices to the point of struggling to accept that others may have different ideas. Since some subjects can trigger strong emotions and interfere with communication, it’s important for Applicants to explore their personal biases. This allows them to better understand the choices they made, and to enhance their acceptance of others without expecting others to change their minds and follow the Applicant’s own choices. It’s important to respect and accept the mother as she is, support her, and acknowledge that she is the most competent person to find the solution that suits her and her family.

Gradually, the Leader Applicant passes from the stage of the mother who benefits from help and support, to the one who gives them. When communicating, the Applicant learns how to focus solely on the mother, fully aware that it is about the mother, not about the Leader who is listening to the mother. In fact, many Leaders master communication skills so well that they use them in other areas of their personal lives: with their children, other family members, friends, and colleagues.

After completing the criteria for accreditation, the new Leader can sign the LLL Statement of Commitment, confident she has the tools to support and help mothers.

Laurence Kher Descourtieux lives in London, Great Britain. With her husband Eric, they have five children from 29 to 19 and one grandchild with another due November 2018. Laurence has been a Leader since 1994 after meeting La Leche League in Washington, DC, USA, where her second child was born. Laurence and her family have lived in several different places for two decades (Gabon, Guatemala, France, Venezuela, Colombia, Great Britain). Laurence joined the Leader Accreditation Department team to keep in touch with La Leche League (LLL) while being an isolated Leader. She is currently the Administrator of Leader Accreditation for La Leche League Great Britain.