LLL Today #2 – My Ideal Breastfeeding Village

I informally interviewed around 20 mothers in France about what they would like their ideal “breastfeeding village” to be. Despite their different visions of the ideal village, several common points appear and the answers are sometimes surprising[1].

First of all, there seems to be a difference if you ask the question before or after women have had children. Before their children are born, mothers-to-be are not always clearly aware of what their needs will be postpartum and during breastfeeding. They often talk about the importance of their partner’s support, and rightly so! Support from partners and others for the breastfeeding relationship is one of La Leche League’s ten core concepts[2]. After having had children, many parents sadly experience lack of support and become fully aware of what they have been missing. It is often by contrasting a negative experience with a positive one that many of the mothers I spoke to understood what kind of support they really need when breastfeeding their babies. This was the case for Dinah: “For my first child, I found myself alone. My mother and sister went on vacation. And my partner started working twice as much. When I told my mother how I felt, she answered that she too had to fend for herself when I was born. I thought I was a loser for not being able to do it on my own and I suffered without saying anything. And then for my third, I started attending LLL meetings before I gave birth and I realized that the loneliness I had experienced was not normal, that mothers vitally need support to be able to take care of their babies. I became aware of everything I needed and had missed.”

Many of the mothers talked about the importance of the approving gaze on breastfeeding and the kindliness of the “village.” They appreciate the smiles, the kind remarks of strangers they meet in the street or on public transport, the natural welcome they receive in public spaces every day. This is undeniably part of the “details” that reinforce their self-esteem and their empowerment as mothers. But it is above all the approval and kindliness of those closest to them that often matters most. How difficult it is to be criticized by your own mother when you are breastfeeding! This sometimes leads to break-ups: one no longer seeks the help of one’s parents because one no longer wants to receive derogatory remarks. But what a pity to have to deprive ourselves of the help of those who are best suited to support us! As for the criticisms received from partners, they are often the most dreaded, and unfortunately they sometimes lead to the end of breastfeeding. The vast majority of mothers need to be shown approval and, why not, admiration for what they are doing. Because it is not easy to breastfeed in a non-breastfeeding culture.

Many told me that they sought this moral support in online chat rooms or by reading testimonials. For example, Katy talks about a “virtual village”: “What supported me a lot […] was a virtual community of moms, with its forum full of information and active listening, as well as the daily reading of testimonies before the birth, especially on [a website’s]  breastfeeding forum. I felt […] surrounded, even virtually, by women who were ultra proud to breastfeed, as if they held a magnificent secret of life, a super power. And the LLL meetings allowed me to find that in real life.”

Ah, the LLL meetings! How many times did they come up in the testimonies! The “virtual village” is wonderful. But the physical meetings are something else LLL meetings are an opportunity to see other nursing dyads “in real life”. The imprinting is so much more effective when you have live models in front of you. Many parents have made lifelong friendships at LLL meetings and have found like-minded people who have been able to fill a gap in family support. Marie talks about “women who became true friends” and whom she continues to see 18 years later: “This support [strengthens our] confidence in our ability to make the right choices for our child.”

It’s clear how moral support and caring strengthen our parenting skills, and help increase the duration of breastfeeding. But when you are alone with your breastfed child on a daily basis, even with “virtual” friends, it can be very hard. This is why it is important to have a “physical village” and not just a virtual one, to have material,  not just moral, support. Dinah explains that the almost daily help of her friends – who prepared hot meals, did the housework, and took care of her older children – when she was in great distress after a premature delivery and a baby who had difficulty sucking, saved her breastfeeding relationship. “Without them, I would have sunk into despair,” she says.

The moral and physical support that can be given to a young postpartum mother not only protects breastfeeding, it also protects mothers themselves, who are in a period of physical and psychological turmoil. Their bodies and psyches need time to adjust to the new situation. The “old-timers” knew this and organized the “mothering of mothers” in the postpartum period; young mothers had nothing to do but restore their strength and feed their babies. In the past (and still today in some parts of the world), older women took care of young mothers. The presence and availability of older women has, in fact, probably been an evolutionary advantage for humans, according to anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, (the so-called “grandmother hypothesis”)[3]. Grandmothers, another key figure in the “breastfeeding village”?

A few parents mentioned in their testimonies that they needed to be surrounded by other women “who had also been there”. This need reflects the importance of mimicry in human learning. Elvire concluded her testimony of a supportive community of women by saying: “We had created a new norm”. This is what the phrase “It takes a village to breastfeed a child” means. We need a new culture: a culture of breastfeeding, as James Akré puts it[4]. We need new norms of care for mothers and babies, a new social model.

Daliborka Milovanovic

[1] Strangely, only one mother among those who spoke mentioned healthcare professionals. Yet their intervention or non-intervention can be crucial in the continuation of breastfeeding. This is discussed in the article devoted to them.

[2]Breastfeeding is enhanced by the loving support of the baby’s father, a co-parent, a partner, and/or close family members who value the breastfeeding relationship.”

[3] Hawkes, K. (2003). “Grandmothers and the evolution of human longevity”. American Journal of Human Biology. 15 (3): 380–400.

[4] James Akré. The Problem with Breastfeeding: A Personal Reflection. Hale Publishing. 2006.