La Leche League International was formed in 1956, in Franklin Park, IL by a group of seven mothers who wanted to provide breastfeeding help and support to interested women. Two mothers, Mary White and Marian Tompson, were breastfeeding their children at a church picnic and many other women expressed interest, or told them how they had wanted to breastfeed but failed.
Breastfeeding was not encouraged by the medical establishment at the time and not practiced widely enough for women who wanted to breastfeed to have practical support. Realizing there was a need for information and support, Mary and Marian enlisted the help of five of their friends and acquaintances and the seven began to hold meetings. The Founders of LLLI were Mary Ann Cahill, Edwina Froehlich, Mary Ann Kerwin, Viola Lennon, Marian Tompson, Betty Wagner, and Mary White.
The basic format for the meetings and the local structure of LLLI was in place very early. A series of four meetings were held, once a month, dealing with topics from pre-natal issues to childbirth and breastfeeding. Some women just came for the series, but some began to attend on an ongoing basis. From its earliest days, LLLI was affiliated with some doctors who provided medical advice and support for trickier problems with breastfeeding. These doctors also helped shape “mothering through breastfeeding” as the main focus of LLLI.
LLLI received numerous medical questions from women who wanted to breastfeed but who were being told by their doctors to wean their babies for various reasons, or that they couldn’t breastfeed at all. LLLI developed a system whereby these letters would be circulated to the Medical Advisory Board, the answers collated, and a reply sent to the mother. In most cases, the doctors of the Board would recommend that breastfeeding should continue. The involvement of the physicians provided legitimacy for the advice that LLLI provided and enabled the women to be surer of their own judgment and instincts when it came to passing on mother-to-mother wisdom and intuition. LLLI began to challenge the medical establishment on the question of breastfeeding.
In addition to breastfeeding, LLLI meetings also focused on childbirth, and the practice of natural as opposed to heavily drugged childbirth which was also common in the 1950s. LLLI regarded an engaged birth process as part of the whole breastfeeding relationship, partly for the opportunity this afforded for early nursing of the baby and partly for the enhanced mother-baby bonding.
Group meetings were held by a Leader, someone approved by LLLI to run the meetings and moderate the discussion that would take place. LLLI grew from a local, to a national, and then an international organization that has been helping thousands of mothers and babies all over the world for more than 60 years.
Many of the changes that have occurred in infant-care practices since LLLI began can be traced to the influence of LLLI. LLLI encouraged women to trust their bodies; its Founders were among the first women to promote the presence of husbands in the delivery room and a return to home birth for those who want it. LLLI spoke out: babies need their mothers, and mothers benefit, too, from early nursing and uninterrupted bonding. As a result, women today are encouraged to hold and nurse their newborn babies immediately after birth. What was once unheard of is now common practice and well supported by research.
As LLLI has grown into an international organization, the primary focus has remained on the personal one-to-one sharing of information and encouragement that provides a new parent with the confidence they need to breastfeed their baby.