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Mother nature
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Stacie Acton was doing what came naturally.

When her baby daughter got hungry during a trip to a local mall, Acton sat down to breastfeed her. “I was asked to to either leave the mall or go to a designated area for breastfeeding,” she says.

Acton was shocked. “I was only sitting there,” she says.

Being forced to breastfeed in a restroom or even in a sanitized designated breastfeeding area seems like a slap in the face to most breastfeeding mothers. They’re doing what mothers were meant to do since the beginning of time -- care for their children.

“I even talked to the people at the mall to try to get them to change their policies, but wasn’t successful,” Acton says.

Situations such as this are why La Leche League works so hard to promote breastfeeding. World Breastfeeding Week will be celebrated Aug. 1-7 by La Leche League International, which has programs that assist more than 300,000 women in 66 countries each month.

“The organization was founded in 1956 by seven young mothers who had breastfed their children,” says Mary Lofton, La Leche League International Director of Public Relations, says. “They had varying degrees of success.”

The women decided to organize after other women approached them for advice. “It started at a picnic where several women were breastfeeding,” Lofton says. “Other women were coming up to them and saying, ‘Oh, I really wanted to breastfeed, but couldn’t.’”

Many of the women believed they couldn’t breastfeed because of inaccurate information they were given. “What the women intended to do was start a small support group,” Lofton says. “They never intended for it to be international.”

But La Leche (pronounced la lay-chay) began to grow right from the start. “They found they got more help from each other on how to make everything work,” Lofton says. “In a few months, they had to have another meeting. It’s definitely a grass-roots organization.”

Ironically, those seven women had their own challenges to face in 1956. “When they wrote an advertisement for their meeting, they were told they could not have the word ‘breast’ in a family newspaper,” Lofton says. “They decided to use La Leche League. La Leche is Spanish for ‘the milk.’”

Mothers have been breastfeeding since the beginning of time, but the breast has come to mean much more than nourishment.

“In the beginning of the last century, babies were breastfed or wet-nursed or they didn’t survive,” Lofton says. “In European aristocracy, the women used wet nurses.”

When a wet nurse wasn’t available, attempts were made to feed the child in other ways. “There have always been attempts to feed babies animals’ milk or gruel,” Lofton says.

But for most of mankind’s existence, breasteeding has been the preferred method. Ironically, that all began to change at a time in our history when more mothers than ever before -- or since -- stayed at home to rear their children.

There are two reasons for that, Lofton says. “One was the movement from births at home to births in a hospital. The other was the introduction of baby formulas in the 1920s and 30s,” she says.

“By 1956, the rate of breastfeeding had dropped to 28 percent,” Lofton says. “It reached a low point of 24.7 percent in 1971.”

Some think even that figure is inflated, Lofton says. The figures were compiled by formula companies, and they counted women who breastfed just once a day while in the hospital.

In 1972, the number of breastfeeding women turned around and began to climb. “In 2002, in-hospital breastfeeding was 70.1 percent, at 6 months it was 33.2 percent and at 12 months, 19.7 percent,” Lofton says.

The La Leche League was helpful in stemming the tide of formula feeding because of its support for breastfeeding mothers. “The La Leche League book The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding had excellent information which today is still accepted by medical professionals,” Lofton says.

Unfortunately, in 1956, many medical professionals thought formula feeding was superior to breastfeeding.

“If you go back and look at the 50s, there were all kinds of technological and medical advances,” Lofton says.

“Americans had a love affair with technology. If it was made in a lab, it was always seen as better. Bottles were seen as superior to the breast.”

Sometimes, women were given incorrect information by their own doctors. “Women who wanted to breastfeed were sabotaged,” Lofton says. “Physicians weren’t trained in breastfeeding, they were trained in bottle feeding. When a mother called about a problem with breastfeeding, the answer was, ‘Just give a bottle.’”

The hospital experience alone was enough to set mothers off breastfeeding.

“They were in the hospital for five days,” Lofton says. “Babies were kept separate from the mother for the first 24 hours. A nurse would give the baby a bottle of water. Twenty-four hours is a long time to for for a mother and child. The baby was not being suckled when the baby intended to suckle. When the baby was finally brought in, the baby wasn’t hungry. The mother felt rejected, and the nurse took the baby away.”

The reason for these practices was to make the hospital nursery sanitary, not nurturing. “It wasn’t an advantage because it kept the baby away so long,” Lofton says. “By the time they got home, the mother would be very distressed. That would be the end of nursing.”

Even women who are told they can’t breastfeed often find that they can after attending La Leche meetings. The increase of breastfeeding was due to the back-to-nature movement.

“People criticized the hippies for the increase of drugs in society, but the back-to-nature movement was a positive thing,” Lofton says. “People wanted to go back to a more natural way of living. The natural childbirth movement also came out of the ‘60s.” Judy Naylor-Johnson is a leader of the La Leche League of Savannah. “The primary focus is to support breastfeeding through education, information and encouragement and to promote a better understanding of breastfeeding,” she says.

“La Leche's leaders are accredited and go through training,” Naylor-Johnson says. “One of the requirements to be a leader is that you must have breastfed a baby.”

It may seem strange that something so natural has been made so unnatural by our society.

“There’s a point in our culture where breastfeeding became a lost art,” Naylor-Johnson says. “Many women never knew a woman who breastfed a baby or had seen a baby being breastfed.”

The La Leche League did much to promote the return of breastfeeding. At meetings, informative programs are given and members can contribute their own experiences.

“Our meetings are very casual, very informal,” Naylor-Johnson says. “It’s basically a room of moms and babies and toddlers. It’s not a quiet place. It’s a very baby-friendly place. There are very few places in society where babies are welcome.”

Experiences with breastfeeding are varied. “It’s case by case, person by person,” Naylor-Johnson says.

Benefits include not only the emotional aspects, but physical ones. For example, a mother who is breastfeeding can gradually lose the weight she gained while pregnant.

Although dues are $36 a year to join La Leche League International, La Leche League of Savannah activities are always free. In addition to three active leaders, the league has a free breastfeeding hotline that is run by volunteers from their own homes, and a lending library of books.

It is most beneficial for expectant mothers to begin attending meetings before their baby is born, Naylor-Johnson says. “Although breastfeeding is a very natural thing to do, it doesn’t mean it always gets started without difficulty,” she says. “The more a woman knows, the better her experience will be.”

Every year in celebration of World Breastfeeding Week, members do fundraising and this year have launched a letter-writing campaign. All the money that is raised will be applied to fulfill the League’s mission of helping mothers to breastfeed. “If you donate, the funds will help on the local level, throughout the state of Georgia and on the international level,” Naylor-Johnson says.

“La Leche League is considered the world’s foremost authority on breastfeeding,” she says. “We have medical advisors on board to make sure we have the most accurate and safe information available.”

As a result of her experience at the mall, Stacie Acton joined La Leche League of Savannah. “I wanted to see if any one else had an experience like it,” she says. “I wish I had gone before I had my daughter.

“By the time I joined, I had already had some experiences under my belt, some quirky things that happen along the way when you are breastfeeding,” Acton says. “It’s such a positive experience to know you are not the only one who is trying to breastfeed.”

Whenever she encounters an expectant mother, Acton encourages her to breastfeed. “I would say that I give them my spiel,” she says. “I’m hopefully not offensive or too pushy, but I do encourage it.”

Acton never had any doubts about breastfeeding. “I knew it would be good for my baby and healthy for her,” she says. “My mom kind of instilled in us the value of breastfeeding.”

The emotional aspect of breastfeeding is powerful, Acton says. “It speeds up the bonding, especially for first-time mothers,” she says.

“It helped me emotionally the first few weeks,” Acton says. “It really helped my mood and it helped me relax.”

When Acton continued to breastfeed her daughter past the first year, some family members were surprised. “Some people in the family started wondering why I was continuing,” she says. “It wasn’t overt, but I felt it.”

Acton breastfed her daughter past age 2. Once her daughter turned 2, she went from feeding several times a day to just once.

“One night before bed, she just didn’t want to do it any more,” Acton says. “It was a surprise. I wasn’t ready for it.”

The only problems came when the baby was 8 months old and Acton had to be hospitalized for three to four days. “It caused me a great deal of anxiety because I thought I wouldn’t be able to nurse,” she says.

A lactation consultant helped Acton negotiate with the hospital to allow her husband to bring the baby in several times a day so she could be nursed. Acton was provided with a breast pump for those times the baby was not there.

Kim Morrill is the mother of a 7-year-old and a 9-month-old baby who is breastfeeding for a second time. “I don’t think it was a decision on my part,” she says. “My question is, ‘Why not breastfeed?’ That’s what we’re meant to do.”

Morrill has no doubt that breastfeeding has brought her closer to her babies. “When they cry, you’re so tuned in to them,” she says. “And you don’t have to carry all that junk around.”

Or sterilize bottles and nipples. Or buy cans of formula and drag them home.

“I have always breastfed in public,” Morrill says. “I have never had a negative reaction. I’ve had a lot of people say how great it is and to tell the baby, ‘Your mommy loves you.’”

Morrill joined La Leche League before the birth of her first child. “The things they said made so much sense to me,” she says.

The mothers share their own experiences and offer tips to new mothers at the meetings, Morrill says. One of the things they all have in common are babies who are rarely sick.

“My first son never got sick -- never, ever -- until he stopped breastfeeding,” Morrill says. “So far, my second son hasn’t been sick. It’s been ideal.”

Acton says her daughter had two colds, but that was all. “The only time we went to her pediatrician was for her well-baby visits,” she says. “There were no ear aches, which tend to plague children.”

Kate Maria has a 3-year-old and a 5-week-old baby. “I know this is the very best food for my baby,” she says.

“There are just so many reasons to breastfeed,” Maria says. “It brings you and your baby much closer. You are able to watch for cues when they’re hungry and my body in turn responds to those cues.”

Like Morrill and Acton, Maria feels her children are healthier because of the breastfeeding. “My daughter just had a few colds,” she says.

Maria has been around other mothers who fed their babies formula from a bottle and says their children had far more illnesses. Even after playing with other children who got sick, her daughter had fewer illnesses, she says.

La Leche encourages mothers to breastfeed as long as they and their children need and want. Maria weaned her daughter at 16 months.

“After she was a year old, I had some friends who kept asking, ‘When are you going to wean that baby?’ and I got some questioning looks,” she says. “But more and more research is showing the value of breastfeeding into the second year. My family was always supportive.”

Maria doesn’t think she would have nursed her daughter as long without the support of La Leche League. “Just having the common bond with other mothers is why I keep going (to La Leche meetings),” she says. “They’re always very supportive. I know they are not going to say to me, ‘When are you going to wean that baby?’ They’ll encourage me to stay on the path I want to proceed.”

Gretchen Iverson chose to breastfeed because she wanted her baby to have the best nutrition possible. Now, her baby is 20 months old and Iverson plans to let him choose the time for weaning.

“I had made the decision to give it at least two years,” Iverson says. “I had met women who decided to let their children decide when to wean and I wanted to do that, too.”

The baby has been sick just once with a stomach virus at 10 months. Recently, Iverson returned to work part-time and says it entirely possible to breastfeed and be a working mother.

So far, Iverson has never heard one critical remark, even when she breastfeeds in public. “I’m discreet, but it’s obvious I am nursing,” she says.

“Family can be your toughest critics,” Iverson says. “They always want to try to give you child-rearing advice.”

Breastfeeding even helps improve behavior, Iverson says. “I can’t imagine the Terrible Twos without it,” she says. “It quickly calms a tantrum.”

Iverson joined La Leche after moving to Savannah from Oregon. “It helped me to connect,” she says. “It’s great to get together with mothers who are raising their children in the same way.”

Some mothers enjoy La Leche so much, they continue to attend meetings long after their babies are weaned. Breastfeeding is a great way to start a child off in life and provides memories for the mother that will last a lifetime.

“It was a great experience,” says Stacie Acton. “It’s not just a gift to the baby, it’s a gift to yourself.”

World Breastfeeding Week is Aug. 1-7. To contact the local La Leche League, call 897-9261.