A few days after she brought her newborn home from the hospital, Courtney Clark fell into a state of panic. Her son, Ezekiel, refused to eat. Six hours after his last feeding, he still wouldn’t latch to nurse despite Clark’s continued efforts. She considered taking him to the emergency room. A friend also recommended feeding the baby some formula. “I was really worried,” said Clark. “I thought I was starving my baby to death.”
Although it was late in the evening, the Spokane mother decided to call the phone number she found in a breastfeeding pamphlet from the hospital. She found herself talking to another mother and a local leader of La Leche League, an international nonprofit dedicated to supporting all mothers who want to breastfeed their babies.
“It was such a lifesaver,” said Clark, recalling how the La Leche League leader listened intently to her problem, offered support and then called again the following day to make sure the baby was getting enough nourishment.
Clark ended up following the leader’s advice on the phone – she hand-expressed her breast milk and fed it to Ezekiel with a teaspoon. A few hours later, he was able to latch and eat again. After about a week, she attended her first La Leche League meeting and met other mothers who shared their experiences.
“I was determined to breastfeed because it’s healthy for my baby,” said Clark, who’s 22. “But before La Leche League, I felt bad – I thought it was my fault that I was having problems breastfeeding. It was helpful to know that I wasn’t the only one who was having issues.”
Since it was founded more than 50 years ago by seven mothers in Illinois, La Leche League International has provided support to millions of families throughout the country and in 65 countries.
In Spokane, La Leche League continues to thrive thanks to the efforts of area mothers dedicated to helping other moms. About a dozen women volunteer their time to facilitate monthly meetings in Liberty Lake, north Spokane and on the South Hill; respond to the hotline and take phone calls from mothers who need immediate assistance; and maintain a library that includes books, magazines and other materials for families.
On Saturday, members of the Spokane chapter of La Leche League International will be at Riverfront Park for Kids Day. They’ll pass out information about the health benefits of breastfeeding as well as provide a comfortable area for mothers to nurse their babies and toddlers. To raise money for the nonprofit, members also will sell children’s capes that say: “Moms Make Milk. What a Super Power!” The local La Leche League’s efforts are also in conjunction with the celebration of World Breastfeeding Week, which is observed in more than 120 countries.
Every month, La Leche League leaders in Spokane receive phone calls and e-mails from moms with an array of questions about breastfeeding: How can I tell if my baby is getting enough to eat? What foods should I avoid eating while breastfeeding? What can I do to boost my milk supply?
“Sometimes, moms just need reassurance that things are going well,” said Alicia Ries, a mother of two little girls and a member of La Leche League. “My goal as a leader is to provide mother-to-mother support so that women can make the best parenting decisions for their family.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for approximately the first six months of an infant’s life, according to the organization’s 2005 revised policy statement on “Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk.” The AAP – which is made up of about 60,000 primary care pediatricians and other specialists dedicated to the health, safety and well-being of children – also suggests breastfeeding support for the first year and beyond “as long as mutually desired by mother and child.” Breastfeeding also has become a national health goal for the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Local health officials tout the multiple benefits of breastfeeding through a new Spokane Regional Health District program for expectant and new moms. The program offers counseling and help to new and expectant moms who will be participating in the Women, Infants and Children. Breastmilk is better for babies and it saves time and money.
The cost savings of breastfeeding can be important in counties like Spokane, where 56 percent of babies are born into families poor enough to qualify for WIC assistance. In real numbers, 11,000 moms and children used WIC assistance for food and services every month in 2007.
Studies, including one published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed breastfed children achieve higher IQ scores. They assign the results to the special fatty acids found only in breastmilk.
Although 41.5 percent of mothers were still breastfeeding their babies at six months of age in 2004, only 11.3 were exclusively breastfeeding and not supplementing with infant formula, according to the CDC’s latest Breastfeeding Report Card.
Idaho and Washington both fared well. According to the Breastfeeding Report Card, nearly half of the babies in Idaho were still receiving breast milk at 6 months with 10 percent getting nourishment exclusively from their mother’s milk in 2004. In Washington, the figures were even higher – 56 percent of the infants were still breastfed at six months and 22.5 percent received breast milk exclusively.
In its 2005 revised policy statement, the AAP noted that some studies show breastfeeding can decrease the incidence or severity of conditions such as diarrhea and ear infections in babies. It also may offer protection against sudden infant death syndrome, diabetes, obesity and asthma.
A longtime breastfeeding advocate, the AAP also pointed to research that indicates how breastfeeding can reduce a mother’s risk of ovarian and breast cancer and other conditions. “Increased breastfeeding also has the potential for decreasing annual health costs in the U.S. by $3.6 billion and decreasing parental employee absenteeism, the environmental burden for disposal of formula cans and bottles, and energy demands for production and transport of formula,” according to the AAP.
In addition, breastfeeding helps mothers bond with their babies while producing stress-reducing hormones for the mom, according to La Leche League members. It’s also convenient, said Clark, since families don’t need to haul bottles of formula around.
As an organization, La Leche League wants to complement the work of physicians, health care representatives, and others in the medical field, said Ries. That’s why members of the local chapter also attend meetings of the Spokane County Breastfeeding Coalition, which brings together lactation consultants and others who want to promote breastfeeding in the region.
Members of La Leche League work hard to not be judgmental, Ries stressed. Breastfeeding isn’t always easy, she acknowledged, and some women discover that they’re not able to do so despite their best efforts. And while some moms have had to supplement with formula, it’s still encouraging for La Leche League members to know that these women want to continue breastfeeding and make it a priority for their child.
“Breastfeeding is the gold-standard for infant feeding, even the formula companies admit that,” said Ries. “It is the best for babies. It is so positive for our children, our families, our communities and also for our health-care system.”