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Conscious Empowered Birth
book review

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche League International
Review written by Cristin Tighe

The book The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding is quite comprehensive, and a good book to buy if you want just one that will cover most topics related to breastfeeding. It also covers many other relevant topics, like the role of fathering and handling going back to work.  Its well-organized sections, usually make it easy to find the information needed. Also, the writing style is personal and, at times, friendly, and the many quotes and stories from parents interspersed through the book, add a level of “experience” to the advice given, that is useful, and can help each person sort out personally what will be best. 

The book seems to present an extreme view, albeit one that is quite significant, as in many places, the value and ease of breastfeeding is not recognized or cultivated so much.  From the start, this view is clear: “In a world too often dominated by materialism and greed, every act of the natural power of breastfeeding reminds us that there is another way, the natural way, the breastfeeding way.” (p. xi)  The authors also are advocating strongly for natural birth (see Chapter 2) and that La Leche League is the best support network (see Chapter 3).  Choosing the type of birth is a significant choice, and each woman’s choices should be honored to birth where and how the feel safest, so those not opting for 100% breastfeeding, a totally natural birth, and/or attachment-type parenting may feel upset or judged reading some of the book.  Also, La Leche League does seems to be a fabulous network, and quite widely spread, but the quality and value of local support you get depends on the people leading the group near you and can vary (my personal experience was that the leaders of the group where I lived were not so knowledgeable or helpful, but more judgmental).

The strengths and weaknesses of the book seem clear.  It seems the book was written by a few people, and each section or topic can be quite detailed, which might be nice if you really want to think about one thing, but can be frustrating when you want more of a summary of the La Leche League view.  For example, “Weaning Gradually with Love” (chapter 14) is 22-page long, quite deductive in its writing and not very clear if you want an answer about when to wean.  I think it may be more useful for a tired mom, with a new baby, to have a summary page at the start of a chapter like this, or a clear statement at the beginning, saying something like - There is no one right answer as to when you should wean you baby, it is a choice the two of you and your family make together, based on personal and varied circumstances.  Here is what to expect and how to best try to wean at three months, six months, one year, two years, etc.  The drawn out, conversational style, that tends to slowly wind you through all the varied detailed things to ponder around a topic can be good or bad.

Very useful are the chapter on latching on and positioning (chapter 4), and also the extra section on “Marmet Technique of Manual Expression” (p. 425-428) is very useful.  These two sections have detailed descriptions, as well as some photographs and drawings, which help clarify exactly what to do.  These graphics are very useful and it is too bad the book does not have more of these or summary pages.  There are other parts of the book, where more detailed photographs or drawings could help a lot… for example, if a woman thought she had cracked nipples.  If she pulled this book out for advice, there is very little written on the topic (it is not listed in the table of contents or the index in the back), and there is not a drawing or photo to assure her what is going on, so she is empowered about how to handle it.

Overall with La Leche League, “Breast is best” is the slogan used over and over, and why that may be true is well-described.  The many positives of breastfeeding are laid out clearly: “superior nutrition,” “uterus getting back in shape,” “love,” “normal weight gain,” “safeguard… against… allergies,” “readies body for other foods,” “enables mother to lose weight,” “saving of time, effort and money,” (p. 6-7) as well as bonding with the baby and easing the challenges of mothering (p. 13).   The book also shares relevant history and expert views on the value of breastfeeding (p. 9-11). The challenge with this book though, is that its leaning to the extreme may isolate some parents, who for whatever reasons do not only breastfeed.

La Leche League is an amazing non-profit organization, with a long history, presence in many countries in the world and credibility (for example, they have consultative status to UNICEF).  On the other hand, it is important to realize that this organization was created by a group of American women, strongly catholic, in 1956… a time also when breastfeeding was at an all time low in the U.S.  This does not undermine their credibility in anyway, because as a U.S. nonprofit the have a Board of Advisors who assure their work is timely and useful, but it is important to understand the history, perspective and values of an organization, when hearing their advice.  This was interesting for me to read (from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Leche_League):

The Weston A. Price Foundation has criticized "The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding", published by LLL, as providing nutritional advice that may undermine some of the benefits of breastfeeding.  The book has also been reviewed as easy to read, comprehensive and reliable, though unapologetically pro-breastfeeding…   One study of LLL's philosophies and practices suggested a series of paradoxes: while promoting a sense of maternal competence, resistance to authority and the reclaimation of their bodies, LLL also promotes a conception of what it is to be a "good mother" that is biologically deterministic and socially prescribed.”

This book, overall is very useful, and the value of breastfeeding and advice on how to assure success significant and valuable.  At the same time, understanding the history of La Leche League, and the limitations of a book written in this style, may give women some freedom around taking the sometimes subtle suggestions and not so subtle advice so seriously.  Anyone with breastfeeding challenges (or postpartum blues or depression) should not feel isolated or that they did not do it right, if they did not breastfeed 100% of the time. On the other hand, many women give up easily, misunderstanding supply/demand and that they “do not make enough milk” which is a shame! I think the “unapologetically pro-breastfeeding stance” here was historical invaluable, useful and needed, but also maybe extreme as women manage life in the modern world with a baby. It would be nice to see a comprehensive, upbeat, positive and empowering book, with a sense of humor, that really allows women to feel divine as breastfeeding moms, connected to their little ones, and happy to know we are all imperfectly perfect and our babies will be fine, even if the don’t get only the best (the breast) from the first minute through years.


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