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Take What Seems Right for You and Leave the Rest: The Leader's Perspective on Extended and Long-Term Nursing at Series Meetings

Janell Robisch
Luray VA USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 43 No. 2, April-May-June 2007, p.32

According to La Leche League philosophy, "Ideally the breastfeeding relationship will continue until the baby outgrows the need." Using this as a guideline, many Leaders nurse their children into toddlerhood and beyond; however, Leaders are also cautioned to "talk about your own experience sparingly to avoid inadvertently setting yourself up as an example others believe they are expected to imitate" (LEADER'S HANDBOOK, p. 47). So, what do you do when your toddler or older nursling asks to nurse at a Series Meeting, or when the topic of extended nursing comes up in the course of meeting discussion?

It can be awkward to nurse a toddler or older child at Series Meetings where women pregnant with their first babies or mothers with newborns are present. Leaders may fear that the sight of a child who can walk and talk nursing at his mother's breast may turn off those who have just begun the breastfeeding journey, or who may be experiencing difficulties in getting breastfeeding started. At the same time, in the Series Meeting setting, Leaders try to set a good example of meeting their own children's needs as they happen.

Through a series of five questions, I asked Leaders to address this apparent conflict. Some felt there was no conflict at all, whereas others were torn, either by their own internal debates on the subject or by interactions with attending mothers or co-Leaders. Some Leaders choose to avoid nursing a toddler or older child altogether by not bringing them to meetings, although nursing is often also tied to children's boredom and restlessness at meetings. Many Leaders find it distracting to meet an older toddler or child's need for attention or nursing while leading a Series Meeting, and so choose to leave their children with their father or a trusted caregiver. As Karine Bordua (Yukon Victoria Central Group, BC, Canada) says:

I stopped bringing him when he turned three. He is a very active child who demands a lot of my attention, which is, in many ways, normal for this age group. I am a lone Leader, so moderating the meeting and keeping track of him was just too much, and every time, I would leave exhausted and frustrated.

Other Leaders choose either to talk to their children before meetings, explaining that they may have to wait to nurse until the meeting is over, or to provide gentle distraction when a child asks to nurse. Justine Whitehead (Whittier, CA, USA) started distracting her son after he was about two-and-a-half years old. "He sometimes does get to nurse at meetings, but I have tried very hard to explain to him that when moms first have babies, nursing might be hard." Justine also explains that new mothers may be confused. "I tell him that it helps for these mothers to see other little babies having 'milkie.'"

Gentle distraction and choosing to leave children at home are both valid options and decisions that are made thoughtfully depending on the Leader's beliefs, comfort level, and her child's ability to be separated from her or to delay nursing for a short time. On the other hand, some Leaders feel strongly that nursing their children at meetings is one of the best examples they can provide to other mothers of meeting their child's needs. Bobbie North (Lancaster East, PA, USA) notes:

At the beginning of our meetings, we always tell mothers that "the most important voice that [you] will hear tonight is that of [your] child; please feel free to get up and move about or do what you need to do in order to meet the needs of your child." It seems illogical to me that, as a representative of LLL, I should do just the opposite.

Aleksandra Mihajlovic (Bloor West Village, Toronto, ON, Canada) also points out:

Since there are so few women nursing into toddlerhood, where else will a new mother be able to experience and see firsthand nursing toddlers? If nursing toddlers is something to be hidden and obscured, and only to be encountered in books, how else are we expecting to change the perception of society about toddler nursing?

Many Leaders point out that seeing another Leader nursing a toddler or older child was their first exposure to extended nursing. While they may have been shocked or surprised at the time, the experience also opened them to the possibility of nursing their own child past infancy. Unfortunately, not all Leaders feel that they have been given much choice. One Leader, who wished to remain anonymous, said:

I was told by my co-Leaders that how long I nursed my child was nobody else's business and that I should not tell anyone how long I nursed. I feel uncomfortable and negative that I was told not to nurse my toddler at meetings, and I still have unresolved feelings.

Nowhere in the LEADER'S HANDBOOK does it say that you should not nurse your toddler at meetings. In fact, it discusses this very issue on page 49 of the 2003 English edition. As we do with mothers in helping situations, we should encourage our co-Leaders to do what feels right for them and their families instead of pressing our own ideas and decisions on them.

When you or another mother is nursing a toddler or older child and you notice a strong reaction from a mother, talking about the situation can bring it out into the open and help meeting attendees come to terms with what they are seeing. Amy Weetman (LLL of Rochester North, NY, USA) says:

I usually say something about how big an older nursling looks, but when I look down, I still see my little baby. Sometimes, I mention that most mothers don't decide at birth to nurse for years and years. If a mother does end up nursing an older child, it just happens, one day at a time.

Also, it can be helpful to point out that nursing a toddler or older child is very different from nursing a newborn and meets a different set of needs. A light approach can also work. LLL co-Founder Edwina Froehlich says:

If I happened to be sitting next to a mother whose eyes bulged as she watched my toddler nurse, I would cheerfully remark that her baby probably may not nurse as long as mine and she shouldn't worry." (LEADER'S HANDBOOK, p. 49)

"Take what seems right for you and leave the rest." In the end, this old adage with which we are all familiar seems to work best. It can apply both to mothers who attend LLL Series Meetings and to Leaders. It is up to a Leader to decide whether to nurse her toddler or older child at meetings, when to do so, and how to balance responsibilities between mothering and LLL leadership.

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