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Helping Relatives Breastfeed

Bonnie Tilson
Pennsylvania USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 25 No. 4, July-August 1989, pp. 51-52

When a Leader helps a mother, she acts as a sounding board: listening, asking questions, helping a mother clarify her feelings, and offering information, suggestions, and options from which the mother can choose. With time and practice most Leaders find this low-key, supportive role comes easily to them. However, when the mother asking for help is the Leader's relative, the dynamics of the helping situation may be different. The Leader and the mother may have a long history together, which can be difficult to separate from the helping situation. And the baby involved is part of the Leader's own family, giving the Leader a personal stake in wanting to make sure the baby gets the best by breastfeeding.

How do Leaders cope with helping relatives breastfeed? How do they manage to provide objective information in what may be an emotionally charged situation? Leaders who have helped relatives breastfeed consider it to be one of the most challenging of all LLL helping situations. But, despite the potential heartaches, for many it is also a joyous experience.

The difficulties are obvious. When relatives seek help, Leaders desperately want to make the experience perfect for both mother and baby. They have an emotional commitment to their relatives that transcends all other helping situations.

But Leaders whose relatives are pregnant need to avoid their first inclination: to step in, invited or uninvited, and share all the information they have learned as LLL Leaders. Leaders would benefit from stepping back and reflecting on their role as Leaders, on what is unique to this helping situation, and on what other Leaders have learned from helping their relatives breastfeed.

The Leader’s Role

When a Leader first finds out her relative is pregnant she might remind herself that her role as an LLL Leader is to provide women with information and support so that they can make informed decisions as to whether or not to breastfeed and how to do it. Leaders helping relatives breastfeed sometimes lose sight of this role. Wanting a niece, nephew, or cousin to have the benefits and joys of breastfeeding becomes paramount and may cloud the Leader's view of how she should be helping.

When discussing with a relative whether or not she plans to breastfeed, consider carefully the circumstances and the mother's feelings before offering any information. Most importantly, listen to what is being asked. Is the relative truly asking for breastfeeding information or is she just trying to be polite? Could she be afraid to tell such an avid breastfeeding mother that a member of her own family may not be planning to breastfeed?

Nancy Mohrbacher, from Illinois, recalls helping a sister-in-law breastfeed. "I was disappointed when, after reading the books I had given her-- THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING and Breast is Best--she decided not to nurse her baby. But another Leader helped me put it into perspective when she said, 'You gave her the information and she made an informed choice.' This helped me accept the situation."

The relative with no interest at all in breastfeeding certainly tests a Leader's helping skills. It may be hard for a Leader to be silent when a baby in her family is not breastfed. Nancy goes on to say, "My experiences in helping relatives breastfeed have re-emphasized to me the importance of the Leader's role as a support person. We are not there to tell mothers what to do or how to do it. Each mother needs to decide for herself if she wants to breastfeed and how she wants to mother her own baby. And that's the way it should be. While it may be tempting, especially with those in our family, to try to take control by telling our relatives what they should do, our primary job is to support the mother in following her own instincts. This increases a mother's self-confidence and brings mother and baby closer and more in tune with each other, thereby laying the foundation for a strong mother-child relationship."

What Is Unique

When Leaders help a sister, sister-in-law, cousin, or other relative breastfeed, they are often helping someone they have known for a long time. The history of their relationship cannot be separated from the helping situation. There is an advantage to this: The Leader often knows exactly what information to offer to best help her relative. However, Leaders who are not careful can let their history get in the way of their ability to help their relative breastfeed.

Leaders respond almost automatically to telephone requests for help by using their communication skills. They are attentive and listen carefully to what the mother is saying. They clarify the problem, ask questions to encourage the mother to talk, summarize issues when necessary, and offer support and information appropriate to the particular situation.

Although this is exactly how Leaders want to respond to a relative, other things they know about the person can influence their response. "If a relative has a negative image of LLL, we feel that we are included in that negative image, by virtue of our association with LLL," explains Cheryl Hutchinson, from New Jersey. In such situations, yielding to the temptation to soft-pedal the League, or to devote energy to defending LLL, can affect a Leader's ability to share the breastfeeding information.

Ruth Breithaupt, from Ontario, recalls helping one of her relatives. She could never forget her family's outspoken disapproval of LLL. "I got caught up in the idea that if I could get my relative to nurse successfully, I would save the day in the name of LLL, and finally be given some respect for what I know, and perhaps even be raised a few notches in the family totem pole."

Indeed, some Leaders have delighted in playing a role in the evolution of a relative's parenting style. Brenda Harrison, from Ontario, had been criticized for her breastfeeding ways by her husband's cousin. But when the cousin's wife had a premature baby, Brenda helped her breastfeed.

Many Leaders who have been asked to help family members breastfeed say they have felt personally responsible for their relatives' breastfeeding successes and failures. They became so emotionally involved with their relatives that it was very difficult to let go of the situation and let their relatives make their own decisions.

"I wanted so much for my sister to have what I had, but she had to want it," Cathy McKay from Nevada says, describing her efforts to help her sister breastfeed her premature daughter. "I wanted her to have the same determination that I had, but she didn't. I feel that she did what she needed and wanted to do, and I have to accept that it was right for her. I know she loves her daughter as much as I love mine."

In addition, when breastfeeding does not work for their relatives, Leaders are continually reminded of this fact. A case in point: When Ronna Bertman, from Oklahoma, tried to help her younger sister breastfeed, she was crushed by what she saw as her own failure. "Every day I have to remind myself that this is her baby and she made her choices. But I can't help but grieve for what they are both missing."

Leaders also find that working with relatives offers a unique opportunity to provide encouragement by example. Leaders' relatives see them care for their babies and children at family gatherings, at home, and in public places--situations that often require the utmost patience and skillful parenting.

Janet Zablocki, from Ontario, and Deborah Garro, from New Jersey, both had the satisfaction of helping sisters-in-law breastfeed by being role models. " My sister-in-law said that the example I gave her was the best encouragement she could have," explains Deborah. "We're both still nursing our little people, who are two and two-and-a-half years old."

What Leaders Learned

The overwhelming consensus from Leaders is that the best way to help a relative breastfeed is to first give meeting information and THE WOMANLY ART OF BREASTFEEDING, then keep quiet unless and until the relative asks for help. Brenda Harrison is one Leader who has learned that helping relatives breastfeed is a delicate situation that merits a delicate approach. "I no longer offer information unless they really want it," she says. "I am no longer overzealous. I gently offer bits of information and do not push it."

A frequently quoted LLL motto is "family first." When helping relatives breastfeed, Leaders should keep this motto in mind--with a somewhat interesting twist. That is, a Leader's relationship with family members is more important than whether relatives breastfeed their babies. As Cheryl Hutchinson notes, "Cherish your relationship. It will last, for good or bad, much longer than the breastfeeding does."

In addition, Leaders caution that sometimes they are more critical of family members than they are of strangers. It is important for Leaders to remind themselves to offer family members the same respect they offer all women, answering each and every question without judging them and without presupposing that relatives will breastfeed. Simply because a Leader is a role model and because their relatives are well aware of LLL does not mean that relatives will want to breastfeed, or that they will recognize when problems arise.

Marlene Cullen, from California, learned something from her experience helping her younger sister breastfeed that she applies to all mothers. "I've learned to be cautious in helping mothers--to really listen to what they are and are not saying. Do they really want to breastfeed? Or are they asking permission not to breastfeed? Either way they can be fine mothers."

Similarly, Barbara Kana, from Arkansas, also found that "acceptance became a challenge when a sister I love and care so much about chose not to persevere (with breastfeeding)." Ironically, Barbara's older sister had been the one who led her to LLL by helping Barbara breastfeed her second baby.

While Leaders do not have to pretend to agree with relatives who breastfeed in a different way--or who end up not breastfeeding at all-it is important to recognize and praise the efforts their relatives make. The more positive strokes a Leader gives, the more likely her relative is to ask for help when other problems occur. Leaders can even look beyond breastfeeding and find other parenting issues to praise. "Praise relatives whenever possible, for their efforts, for their persistence, and for their mothering," says Cheryl Hutchinson.

Although helping relatives breastfeed can be a real challenge, it can also bring Leaders closer to relatives and provide valuable lessons about how to help all mothers breastfeed. And, as with all LLL helping situations, when we share breastfeeding information and support with a relative, we extend the circle of love to all those who come into contact with the mother we help.

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