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Effective and Empowering Counseling Tips for Leaders

Sue Iwinski
Prospect CT USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 38 No. 3, June-July 2002 p. 64.

As new Leaders, it can be a daunting task trying to remember all we have learned during our application. We are not expected to memorize the answers to a myriad of breastfeeding questions, but the way we handle counseling situations is not something we can quickly look up in a book. We eagerly soak up helpful tips from experienced Leaders and through LLL publications, presentations, and Conferences so we can become more effective helpers. Each phone call and meeting exchange becomes a learning experience as we assimilate the counseling tips that we have heard or read.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have useful information all in one place, easy to keep with our Leader’s Log? The list that follows contains some of the counseling tips that can help to ensure we are effective and empowering helpers in our Leader role.

1. Avoid interrupting and let the mother tell her story. Be sure to always take written notes.

2. Use active listening techniques of summarizing and reflecting back what you heard the mother say.

3. Validate her spoken and/or unspoken feelings.

4. Answer her direct questions first. You may need to clarify what she’s said or request more details in order to give an appropriate response.

5. Use open-ended questions that don’t elicit a yes or no response whenever possible.

6. Avoid implying there is one right or one best way to handle a situation. Whenever possible give alternatives instead of one answer. "Some mothers find that _________ works for them, while others prefer to__________. It depends on each mother’s unique situation."

7. Even if you don’t agree with a mother’s specific choices, you can usually find a positive reason to empathize with and validate the reasons for her choice. Communicating this empathy verbally helps build respect and rapport.

8. Leaders are not responsible for a mother’s situation or choices. Leaders are resources, not rescuers. This enables us to be more effective and empowering helpers and helps us to avoid personal burnout.

9. Empower the mother by giving factual information, quoting from LLLI resources (or others when appropriate). Show respect by trusting the mother to make the decisions right for her situation and her family.

10. It is not appropriate to relate personal experiences that take the focus off the mother and imply your choices were the correct or expert ones.

11. When overwhelmed with a complicated call, listen, take notes, use empathy and clarify what you’ve heard. You may tell the mother you need to check your resources (or consult a co-Leader or Professional Liaison Leader) so you can better help her and would like to call her back.

12. When you receive a call or a message and don’t have the time to effectively help a mother, call another Leader and ask her to call the mother.

13. Don’t drop the ball. If the usual suggestions are not helping to resolve her problem, or if baby or mother have health or medical issues, encourage her to consult her or her baby’s health care provider (pediatrician, ob/gyn, IBCLC, family practice physician, psychologist/counselor, herbalist). Get input from a co-Leader and/or Professional Liaison Leader if you’re unsure. Referral is not failure, but part of effective helping.

14. When your suggestions differ from the mother’s health care provider, "Some doctors do take that approach. However, LLL resources support __________. On page__ of______ it states...." (Quote directly from the reference.) Unfortunately, many health care providers receive little or no mandatory training in the physiology of lactation and the science of breastfeeding management. As a result, their knowledge and support of breastfeeding varies.

15. Praise the mother for the positive things she’s doing/has done, including seeking out help and information amidst a difficult situation.

16. Show the mother how she is (or will soon become) the expert on her baby.

17. Encourage her to trust and listen to her instincts and intuition. Mothers have done this throughout human history.

18. Confirm that the ideas you’ve discussed are practical and doable for the mother. She can’t follow through with an impossible plan.

19. Reflect the responsibility back to the mother: "What could you do to modify these suggestions so they work for you and your baby?" "What do you think might be happening?" "What do you want to do?" "What are your goals?"

20. Acknowledge the time, effort, and energy the ideas will take, but encourage her sense of purpose by affirming the value of her goals (for example, the health benefits of breastfeeding).

21. Don’t forget her need for support/help in accomplishing her goals. Brainstorm ways she can get help for housework, errands, meal preparation, and sibling care if her situation requires time and attention. What compromises can she make or can be made in her plan of action?

22. Do not judge the mother or imply the mother is to blame for past or current choices; a negative impression of LLL might discourage her from utilizing LLL.

23. If you or the mother become confused, if her situation is complicated, or if her statements are contradictory, be sure you summarize and repeat what the mother has stated back to her. Ask her how she would like to see the situation resolved. Ask also how she feels you can best help her, and help her identify her primary concerns.

24. Keep in mind that you may not have all of the facts pertaining to the mother’s situation.

25. Remember the big picture. The reason we help mothers who want to breastfeed is because it helps them to have a healthy, happy relationship with their baby. "Breastfeeding is not a guarantee of good mothering, and formula feeding does not rule it out." ( The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, p. 15)

These are some techniques that are part of our helping repertoire. They enable us to fulfill our goal of mother-to-mother support in an accepting and empowering way. I hope that both new and more seasoned Leaders find this list useful in the vital role we play when helping mothers to breastfeed their babies.

Sue Iwinski considers herself blessed to be the mother of Justin (14) and Julie Ann (9). She continues to learn about and practice empowering and effective Leading skills from her sister Leaders and the mothers and babies she has the pleasure of counseling, both as a La Leche League Leader in Prospect, Connecticut, USA and as an IBCLC employed in a breastfeeding medicine practice. Sue writes, "Although I wrote these tips without the direct use of references, I’ve gathered them from over seven years of LLL leading, reading, listening, and information from numerous LLL resources. "Send ideas and articles for "Keeping Up-to-Date" to Contributing Editor Norma Ritter, 58 Antler Road, Big Flats, NY 14814 USA or norma at stny.rr.com (email).

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