La Leche League New Zealand

1964 –

La Leche League New Zealand

1964 –

Theme: Health

This essay written by Anne Heritage was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993. It was updated by Anne Heritage in 2018.

1964 – 1993

La Leche League [1] was founded in the USA in 1956 by seven breastfeeding mothers, to provide information and support to other women who wished to breastfeed their babies and had no one to turn to for help and advice. At that time bottle-feeding was the norm in the USA and breastfeeding rates were extremely low there, as they were in New Zealand.

The organisation grew rapidly, and in the early 1960s an Auckland mother, Kathleen Peace, read an article about its work in Reader's Digest. As a result of her correspondence with Marian Tompson, one of the league's founders, a group of women met in Mount Albert, Auckland, in 1964. By the end of 1965 New Zealand had its first three accredited league Leaders: Lavinia (Vin) Healy, Dorothy Wilkinson and Shirley Walker. All LLL Leaders were mothers who had breastfed their own children; they were trained to facilitate group discussions on the art of breastfeeding, and to provide one-to-one help for mothers.

In 1967 USA-accredited Leader Yvonne Procuta formed an LLL group in Cambridge, and the following year groups began in Hamilton and Christchurch. By 1970 there were eight groups and by the end of 1971 there were nineteen. Growth was so rapid that New Zealand's hundredth Leader was accredited in 1973. In response to the need to support Leaders and groups, La Leche League New Zealand (LLLNZ) became a national organisation and Procuta was appointed as its co-ordinator with the assistance of two area co-ordinators.

By 1977, LLLNZ had expanded to five administrative areas, and from 1982 a sixth area covered a small presence in Australia and the Pacific Islands. In addition to group work, Leaders ran national conferences and area workshops for parents, health professionals and fellow Leaders. In conjunction with La Leche League International, LLNZ established local departments to train Leaders, to enable them to keep up-to-date with breastfeeding information, and to liaise with health professionals. In 1974 Dr Ruth Schell, a GP and league Leader, was appointed LLLNZ's first Medical Associate; her position eventually expanded into what became the Board of Consultants, made up of health professionals and scientists who supported and assisted the league's work. [2] Incorporated in 1981, LLLNZ became an autonomous affiliate of the international organisation in 1988 under its first director, Alison Craig.

Importing the league's manual, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, led to setting up a national office (first in Christchurch, later in the Wellington area) which could distribute league publications and other books about breastfeeding and parenting. In 1970 LLLNZ produced its first publication for members, Aroha, as a local insert to the international journal, La Leche League News. In 1985 LLL News was renamed New Beginnings. By 1993 it continued to include Aroha, and went to members six times a year. LLLNZ's first journal for Leaders, Leaderette, appeared in 1971; in 1989 this was expanded and became Mosaic.

By 1991 LLLNZ had 377 accredited Leaders, 359 of whom were working in New Zealand—the highest per capita ratio among the 48 countries where La Leche League was represented. Any woman, member or not, could ring her local Leader for information or support and attend league meetings, usually held in a member's home or local community centre. Each year, thousands of mothers were helped to breastfeed. Funding came largely from members' subscriptions and donations; membership included many women who were no longer breastfeeding, but who remained active because the league provided support for their beliefs about parenting.

In the early 1990s members and Leaders continued to come predominantly from middle class Pākehā backgrounds, but a community outreach programme offered breastfeeding information via peer counselling to Māori and Pasifika women, and to mothers with special needs such as teenagers and women with disabilities. This programme was still in its infancy in 1993.

La Leche League International became recognised as a world-leading authority on breastfeeding, and was involved in many of the 1970s and 1980s international developments assisting its promotion. When New Zealand signed the World Health Organisation's International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes in 1981, an LLLNZ representative, Sue Neal, was appointed to the local monitoring committee. In 1993 the challenge for the future, involving both national and global initiatives, was to ensure that all women who wished to breastfeed their babies were able to do so. However, the central focus remained, as it had been for the founders, mother-to-mother personal support in the essential task of nurturing babies.

Anne Heritage

1994 – 2018

In common with many other voluntary organisations, the closing years of the 20th century saw a decline in the number of La Leche League volunteers. Nevertheless, support for breastfeeding mothers continued at local level, as did workshops, conferences and publications, while LLLNZ maintained its presence on the national stage.

Reviews of the WHO International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes, in which LLLNZ lobbied for full implementation, were unproductive. In 2018 the Code remained voluntary and self-regulatory for the baby milk industry. The launch of World Breastfeeding Week by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action in 1992 was more successful. LLLNZ cooperated with other New Zealand organisations to mark the Week with local activities, including, since 2005, ‘The Big Latch-On’.

La Leche League leader with mother and child

A La Leche League leader working with a mother and child, 2010s, La Leche League

In 1991 WHO/UNICEF had set up the world-wide Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) to improve breastfeeding rates in maternity services. BFHI was based on ‘Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding’; of particular significance to La Leche League was the Tenth Step – to foster the establishment of breastfeeding support groups. When in 1999 New Zealand funding for the Initiative was approved by the Ministry of Health, LLLNZ provided one of two consumer representatives on a committee to administer BFHI and the subsequent Baby Friendly Community Initiative [3].

A community outreach programme, long desired by the league, was finally launched in New Zealand in 2006 – the LLLNZ Peer Counsellor Programme. Based on established programmes in the United States and United Kingdom, and adapted for Aotearoa New Zealand, it provided a ‘train the trainers’ approach to breastfeeding support for communities which tended not to access LLL services directly.

Within La Leche League, changes were underway from the late 1990s onwards. In 1999 the organisation’s first government funding was provided to assist with the cost of running a national office.  Societal changes in the nature of volunteering led to a decline in the number of Leaders and local groups (128 and 37 respectively in 2017-18) and it became particularly difficult to fill national administrative positions.

Memberships fell too, though this did not reflect the number of women contacting La Leche League for breastfeeding information and support (17,388 contacts in 2017-18). From 1997, when LLLNZ launched a page on La Leche League International’s website, increasing numbers of enquiries came through the internet. By 2005 LLLNZ had its own website and, from 2009, a presence on social media. By 2018 traditional face-to-face group discussions were supplemented by monthly online meetings held via Facebook, and both LLLNZ and local groups had Facebook pages. LLL Leaders could still be contacted by telephone, but breastfeeding help was also available by email, text and messaging.

Although it had come a long way from the early years of La Leche League in Aotearoa New Zealand, the organisation’s essential focus remained on the age-old tradition of mothers helping mothers to breastfeed their babies.

Anne Heritage [4]

Notes

[1] 'La Leche', pronounced 'la lay-chay', is Spanish for 'the milk'.

[2] This committee was later disbanded; as of 1992, proposals were being considered for the development of an alternative mechanism. In the interim, the Department of Health was responsible for monitoring to guard against contraventions of the International Code.

[3] Originally formed as the New Zealand Breastfeeding Authority, the committee became the board of the New Zealand Breastfeeding Alliance (NZBA), a coalition of 30 organisations with the strapline ‘Baby Friendly Aotearoa New Zealand’.

[4] LLLNZ Director 1994-1999.

Unpublished sources

La Leche League New Zealand records, 1964-1992, LLLNZ National Office,Wellington

Wood, Laraine, 'Brief History of La Leche League in New Zealand', ms., 1991 [location unknown in 2018]

Published sources

La Leche League International, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, LLLI,Illinois, 1991

Shaw, Louise, Latching On: 50 Years of Breastfeeding Support, La Leche League in New Zealand 1964-2014, LLLNZ, Porirua, 2014

Website

https://lalecheleague.org.nz

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