In 1956 seven women organized the La Leche League to defend the traditional practices of breast-feeding and natural childbirth. From its beginnings as a small discussion group in the Chicago suburb of Franklin Park, Illinois, the League grew rapidly and by 1981 sponsored 4,000 support groups, a monthly newsletter, and a telephone hotline. The group promoted its ideology through the sales of millions of books, leaflets, and the best-selling Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, first published in 1958.
League founders were white, middle-class, Catholic women who believed that babies and small children required the continuous presence of their mothers. The League ideology of "good mothering through breastfeeding" was intended to encourage an intensive, maternal-centered family practice. This ideology competed with two social developments during the twentieth century that profoundly transformed family life–the medicalization of childbirth and early child development, and the rising number of working mothers.
Since the start of the twentieth century infant feeding had become increasingly subject to scientific scrutiny. By the 1890s food manufacturers had developed complex formulas to substitute for mother's milk, and by the 1920s commercially canned baby food had been adopted by American consumers as well. Physicians and scientists popularized the use of these infant foods through advice books and magazines designed to promote elaborate methods of INFANT FEEDING, where babies would be weighed before and after formula feeding, which was to take place on rigid schedules. If breastfed, they were to be weaned to formula by three to seven months of age. By the 1950s, at the time of the League's founding, breast-feeding rates in the United States had fallen from a nearly universal practice at the beginning of the century to about 20 percent.
Childbirth, too, became increasingly the province of medicine, as more mothers turned to hospital rather than home birth. Whereas some 95 percent of births took place at home at 1900, by 1940 about 50 percent of women and by the mid-1950s about 95 percent of women chose to have their children in hospitals, where many births involved the use of forceps, pain-killing drugs, and other interventions.
A second force challenging traditional styles of mothering was the growing tendency of mothers to seek employment outside of the home. From the 1950s on, an increasing number of mothers of children under the age of six worked, and from the 1970s, more and more mothers of infants entered the labor force as well.
The League's challenge to scientific and medical authority on the subject of motherhood resonated with thousands of women and anticipated the women's health movement that developed in the 1970s, while at the same time questioning the practice of mothers of young children working out-side of the home. But the league, while arguing that it was in the best interest of children if their mothers were home full-time, still recognized contemporary practice and offered advice and encouragement to working mothers wishing to breast-feed their babies. By the 1970s breast-feeding rates began to rise, reaching some 60 percent by the mid-1980s, and 67 percent by the turn of the twenty-first century. At the turn of the twenty-first century, the La Leche League sponsored over 3,000 monthly breast-feeding support groups around the world and supported a Center for Breastfeeding Information.
See also: Mothering and Motherhood.
Apple, Rima. 1987. Mothers and Medicine: A Social History of Infant Feeding, 1890–1950. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Blum, Linda M. 1999. At the Breast: Ideologies of Breastfeeding and Motherhood in the Contemporary United States. Boston: Beacon Press.
Torgus, Judy, and Gwen Gotsch, eds. 1997 . The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, 6th rev. ed. Schaumburg, IL: La Leche League International.
Weiner, Lynn Y. 1994. "Reconstructing Motherhood: The La Leche League in Postwar America." Journal of American History 80: 357–1381.
La Leche League International. 2003. Available from www.lalecheleague.org.
LYNN Y. WEINER