“They Have Conferences For Everything These Days”: What We Talk About at a Breastfeeding Conference

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After the first day of our conference, The Designated Dad rode the elevator up to our room with MaiTai, totally worn out. Along for the ride were three other conference attendees and one cheerful army guy who asked, “So why are you all here?”

They told him they were attending a breastfeeding conference. It was, in fact, the La Leche League Texas Area Conference, which is held every two years. (I know, ‘the La’ is pretty tacky but what can you do?).

His incredulous response: “What? Oh wow! They have conferences for everything these days. I guess it makes sense. But what do you even have to talk about?”

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Ignoring his daftness, the two women explained they’re in a position to help mothers breastfeed successfully and indeed have quite a lot to talk about in order to actually be of service. He went on to say when he and his wife have kids they would definitely breastfeed (“they” would, says he). After doing some research, they’d decided it was best for them.

TDD told me: “I’ll just flat-out say I could tell he was highly exaggerating, to the point of nearly lying about how much research he and his wife (who wasn’t even pregnant yet) had done on the subject. From the way he said it, I would guess they saw one random news video and thought, ‘Yeah, it’s the best thing, but why do they have to do it in public?’”

Immediately after, the guy said, “So let me ask you a question… What’s your take on public breastfeeding?”

This whole time they’d been riding up the elevator, and two La Leche League leaders had already left at their floors. His question came as the third was stepping off. She replied, “Oh it’s just fine” and they sort of mumbled their agreement on that, though once again, his tone implied he only said this because he foresaw their own answer; he simply went along with what they wanted to hear.

So then he and TDD were left alone on the elevator (other than MaiTai). TDD sensed a tension, the kind that gives weight to the air around you when someone wants so badly to speak a sour truth, to let a load off their mind about what just transpired. TDD hoped the guy would “keep his trap shut” (TDD’s words) as he expected the guy wanted to know his thoughts on breastfeeding, man-to-man.

As TDD told me: “I was just not about to try and break through the obviousness and importance of public breastfeeding to someone who in the past thirty seconds had gone from ‘they have a conference about everything these days’ to ‘we’ve decided we’re definitely going to breastfeed our future children’ in the remaining five seconds of his and my interaction on this planet.”

“Are you here for the conference as well?” the man asked.

TDD’s faced turned grim, his patience already worn impossibly thin from the long afternoon. He nodded yes, quickly stepped off the elevator with MaiTai, leaving him to whatever his thoughts may be.

I know the feeling of exasperation that comes with just a sentence or two spoken with the perfectly wrong tone at the perfectly wrong hour of the perfectly wrong day. The night before in the downstairs lobby, I had a much nicer interaction. The hotel bartender said she had three granddaughters. One was fifteen months old and had almost lost her life, except her three-year-old sister was still breastfeeding so she was able to continue feeding with a tube (I assume she meant a supplementary nursing system or SNS). She said they were very worried about the three-year-old breastfeeding “because of society,” but thankfully it ended up saving her sister.

So what did we talk about at the breastfeeding conference, anyway?

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First up was an opening session by Marian Tompson, one of the founders of La Leche League. (Actually, first up was the non-negotiable coffee, but Marian’s introduction helped warm us all up in a similar way).

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Then Meredith Lohse talked about mothering the new mother.

I really had a tough time deciding which sessions to attend, but this one seemed especially relevant to me given I’m little more than two months postpartum. Lohse reassured, “Today doesn’t necessarily determine tomorrow. “

She spoke of grief. Of changed relationships and the loss of the old life. Of a frighteningly open new spiritual outlook. About pants that no longer button. About crying in the middle of Target. About what it takes to mother a new mother — holding space for her, holding back the noise. Educating her about bodily recovery, how breastfeeding is so important, as is whole nutrition to avoid postpartum depletion.

She spoke of other cultures’ post-birth traditions: Indians keep their mothers in bed for forty days, and the Chinese believe heat leaves the body through the cervix so this energy must be restored back to her with healing therapies.

She also touched on the magic of skin-to-skin bonding not just for infants, but their mothers too. Then of course, placenta consumption. At this session, I was the only attendee who had encapsulated and consumed her own placenta. I didn’t hesitate to back up Lohse’s as she observed the placenta’s beneficial regulation of mothers’ hormones right as the all-time high of pregnancy and birth comes crashing down.

Remember, a new mother is on information overload. What can you do for a mother who is beside herself? Lohse implored us to not forget — when her milk comes in, her tears come in. She’ll be leaking out of every hole in her body. She might face stigma and guilt over baby blues, fear of admitting to a crisis lest her baby be taken away, stress over not knowing everything yet because she’s a mother now and she should know what to do.

Most of all, dangerous practices aside, we must respect how a mother wants to mother.

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Dr. Newman talked about what they don’t teach about breastfeeding in training, why one would breastfeed a toddler, decreased milk supply after infant stage, and numbers on demand.

He was Mr. Popular (excuse me, Dr. Popular), as to be expected. His sessions were full and the audience was just as fully engaged — everyone from La Leche leaders and members, WIC workers, breastfeeding counselors, lactation specialists/consultants, birth workers, educators, medical practitioners, and mothers and advocates like myself.

In his talk about numbers on demand, he decried the significance of baby weight, ounces of milk, timing of feedings, and other measurements. Oh, the futility of numbers! When it comes to breastfeeding, at least.

He said it’s not science if you don’t measure the right thing. Case in point, we take the bottle-fed baby as our standard of normal. But what is normal? — the breastfed baby. Even Lord Kevin was off by quite a bit (4.1 billion years actually) in his estimation of Earth’s age… because he measured the wrong thing.

Golden nuggets of wisdom via Dr. Newman:

“We believe in numbers as if they came down to us from on High.”

“The trouble is: with breastfeeding, we don’t seem to recognize the imperfections in measurement.”

“If they don’t look like bottle nipples, they’re ‘flat.'” (On the phenomenon of flat nipples)

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On the way to his final lecture of the evening, Dr. Newman caught my elevator. Was it fate? Magic? Luck? A blessing of fortune bestowed upon the elevator by some traveling gypsy? Whatever it was that brought us together, I was a bit too starstruck to carry out more than the most basic of conversations. It was a short ride, in my defense. And I was sure he’d answer all of my hundred questions in his session anyway (he nearly did).

I felt a bit too silly to request a photo with Dr. Newman. I might’ve been fan-girling but I didn’t want him to know that! Thankfully, TDD read my mind and requested a Kodak moment on my behalf.

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Krisdee Donmoyer talked about breastfeeding advocacy.

This was a fast-paced session with so many slides, I could hardly keep up with her! A few highlights paraphrased: Breastfeeding is more than a lifestyle choice. Cigarette smoking is a lifestyle choice; there was a time when people didn’t know it was bad for health.

Breastfeeding and formula feeding are not the same in that breastfeeding is a public health issue.

Today, 78% of new mothers try breastfeeding at least once. Only 17% are still breastfeeding at six months after birth. Three primary reasons for not breastfeeding: Perceived or actual difficulties — includes ‘not enough milk’ and latch problems; anxiety over nursing in public; returning to work or school.

What helps? Licensing Lactation Consultants is a start. Mothers and babies need clinical evaluation and care plans, but most physicians don’t have the time or training to solve complex breastfeeding challenges.

Then we have the laws and protections. There were seven breastfeeding bills in Texas last year and only two moved at all. The existing law that grants the Right to Breastfeed was passed in 1995. Texas Representative Debbie Riddle’s position on public breastfeeding was contingent on “modesty,” which of course is completely subjective. So clearly, more work needs to be done in the legislation.

Krisdee said she’s lost count of the number of harassment incidents reported directly to her, which is entirely unacceptable.

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Then there was the talk by Catherine Watson Genna about baby talk.

This session came at the heels of a culturally vibrant lunchtime dance performance (check out the jazzy albeit blurry capture below).

The presentation focused on the many ways infants communicate, not limited to verbalizing but also facial expressions and body posturing, including disorganized versus organized states.

Genna explained how habituation helps us check out the things that are static. Premies have lesser-developed filters, therefore a baby with an immature nervous system has more problems habituating. A normal baby transitions through the progressed states from happy to upset, rather than switching suddenly.

She helped us understand how to make it easier for babies to cope. For example, a wrinkled forehead and surprised look while on the breast says,”Wow, that’s a lot of milk!” If the milk is flowing fast enough to startle the baby, press on the breast to let him catch his breath (don’t use compression). There is always a way to bring baby back to a state of recovery.

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Signs that baby likes a given multi-sensory stimulation: bright eyes, fingers flexed, hands relaxed, movements in midline, smooth forehead.

Baby is hungry: eating hands and head butting, faces matches this need.

Baby is not hungry: eating hands and eyes are bright, face doesn’t match.

“I want the other side”: lets go of breast and wiggles around.

“I’m all done”: deliberately lets go and remains still.

“That’s interesting”: chin receding

Distrust: gaze averting.

Genna’s talk got me thinking about the many verbal cues of babies, that it’s really something how our culture praises and even expects a quiet baby. Quiet babies are ‘good babies,’ they’re seen as behaved and well-parented. We don’t put such restrictions on them as they age however — no one tells adults they shouldn’t talk, shouldn’t make normal sounds that prove him a living being, or verbally communicate otherwise. Babies aren’t ‘people-to-be,’ they are people. And making noise is one of the ways they communicate, be it a coo, a cry, a wail, or the beginnings of vowel sounds.

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Robyn Roche-Paull talked about body modifications with the breastfeeding mother. It was quite a popular session that had most of the attendees scribbling furiously on their notepads… check my future posts for more details on that.

Other sessions covered postpartum depression and the breastfeeding mother, breastfeeding at the end of life, diagnosing tongue and lip ties, translating baby’s hand movements while nursing, ethics for breastfeeding counselors, supporting well-being in communities, free-range parenting, how breastfeeding sets the stage for optimal gut health, and many more.

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TDD spoke with a lady who was in the family room doing a sign language activity with her kids. They talked about how we’ve lost touch with this ancient knowledge of breastfeeding that women would’ve picked up by osmosis as they’d have seen their moms and sisters and neighbors go through it, but now we need something like La Leche League to bring us back.

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Even the dads have their dad things to do and talk about at a breastfeeding conference.

Two people approached TDD with free lunch vouchers “for being such a good dad.” His strolling through the vendor area and roaming the halls while I attended sessions didn’t go unnoticed — that and the bouncing, dancing, cooing and other irresistibly cute things a father must do to calm a bored, overtired, peckish baby with a 3.5-year-old chattering without pause and constantly underfoot.

TDD also got lots of support and compliments on these “His Body, His Choice” suck pads. Wearing a simple, positive advocacy message is a great way to plant seeds, and to reinforce the truth that the gentlest parenting includes bodily autonomy for all as much as it does breastfeeding.

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At Whole Foods for dinner, an older man with a Euro-Mediterranean accent said to me, “Congratulations!”

I replied with thanks, and he gestured toward Julep and me nursing.

“It’s all love,” he said with a smile. “Yeah… love…”

Another big smile, this one with explicit approval, and he walked away to his car.

There is plenty to talk about at a breastfeeding conference, you see, because there will always be plenty to say about breastfeeding.

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