Maternity: Back to the Breast

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"A pair of substantial mammary glands," said Oliver Wendell Holmes the Elder in 1867, "has the advantage over the two hemispheres of the most learned professor's brain in the art of compounding a nutritious fluid for infants." Although eminently sound, Dr. Holmes's medical opinion was ignored by three generations of American women striving for female emancipation. The breast's function as fans et origo of a perfectly balanced natural diet was largely ignored. Now there are signs that highly educated and sophisticated American women are moving back to breast feeding as the best thing not only for their babies' physical and mental health but for their own.

In the forefront of the back-to-the-breast movement is La Leche League International, founded in a Chicago suburb twelve years ago after two young mothers who wanted to nurse their babies ran into difficulties. Says Mrs. Clement Tompson, wife of a research engineer: "I had a different doctor for each of my first three children, and when I ran into difficulties with breast feeding, the doctors' only answer was 'Put the baby on the bottle.' " For Mrs. Gregory White, the problem had a more piquant quality. Her husband was a physician, but he could give her no help because he had been taught nothing in medical school about breast feeding. Marian Tompson and Mary White mastered the technique, and when they nursed their babies publicly at a fashionable North Side picnic, so many admiring young mothers gathered around that La Leche League-was born. By now, the league has 635 groups all over the world, with 620 in the U.S., and a total of 20,000 members. This week, with a handful of sympathetic doctors on hand, the league is holding its annual convention in Denver.

False Modesty. Despite its members' zeal, the league does not proselyte in the usual sense. It offers advice and services only to women who seek them. For the most part, these are women who want to breast-feed because they think it is natural, and for them the league has published a 166-page book, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, which in ten years has sold 150,000 copies. Less common but more dramatic are the cases of babies who are allergic to cow's milk and all formulas but can not get human milk from their mothers. When such cases are reported, La Leche members volunteer their surplus milk. It is then frozen and shipped to the starveling. (The Junior League also runs a frozen-breast-milk service for babies in such emergencies.)

The enthusiasm of La Leche mothers is now receiving increased scientific support. A husband-wife team of physician and psychologist, Dr. Michael Newton and Dr. Niles Newton of Chicago, point out in the New England Journal of Medicine that the survival of the species originally depended upon "the satisfactions gained from the two voluntary acts of reproduction—coitus and breast feeding. These had to be sufficiently pleasurable to ensure their frequent occurrence." There never has been any argument about the pleasure of coitus, but the satisfactions of lactation were submerged in the prudery and false modesty of the Edwardian era, and the later feminist drive to achieve equality with males by minimizing female functions.

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