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‘Breastfeeding is work,’ says St. Louis RN calling for more support for moms

File photo / Seth Baur
Breastfeeding rates have increased dramatically in La Leche League's 65 years. But Erin O'Reilly would like to see them far higher.

Sixty-five years ago this month, La Leche League held its first meeting in a small village just south of O’Hare Airport. The seven mothers who gathered had a simple goal: to support each other, and other women, in breastfeeding their children.

At the time, their goal was far more radical than it may seem today. In 1956, only about 20% of American babies were breastfed. The medical establishment discouraged it.

Today, that’s changed — in no small part due to La Leche League, which has since spread its message across the world, with chapters in 89 countries. Some studies suggest more than 46% of American babies are exclusively breastfed in the first three months of life.

Erin L. O'Reilly is a La Leche League leader and lactation consultant.
Evie Hemphill
St. Louis Public Radio
Erin L. O'Reilly is a La Leche League leader and lactation consultant.

Erin L. O’Reilly would like to see even more join their number. A registered nurse and La Leche League leader, the St. Louis resident has spent more than two decades coaching new mothers and advocating for breastfeeding. Her debut book, “The Recipe for Breastfeeding Support in America,” details the policy changes needed to make breastfeeding an option for many more babies.

“It’s not given the respect that it needs,” O’Reilly said. “It is a job. Breastfeeding is work.”

And it’s one modern women are expected to perform even as they report back to their paid work, in some cases just weeks after giving birth. O’Reilly said her work with women in the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, also known as WIC, made clear that returning to work too soon is the biggest impediment to higher breastfeeding rates.

These aren’t women with offices where they can shut the door and quietly pump during a conference call, she noted.

“Some of the women I worked with go back to work after just three, four or five weeks — back to fast food and [to] cleaning jobs — and they have no place to pump,” she said. “So they might want to breastfeed, but they just can't do it. They can't pump at work, and they lose their milk supply right away.”

'Revolution needs to happen'
Listen to Erin L. O'Reilly on St. Louis on the Air

O’Reilly wants to see federal support for six months of paid maternity leave. She acknowledged that would be a sea change in how the U.S. handles labor and delivery.

“I talk about a birth strike in my book,” she said, in which women refuse to have babies until the country gives them more support. “It's kind of happening anyway; birth rates are going way down. Women are getting frustrated. And they're thinking, it's too hard to try to be a mom and work, and so I'm just gonna delay having a baby or just have one baby or not have a baby at all.

“Finally, here in America, it's happening. We need to wake up to that.”

Since La Leche League first got its start, breastfeeding has gone from something discouraged by the medical establishment to something promoted so aggressively that some women say they feel like failures or rebels if they choose not to participate or can’t make it work. O’Reilly said she tries to move women from that state of mind.

“I hear it all the time — ‘I regret,’ ‘I blame myself.’ The moms say that a lot. And I always try to redirect them: ‘No, it's not your fault. The system has served you up so many barriers. It's the system's fault. It's our country's fault for not recognizing this important gender-related work that we do.’”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.