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For: Now

Meet Leigh Anne O’Connor


Leigh Anne O’Connor is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC). She has been helping breastfeeding families for over twenty years, including as the past president of the New York Lactation Consultant Association (NYLCA) and as an accredited La Leche League USA Leader. She has appeared as a breastfeeding expert and advocate on Good Morning America, Fox 5 in New York, Discovery Health Channel, CBS New York, and more.
Meet Leigh Anne O’Connor

How would you describe what you do?

I help people breastfeed, as an advocate in group settings and one-on-one, both professionally and as a La Leche League Leader. It all kind of blends together. I educate people. And sometimes it’s as simple as chatting with somebody on the bus or in a café and just talking about breastfeeding, what it means, and what it is.

 

What is your personal breastfeeding philosophy?

in a global sense, my philosophy is that breastfeeding should be promoted more and that it should be done more. There should be more education around it. On a one-on-one basis, I see the struggles that people go through, so I think it has to be taken person-by-person to see what their situation is. It’s not a competition. Everyone’s experience is different. In the global conversation, there is a lack of education about breastfeeding, a lack of support that runs deep. There are so many things marketed to parents around feeding, and so much of it gets in the way of just normalness. So my philosophy is, “Breastfeeding is normal, and we interfere too much.”

 

What does the general public misunderstand about breastfeeding?

Most people see it as just a way you feed your baby; and yes it is that, but it’s way beyond that. It’s more than just feeding a baby, and it’s not the equivalent of a bottle of breast milk or formula or juice. It’s a complex relationship between the breastfeeding person and her baby or babies. Breastfeeding is a communication between a baby and baby’s breastfeeding parent. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and it’s different for different people.

“Breastfeeding is normal, and we interfere too much.”

I think most people misunderstand the normal range of breastfeeding and what it looks like. They think babies feed on a schedule and they stop at a certain age. But it’s normal to be breastfeeding into toddlerhood. Some people get freaked out about that. I think people get confused about the body, the sexuality of the body and the utilitarian part of the body. They misunderstand the relationship between a breastfeeding parent and baby, the physical relationship. It’s an intimate physical relationship, but it’s not sexual. Babies require connection to one caregiver initially. And breastfeeding can be a great way to do that. The physical feedback and physical development of a baby’s mouth is different when they’re breastfeeding too, and that’s an important thing that most people don’t know. 

When you’re breastfeeding, the milk is complex. It changes. One of my favorite little trivia facts is that when there’s a sickness around and the germs travel from the baby’s mouth to the breast, the breast manufactures milk that has antibacterial properties and feeds it back to the baby to protect the baby from the sickness. It’s just incredible. 

 

How did you first get involved in this field?

I got involved in this field through mothering when I had my first baby, Phoebe, almost twenty-three years ago. I remember getting, I think it was twenty-seven bottles, and I put them in the dishwasher, and I thought, You can’t wash all those bottles. I had taken a breastfeeding class, and it just seemed to make sense. I had my baby, went home, felt overwhelmed like new parents do, and just kind of struggled with breastfeeding. My sister-in-law told me go to a La Leche League meeting. She had gone in Germany when my niece was a baby. So I looked it up. 

I went to a meeting, and I think Phoebe was around six or seven weeks old, and it was the first time I walked in and people said, “Oh my gosh, your baby is so beautiful; you look so good; you’re doing everything right,” instead of, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” So I kind of was like, “This is my place!” 

“I think people get confused about the body, the sexuality of the body and the utilitarian part of the body. They misunderstand the relationship between a breastfeeding parent and baby.”

Then I became a La Leche League Leader after just being a fan. I went on to become a professional IBCLC, but I keep my La Leche League role too because I feel like it’s important to give back the same way that I was given help that first time around.

 

Can you tell me about the first person you helped with breastfeeding?

The first person I helped, honestly, was when Phoebe was about two weeks old. I had just moved. So I get on the train and there’s a woman with a baby, and I sit down and start talking to her. Her baby is twenty-five hours older than mine. We connected, and she lived around the corner from my new home. She had had a cesarean and breastfeeding was really hard for her, and she had all these things that were different from my experience.

She asked me how I knew how often to feed the baby, and I said, “Just feed your baby when he’s hungry.” And she was like “Oh I didn’t think about it that way…. I guess you’re right.” That was just a mother-to-mother type of help, but that’s the first person I helped. I saw a shift, and she ended up nursing longer than she had originally planned. 

 

Do you have a favorite story about someone you’ve helped?

It’s nice when people come up and they’ll say to their big kid, “That’s Leigh Anne. She helped you breastfeed.” Or the people who go up to my kids and say “your mom helped me so much.” 

Some people have a condition where their breasts don’t fully develop, IGT — insufficient glandular tissue. I’ve worked with a few moms like that, and there was one mom where her breast tissue just wasn’t there. We hooked up a supplemental nursing system. This is a tube at the breast where the baby can suck and is supplemented through the tube. And we did that, and her baby got on and had a full feeding at the breast, and she said that was the most glorious feeling she ever had. I don’t think she continued, but that moment stood out to me. Her joy and success.

“They’re the most pure little souls, babies and toddlers. … We should all get on the ground and play with them — build blocks and just play.”

 

What do you love most about what you do?

I love babies. I have always loved babies and holding babies. And toddlers just bring me so much joy. They’re the most pure little souls, babies and toddlers — toddlers because they’re on the verge of something, and they’re communicating and they’re walking, and you get a different sort of feedback. That makes me so happy. I could just hang out with a bunch of toddlers. I think the world needs more toddlers. We should all get on the ground and play with them — build blocks and just play. 

 

Who has helped you along the way?

La Leche League for sure. Kate Sharp was my La Leche League Leader who helped me become a leader, and helped me go into this profession of lactation.

My husband’s grandmother, Nana. She loved that I was nursing her great-grandchildren because she was a wet nurse in Italy, so she had three children and she nursed five. She would always say what a great job I was doing. 

My own mother. We were not breastfed, and my mother said, “I didn’t breastfeed, and I like to live my life without regrets, but I feel like I missed out on something. Watching you, I see that’s something really special.”

My husband. My husband supported me on my journey to study to be a La Leche League Leader and going to conferences, and just in my mothering and my parenting he supported me and often was the voice of reason.

My children, they taught me. All three of them taught me.

And my peers — my friends, my other nursing friends.

 

What can individuals do to support breastfeeding?

I think everybody should just talk more about breastfeeding. Stop hiding. Stop sequestering people. People are covering up, or making special rooms, and you know, we don’t have to hide. 

“For parents, remember that there’s strength in asking for help. We live so separated from each other that people don’t want to ask for help.”

I think people could just support breastfeeding parents. When they see somebody nursing, give them a thumbs-up; ask them if they need help. When your friends have babies, invite the babies too. When you get married and have a wedding, invite the babies. I mean that. I see parents having to figure out weddings all the time. Babies should be accepted. Some weddings can have toddlers and some can’t, but a breastfed baby and mother, you don’t want to be separated. 

For parents, remember that there’s strength in asking for help. We live so separated from each other that people don’t want to ask for help. When you have a baby, you need help. Tell people to help with things that are going to help you stay with your baby. Say, “Yes, I need you to go to the grocery store and get me some food. I need you to clean my house. I need you to take my toddler out to a playground so that I can sit here and just get to know my baby.” 

 

What can companies do to support breastfeeding parents and to normalize breastfeeding?

You know, it’s very funny because everybody has an app now about what side they’re nursing on. Back in my day — back twenty-three years ago and even twelve years ago — we just used our boobs and felt: Oh, this one has more milk, so I guess I’d better try on that side. I think we’re culturing the instincts out of parents. So don’t make more apps! 

Make art that celebrates breastfeeding. Make breast art. Designers should use images that have people and families of different ages and diversity, and show breasts in a nonsexual way. 

For businesses, we should have longer maternity leave. We can support families so that they don’t have to go back to work when their babies are so young. I feel strongly about that. I think that should just be the cultural norm. People that are here from other countries are shocked sometimes at how soon we go back. Or bring your baby to work. Set up businesses where people can have their baby with them. It’s not realistic for everybody or every type of work, but when you can, make it work. If it was the cultural norm that you took a year off, or brought babies to work, we’d make it work.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more information about how you can support breastfeeding, visit our resource page.

 


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