Celine Malanum counting babies latched on to their mothers at Last year's Big Latch On event, which saw 44 mother/child pairs. Melanum says she is hoping to meet or beat that number at this year's Great Long Beach Latch. All photos courtesy of Celine Malanum.
A woman cradles her twins, one in each arm, encouraging the babes to latch on, so to speak, so her husband standing behind her can hold up a sign signifying the successful latching and linking. As she sits cross legged on the grass, other moms surround her, looking down at their children, gently imploring them to take hold. Yes, some breasts are exposed and some are covered, but only to be seen by the appreciative eyes of those who know a nature-made miracle when they see one. Laughs are shared and elated shouts are heard across the yard as more and more women and their families hold up their signs of success. 44 babes are now breastfeeding at the same time in the same place. What a powerful sight to see.
On Saturday, August 2 from 10:00AM to 3:00PM at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach (UUCLB), the 2nd Annual Latch & Link Long Beach: A Community Fair celebrating World Breastfeeding Week and Month, will facilitate a safe and fun space for Long Beach moms, babies and their families to grow, learn and bond over the not-so-simple biological phenomenon that is breastfeeding.
Before organizing last year’s first Latch & Link, local moms Christine Gibson and Celine Malanum organized an open mic night at Viento y Agua, a coffee house in Belmont Heights. Gibson reminisced about the poems, spoken word and enthusiastic sharing that shed light on each participant’s personal experience with breastfeeding. She said, “I think what was so fascinating about the event is that those of us who have breastfed don’t really get a chance to talk about it in so many perspectives. It was described as an art form, it was talked about as a method to closeness, bonding, some talked about the empowerment side of it, being able to do what your body was meant to do…”
After the second open mic night last year, both moms knew that the event had to grow. Malanum said, “With our first year organizing Latch & Link, our goals were simple: get tons of local breastfeeding resources in one place, and connect them with other breastfeeding moms and families. We met that goal with over 100 families attending last year. We’re excited to reach even more families this year!” Latch & Link is about building the support and providing the resources that women need when they make the personal choice to breastfeed. Gibson and Malanum want moms in Long Beach to understand that they can find this support through Latch & Link and better prepare themselves for this oftentimes difficult journey.
One of those difficulties include being able to breastfeed on a whim, without having to worry about who may be watching. Breastfeeding in public is a social and psychological obstacle course akin to scaling the Pyrenees that takes practice and a great deal of support from all facets of the mom’s immediate community. When asked about one of the major issues involved with feeding outside of one’s residential confines, Gibson spoke thoughtfully, “I think realizing a part of your body that has been defined by society as something sexual and then having to redefine that as something completely opposite of that.”
Karlesha Thurman, a CSULB graduate whose picture of herself breastfeeding at graduation went viral, received both supportive and shaming comments. According to KTLA5 Thurman was simply feeding her child because she was hungry, without a second thought, but more negative commenters thought she was showing too much breast. Gibson and Malanum were, of course, supportive of Thurman and hope to empower those who gather at Latch & Link to show their support as well. Also known as NIP or nursing in public, attendees of Latch & Link will have the opportunity to screen-print “NIP LBC” onto their own garment at a DIY craft booth.
Besides the general public's wide ranging thoughts on semi-exposed breasts, the mother has to deal with her own perception of her body and define for herself how her over-sexualized appendages will relate to other people and her baby. While women are protected by CA law (California Civil Code Section 43.3) it's not at all uncommon for her to have to defend herself where she's clearly unwanted. Gibson said, “It’s not uncommon for women to be bullied into not using their right to breastfeed whenever and wherever.”
So why is it so important for a mother to be able to breastfeed outside of the privacy of her home? Gibson, who is also an experienced RN, explained the mechanics, “In the first three to four months your body is really figuring out how much milk to make and is still getting into the groove of your body being used that way. Being able to respond quickly to your baby’s needs is essential to breastfeeding.” According to Gibson, if a mom were to put limits on how often she feeds, if she skips meals frequently, then her milk supply may actually start to dwindle, significantly decreasing her chances of being able to successfully breastfeed during the crucial first months of her baby’s life.
Think of it this way: what would a typical day in your life look like if you had to plan out when and where you could take a sip of water? If you had to know in advance where you could drink without feeling shunned by typical passersby? These mothers have careers, social lives and errands to run, not to mention children to raise. How should a mother go about rearing a healthy infant without feeling imprisoned to her home, or even worse, just one room of her home if her family isn’t comfortable with the concept. Feeding your baby and continuing to live a fulfilling life should not be mutually exclusive endeavors simply because society has mixed feelings about an irrefutable necessity to bringing new life into this world.
Enter The Great Long Beach Latch, a not-so-typical display of parental affection. The goal is to get as many babies as is feasible linked and latched to their mother's nip for one minute. Picture 40 plus mothers sitting cross legged in the church courtyard surrounded by proud fathers and partners, raising a small sign to signify a successful latch-on. Gibson said that last year she and Malanum were shocked at how many moms really wanted to be a part of the event, "There were so many hoops to jump through, so many papers to sign, but they all wanted to do it." The reviews they received from moms after the event helped solidify even more strongly why Latch & Link is so important for the Long Beach community.
"We had three or four women take the time to write how that moment was defining for them because they had never breastfed in public. The women just found it very empowering and to look over and see all the other women doing it ... so many women breastfeed in isolation," Gibson said.
Self-doubt is another barrier that can drive new mothers toward the advertised ease of using formula instead of natural milk. Society, as in the doctors that give advice to new moms, health organizations that fund integral research endeavors and certain media outlets constantly release mixed messages to moms looking for support. They proport, correctly, that “breast is best,” yet they do not create the environment necessary to breastfeed. They say, in Gibson’s wise words, “‘you have to do it this way and at that location, you have to do in a certain way.’ When you put up these barriers we end up having a society where women aren’t reaching what their goals are based on the recommendations they’ve been given.”
According to Gibson, although postpartum hospital care is getting better, most hospitals used to separate the newborn from the mother immediately after birth and place the infant in a room for a so-called "transitioning" period. These long hours spent away from the mother actually sets the baby up for health problems, sometimes within three to five days. The Baby Friendly Initiative helps to make sure that a mother simply holding her baby, also known as skin-to-skin, can occur so that the mother's hormones are alerted to start producing milk. A lack of this facilitated bonding can severely decrease the chances of a mother being able to successfully breastfeed.
It’s confusing to the point that the mom can start to feel like there’s something wrong with her if the process doesn’t go as smoothly as expected. They don’t always realize that what’s holding them back is their environment and that it’s not their fault. Latch & Link’s purpose is to try and get these moms out of their private corners of the city and bring them to a public space where they can share such grievances and find the resources they need to follow through with their decision to breastfeed.
Gibson said about Latch & Link, "Our vision for this is really getting the conversation going on a city level. When you set up the right environment the moms can be successful, but you have to understand what those environmental cues are." Luckily Long Beach is on its way to improving with two hospitals pursuing The Baby Friendly Initiative and a good support group of organizations, however Gibson hopes that Latch & Link will not only highlight available resources, but show the city and it’s moms what needs to be added.
If a mother can figure out how to brave the social pressures, physical barriers, and incurring self doubt to feed her child for at least the first three months, she can decrease her child’s risk of serious conditions including SIDS, asthma, diabetes and childhood obesity. For herself, she can decrease her risk of breast and ovarian cancer, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease. Seeing a mother breastfeeding her baby is not necessarily normal now, but the more we see it, the more normal it will become.
Gibson’s expectations for Latch & Link are simple, “The whole point is to empower women, to get them out of their homes, out of their little silos and really connecting with each other; connecting breastfeeding families with other breastfeeding families because oftentimes, myself included, I didn't really have any other friends that were breastfeeding at the same time I was. So to find a venue where you can actually meet those people and have a friendship or two come of it.”
Gibson and Malanum have a vision of organizing more events throughout the year so that moms don’t have to wait until August to gather. While they tried to implement the open mic activity into last year’s first Latch & Link, it just wasn’t the same as those first crowded summer nights at Viento y Agua where emotions ran high with the heat and the early evening enveloped the group like a mother would cradle her firstborn. As Latch & Link grows and garners more support, Gibson and Malanum plan to hold smaller events like the open mic night, the expressive forum that started a movement.
Organizations exhibiting at the Resource Fair, to name just a few, include Baby Awareness Studio, BreastfeedLA, La Leche League Long Beach, Sacred Roots Holistic Healing and Tiny ecoUrbanite. Complimentary nursing photos by Little La Photography, talking circles to help breastfeeding families meet breastfeeding families, demonstrations and hands-on help from experts will be offered as well; there will be two food trucks, gift bags for the first 100 attendees and a large grassy area for attendees to relax, or latch and link upon.
Photos: above left, Christine Gibson & Celine Malanum, founders and organizers of Latch & Link: Long Beach. Above right, an image Christine Gibson created to urge long beach to strive to become the world's most breastfeeding-friendly city.
The UUCLB is located at 5450 E. Atherton St. Long Beach, CA 90815