La Leche Conference, 2014: Jack Newman

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Early on a quiet Saturday morning, the inhabitants of Maynooth went about their daily business as usual. Mostly unaware that just a few short hours later, an army of women would descend upon the place from all corners of the country. They came by train, car, and on foot.  They came with babies, children and husbands in tow (some more enthusiastically than others).  They came armed with slings of all sizes, shapes and colours.  They came, and they came.  Cars began to clog up the major roads. Carparks filled up, then overflowed into every available space on the road. Still more cars waited at entrances in the hope that someone would leave soon, engines purring with a note of anxiety. Or they circled endlessly around, seeking an elusive empty parking spot. Swarms of people dispersed from their vehicles eventually and descended upon their ultimate destination – the Glenroyal Hotel.  It was all a bit chaotic to say the least.

This unusual mass invasion was due to the annual La Leche Conference. This year, the keynote speaker was to be the Dr. Jack Newman himself. This Canadian paediatrician is the Elvis of breastfeeding circles, pulling large crowds wherever he goes. Many see him as THE authority on breastfeeding, and he certainly has a lot of credentials and experience of dealing with problems at his breastfeeding clinics. With this God amongst men as the star attraction, the conference was more popular than ever before. The kind of adoring adulation that the man attracts is reminiscent of the hype and hysteria over your average boy band. Safe to say that ticket sales were doing well, and those who had left it to that last minute were panicking that they wouldn’t be able to get in for one of his talks.

I had great plans of making it to most of the conference weekend but, as almost always happens, the Rascal had other ideas. After the third (fourth? I’ve lost count!) night in a row of not sleeping we were both cranky and frazzled. Molars = no sleeping alone + insane acrobatic kicks and punches all night long. Neither of us was inclined to get out of bed at the usual 7am, even if there was no sleep to be had with all the rolling around and complaining. By the time we’d half-eaten breakfast the Rascal was whining like he was ready to go back to sleep again. I gave up on that after half an hour of rocking and singing while his eyelids drooped and fluttered, and closed… only for him to jump awake with a donkey kick to my stomach seconds later. He ate only two bites of the bagel he’d been so interested in five minutes ago, before we stumbled into the car. Half an hour later, we joined the bedlam outside the hotel. Eventually I got us a parking spot in the shopping centre, but only for 90 minutes. We were lucky to even get that.

There was a carnival air about the place as people met, and chatted, and moved on to meet yet more old and brand new friends. We had time to meet up with some of the Gentle Families facebook group for a quick lunch before relocating the car a bit further away from all the chaos. The Rascal was strongly objecting to being put back in the sling instead of his own bed (or mine) by then. He wailed up the road and back into the hotel where we grabbed a seat just before the keynote session began. A quick feed in my arms, and the Rascal drifted off to slumberland for almost the whole duration of the talk. Thank god. Beside me a tiny newborn also dozed in her mother’s sling, oblivious to the crowds around us. I suspect this was the one and only time I will ever be in a room with so many women simultaneously feeding their babies and children, that not having one on your lap making contented noises would make you the odd (wo)man out.  Meanwhile older children and toddlers roamed the aisles and shrieked randomly as Dr Jack Newman talked through his slides.

The talk was interesting and delivered with panache.  There were plenty of pauses for the expected laughs. He’s a polished speaker and knows his target audience well. Probably not a whole lot of content that I wasn’t already aware of from following his work for the past year or so. It was interesting to hear the man himself speak though, and some of the case study examples he gave were either scary or amusing, depending on your mood. It’s almost ludicrous that poorly informed healthcare professionals regularly send him questions that expose just how little they know about how breastfeeding works. Surely if they can manage to contact an expert in the field, they can read up a little before sending a frequently asked question to him? But then sadly, experience of breastfeeding support in Ireland to date tells me that this isn’t really all that surprising. Just after the Rascal was born I received quite a lot of  bad advice about breastfeeding and weight gain. We could check most of the boxes in the slides giving such examples. If I’d actually done what I was told by hospital staff, then our breastfeeding journey would have ended within days. Months later when I’d learnt a whole lot more on the subject, I realised just how flawed their directions were. With the knowledge I have now I would have dismissed their concerns straight away as being based on bad logic. Back then I knew virtually nothing, and assumed incorrectly that they must know better than I.

It’s a shame that there aren’t more female speakers as widely regarded as Newman. Still, while he obviously makes a good living from doing these kinds of speaking circuits, he’s clearly a nice person and happy to pose for endless photos, answer questions from worried mothers, and generally give of his time as much as possible. As the talk drew to a close the Rascal stirred. He lasted through Q&A running around the back of the room, but he was done with stuffy rooms at that point. Noise and crowds really aren’t our scene. It was nice to run into a few familiar faces for a brief chat on the way out, but we were done for the day. Ironically, I randomly ran into an old school friend on our way out.  She was in Maynooth for an unrelated reason, but was lamenting that she had assumed that breastfeeding would be an easy thing to do.  Her journey had failed early, leaving her with regrets that still lingered a year later. Exactly the kind of sad outcome there is for many first-time mothers due to lack of good support.

We headed home for some food before starting the nightime ‘no sleep’ antics once more. This time with a high fever that showed up out of nowhere to complicate things further. It was a particularly nasty dose. While we were attempting to sleep, Facebook slowly began to stir. Photo after photo popped up of Dr. Newman with groups of beaming fans. How he managed to pose for so many photos in one weekend is impressive. While I can’t say I was especially star-struck by his presence, it was nice to see so many happy women getting the opportunity to meet a hero that had inspired them in various ways. We didn’t make it to the second day of the conference unfortunately. The Rascal was tossing all night with the fever dreams. Daddy arrived home jet-lagged. Sunday was a day of hanging about the house, waiting for the next nap time. Superheroes with breastfeeding powers or not, the conference wasn’t going to see us again. I would have like to meet up with a few more people, but to be honest I had found the conference a bit too crowded for socialising easily while attending to a toddler. The baby talk festival had been more amenable to hanging out and seeing familiar faces without losing your child in the crowds. It was great to get out to the conference for a while and see what all the fuss was about though.

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