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What I learned from NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) to help mothers breastfeed their babies

Eva, Donat, Barcelona, Spain
I don’t know what brought me to the world of being a La Leche League Leader, but sometimes I want to think that it was destiny, or that my body was asking me to go further, asking me to be with women, with mothers. And, above all, I continued year after year to witness how mothers empowered themselves by trusting their bodies through breastfeeding.

From being a Leader (It’s been 22 years now!), being in touch with thousands of mothers and from practicing and practicing communication skills, I gradually discovered the thousands of different ways that mothers have of living and interpreting their own lives: what seemed normal to one seemed unthinkable to the other. And little by little I also changed. From seeing so many different ways of living similar realities, I began to think that I could also decide what was the reality I wanted to live. In LLL I realized that we mothers are on a ‘very sensitive emotional level during parenting, and our work as Leaders requires skillful ways of observing, talking, interpreting (especially when trying to help mothers).
Over the past years I have been studying NeuroLinguistic Programming (NLP) and find the concept of “calibration” helpful in the work I do as a Leader. We’ll get back to “calibration” in a minute, but first, I would like to give you some small «drops of NLP» that I hope you can add to those of your/our milk, which gives life, communication, bonding and strength.

We are gregarious animals
Humans are gregarious animals, who need other people by our side in order to survive. By acquiring skills through communication, we learn, among many other things, to breastfeed. As neuroscience has discovered quite recently (in the 80-90s) 1 , humans have wonderful neurons called «mirror neurons» (women have more of them than men), which help us to empathize and learn from our environment. Being in contact with other human beings is fundamental for our physical, emotional and social development. Knowing how we function helps us to communicate better, to know ourselves better, to be able to «de-program» what is not useful to us, and to program what is more useful for us. NLP is one tool I have found helpful, and having more tools is freeing, because I have more options to shape my decisions.

What is NLP?
Neurolinguistic Programming is a «toolbox» of communication skills, based on usefulness. NLP does not usually talk about whether something is true or false, but whether it is useful or not. If it is not useful, one can decide to change it or eliminate it. On the other hand, if one sees that a thought or behavior is useful, change is not needed. For example, one may think that a mother’s behavior is strange to us, but if for that mother it is useful, it is fine for her.

«NLP is practical; it is a set of models, skills and techniques for thinking and acting
effectively in the world. The purpose of NLP is to be useful, to increase choice and
improve the quality of life.» John Grinder, co-creator of NLP

«NLP is an educational method. We teach people to use their own head. Richard
Bandler», co-creator of NLP

NLP is organized around basic assumptions that are adopted precisely because they are useful;they’re not based on truthness but on utility or convenience. Some of these assumptions are:

The map is not the territory
«The map is not the territory» means that each person, each family, each situation, sees reality (the territory) from a certain point of view, and every person believes that their point of view is the correct one. For example, when I did NLP training they made us draw «the place where we were at that moment». Each person drew different things. I drew the map of Barcelona and put a cross on the place where the institute was. One classmate drew a tree with fruit, and pointed to a fruit that she said was where she was at that moment. Another classmate made a drawing where she drew the furniture of the room (seen from above), and put circles where each of the people who were there were. That little experience showed us that each of us had a «map», and that when we were told «draw the place where you are right now», each person interpreted different things. And all of them were correct! Because they followed “the place where we were at that moment”.
Each mother’s map is not the territory either. This assumption can be helpful for us, as Leaders. It reminds us that each mother does what is useful for her at that moment. It will not be me, the Leader, who judges decisions about raising, sleeping, feeding or caring for the baby and the family. Being clear that the map is not the territory, I can use open-ended questions to try to understand the mother’s «map», to enlarge my own «map» and thus be able to try to help her a little more from understanding, empathy and respect. I found the exhaustive and respectful techniques for empathy such as “rapport” or asking questions like «metamodel” in NLP, very useful. The more I practiced them, the more accurate were the mothers’ responses, so they enhanced their awareness about their situations, their concerns, their attitudes and behaviors, which helped them find their own answers by themselves”.

All behavior has a positive intention
This NLP assumption is based primarily on utility. We often think that behaviors that we interpret as «negative» are bad in themselves. On the other hand, if we decide to believe that the behavior in question, of the mother, the parent, our co-Leader, the healthcare provider, etc., has a positive intention, we will be observing with eyes that do not judge, but look for the motivation of their actions. To better help the person, we will look for other possible behaviors for the same positive intention. As Leaders, we can observe that whatever a mother has done, she believes is best for her baby, with the knowledge and practice that she has until that moment. Additional knowledge brings new possibilities, and with them new options. Keeping in mind that «the map is not the territory,” the mother may opt for completely different things than we do.

There is no such thing as failure, only learning
When we obtain different results than expected, we have two options: we can either remain with the feeling of failure, or we can decide what we can learn and what we want to change based on the knowledge we have incorporated. If we change our perception, we change our attitude and, therefore, our choices and our behaviors. And we can observe, accept, learn, and act differently. Same behaviors, same results. Different behaviors, possibly new results, or not. But we will always learn what doesn’t work.

«I didn’t fail, I just discovered 999 ways on how not to make a light bulb
.» Thomas A. Edison, having done many tests before arriving at one of his greatest inventions: the light bulb.
Sometimes a mother may complain that she “doesn’t have enough milk,» but she may find it hard to accept that there are things she is doing that do not optimize milk production. Through calibration and communication techniques we can help her realize that new behaviors can promote successful breastfeeding.

What is «calibration»?
In NLP «calibrating» means looking for physical evidence of communication based on observation. In other words, to calibrate we need to realize that we use representational systems based on the senses. NLP groups them into three groups : the Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic systems (the VAK system). Specifically: what we objectively see, hear or notice (or feel, using the other senses). For example, I can observe that a mother is telling me that everything is going very well. But I can notice that what she says doesn’t correspond to how she moves, how she acts. If, when she says that «everything is going very well”, she whispers, looking down, with her shoulders drooping and hands hanging down, she is telling me one thing with her words and something very different with her body. We, as Leaders, by means of observing through the three channels, can “calibrate” that the message is incongruent. If the Leader were to take only the mother’s words, one would surely get the wrong idea.
What is «calibrating» used for? It provides information to be able to ask more questions to try to go deeper into the matter. It could also happen that the mother says: «everything is fine», while looking us in the eyes, smiling, and standing up straight. This could indicate much more clearly that the mother is congruent and that everything is going well.
Calibrating helps one to understand a little better the «map» of other people, their way of interpreting what is happening. As Leaders, if we understand the situation better, we may be able to offer better help. Using this skill, Leaders have another tool to offer new and better options for mothers and parents.

Setting objectives effectively

Another of the many techniques of NLP is the effective formulation of objectives, using the acronym SMART. If goals are based on these parameters, one has a good chance of achieving them.
The five letters of SMART refer to the objective being Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant or Realistic, and Time-bound. With this technique, objectives become more concrete and go from being «wishes» to being tangible and achievable.

* S: Specific. How many times have we human beings set unattainable or too generic objectives, with the permanent feeling of dissatisfaction that comes with not achieving them. If we clearly specify the objective, we have a much clearer idea of where we are going to go.
* M: Measurable. When we can measure the goal, it is much easier to know if we are making progress and how far we want to go. If a mother aims to produce more milk, she can increase the number of feedings, which is something that can be counted.
* A: Achievable. This is where sometimes one’s ego hurts, but it’s really helpful. If we set our goals too high, we have a good chance of abandoning our project at the first opportunity. I personally think that sometimes setting one’s goals a little lower can be a relief. It lowers one’s ego as it increases one’s self-esteem.
* R: Relevant. Other literatures say «Realistic» (which is related to the previous point). If it is relevant, it means that it is truly significant for the change we want to obtain. It is not convenient to set an objective that is not going to change anything in our life or our project. On the other hand, if the goal is relevant (to increase the amount of milk, for example), it will have an impact. In this example, it is very possible that the baby will gain weight. If the goal is realistic, the person will not feel overwhelmed in the process of achieving it.
* T: Time-bound. Setting a definite time frame with short-term goals makes it easier to track one’sprogress, which is encouraging. It also makes it easier to make changes if something is not working well.

“Ecology» is another important concept in NLP. It refers to the idea that if a goal interferes with the well-being of the person or their family, or if it means that the person has to make too many changes, it is better to look for other strategies, i.e., other goals to achieve.
For example, if a mother with a 4-month-old baby is doing mixed breastfeeding and wants to switch from bottle to breast in a week, but has to work, cannot be with her baby, is nervous and has no help, perhaps her environmental wellbeing could be negatively affected. She may do better setting a goal that could be a little less ambitious but also fulfills the positive intention of breastfeeding her baby. Perhaps the mother could gradually set small achievable milestones, even if it takes a little longer.

And finally… the mentor figure

NLP talks about the importance of mentors, helpers, facilitators, guides. We can think of LLL Leaders as excellent guides for many mothers. We are also mentors for Leader Applicants and can be facilitators when working with other Leaders on projects. There’s a lot more to NLP for those who are interested in going deeper. The basic NLP ideas shared in this article complement LLL communication skills and affirm the importance of our work as Leaders.

Eva Donat

Eva Donat lives in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. She has been a Leader since 1999 and is currently a member of the Leader Accreditation Department. She has three children. Eva is also a communicologist, journalist, Didactic Partner of the Spanish Association of Neurolinguistic Programming, NLP, and a yoga, meditation and TREⓇ teacher.


This article was finally approved to be printed at Leader Today (a publication for LLLeaders), though there were some difficulties due to the new policies about «language inclusion» that oblige to change words such as «mother» for «person», «breastfeeding women» for «chestfeeding people» and so on. I am so glad and grateful they finally changed their minds to let me publish this article because I really that our work is helping motherhood through «mother to mother support» and I stand for the word «mother». I’ve been a LLLeader for 22 years and I’ve helped mother to empower themselves through motherhood and breastfeeding. «Mother to mother» has been my motto for 22 years, and I can (and will) help with lots of support and love other people doing «mother’s job», but I don’t agree that suddenly breastfeeing is not a mother’s work.


Estudiante de la vida. Apoyo a las mujeres. Yoga. Meditación. PNL. Familia.