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No Single Formula for Motherhood : Parenting: Organized chaos reigned at a La Leche League conference in Costa Mesa. Topics ranged from breast-feeding to discipline to household budgeting.


COSTA MESA — When child-care writer William Sears and his wife decided to adopt a baby last year, he faced a career crisis of sorts. After extolling the virtues of breast milk in 18 widely read books, Sears would have to subject his daughter to his idea of junk food: formula.

Sears and his wife, Martha, diligently researched the various brands of formula--or artificial baby milk, as Sears calls it. The couple, whose first seven children were breast-fed, were disheartened by what they uncovered. They set about an alternative, if somewhat drastic, route. They summoned every nursing mother they knew to donate to a breast-milk bank for their adopted newcomer.

"We begged, borrowed or stole more than 200 gallons of breast milk," said Sears, a pediatrician who teaches at USC.

That anecdote captured the philosophy of last weekend's La Leche League regional conference, held at the Red Lion Inn in Costa Mesa, where Sears joined dozens of speakers who addressed child-rearing topics from discipline to financial budgeting.

About 500 parents from California, Nevada, Colorado and Utah attended the event, which began Friday night and continued through Sunday evening. The La Leche League is an international support group for nursing mothers.

Most of the mothers came with babes in arms, and some brought husbands as well. Seminars were hardly hushed, polite affairs. Babies cried, toddlers chattered and parents chased escapees--but the speakers took it all in stride.

Another common sight, of course, was mothers breast-feeding--often in an attempt to quiet a squawking infant.

Outside the conference rooms, parents gave themselves and fidgety kids a break by touring the merchandise-lined hallways. Booth after booth promoted breast pumps, toys, Tupperware and baby clothes. One tiny T-shirt read, "Breast Fed Is Best Fed."

Sears was probably the best-known speaker at the event. His Saturday afternoon talk, titled "Commercialism in Artificial Baby Milk," drew a full room of listeners.

"There is one reason that formula is so popular, and it has five letters: m-o-n-e-y," Sears said. There's no profit for business in breast milk, but that is not the case with formula. With the help of targeted marketing campaigns, formula manufacturers promote the use of their product, he said.

Although labels on formula note that breast milk is the superior food for infants, they are also quick to state that formula is "an excellent" alternative. That's not necessarily the case, Sears said.

He questioned, for instance whether formula-makers are including enough cholesterol in their product. It is something that babies need high levels of for development, but because cholesterol is a word that has come to have a negative connotation in adult diets, companies are reluctant to have it associated with their product, Sears said.

Most baby-care books--even some of his--fail to stress that studies show breast-feeding can increase a child's I.Q., Sears said. "We have not truly convinced parents out there that breast-feeding makes a difference."

Other sessions at the conference offered information on subjects such as staying afloat on one income.

Some of the tips: wash diapers at home rather than using a service or disposables; become a one-car family; use cloth instead of paper napkins, towels and baby wipes; cut your own hair; buy in bulk; grow vegetables; pick up toys on sale and stash them away for gifts; accept and keep in circulation hand-me-down clothes; enjoy the free luxuries in life, such as naps and time alone.

"It costs money to work," said Tarzana resident Rachelle Bloksberg. "Career clothes are expensive, and then you have to pay a lot of money to have them dry-cleaned. There are all those lunches out. Day care is expensive. There's the cost of driving back and forth, and of artificial baby milk if you don't pump at work. Taxes: so much of your paycheck goes to the government."

Another class simultaneously addressed the flip-side of the issue: balancing work and child-rearing.

"Mothers don't always expect the depth of emotion they feel when they return to work," said Miriam Kaufman-Nash, a La Leche leader in Los Angeles. "Try to ease back in. Don't start on a Monday; start on a Thursday."

Avoid taking on too much, Kaufman-Nash counseled: "We often have high expectations of ourselves. We think we can work full time, breast-feed, take care of our husband, take care of our other children, exercise, cook. There comes a time when you have to set priorities, and when you have to ask for help so that you can concentrate on the baby."

For many who attended the conference, the opportunity to share experiences was its greatest benefit. Gretchen Dittmann, 22, a homemaker and mother of three in Hurricane, Utah, said she came to "get a recharge--to reassure myself that what I'm doing is right. It's nice to be around a bunch of people who believe in the same things you do.

"Now I feel ready to go home and tackle some problems, like sibling rivalry," Dittmann added.

Two friends from Van Nuys rested in the women's lounge with their babies and reflected on the day's highlights and low points.

"The money-management class was full of good information," said Brey Patterson, 36, a part-time photo retoucher. "But a class this morning on when to call the pediatrician . . . was just common sense--nothing that I haven't read in every single baby book."

Overall, the women decided they'd enjoyed the event--except for one glitch: The luncheon was served buffet-style. And since space-consuming strollers were discouraged at the convention, most participants had to fend for themselves one-handed.

It wasn't the best of planning, said Judy Silk, 36, an adviser at UCLA Extension School. "Everyone had to juggle a baby in one arm and a plate of food in the other."

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