Jayne Joyce, Oxford and Jill Unwin, Berkshire, LLL Great Britain Help Form Coordinators
Not every mother feels she can pick up a phone to ask a stranger for breastfeeding help. Increasingly in the age of social media, mothers look for an anonymous way to reach out for help through the wonders of the computer keyboard. Jayne Joyce and Jill Unwin explain more about answering LLL Help Forms in Great Britain.
Each LLL entity has its own way of managing Help Forms. Whichever system is used, each mother gets a personal answer from a La Leche League Leader. In the United Kingdom (UK), we receive between 50–70 Help Forms each month and have a team of about 18 Leaders writing replies.
On receipt, the coordinators forward each Help Form directly to the mother’s nearest Help Form Leader (when there is one), who can then also provide additional local support. If there isn’t a nearby Leader on the Help Form team, the query will be forwarded to the next available Leader. Help Form volunteers can choose in advance how often they take Help Forms. If circumstances change (illness, holidays, a family crisis) they can take a break or return Help Forms to the coordinator for reallocation.
Information not advice
As with helping calls, Leaders replying to Help Forms are careful to word replies with well referenced information that includes a range of options that take normal child development into account, rather than giving advice. For example, the reply to a query on a baby waking up at night might include:
The Infant Sleep Information Source website from the University of Durham summarizes current research on how babies sleep. Here you can read how common it is for children to wake at night well into toddlerhood.
The Leader might suggest ways this mother could adapt her family’s sleeping arrangements so that everyone gets more rest, and discuss gentle ways to nudge a baby to sleep, such as those in Sweet Sleep, Chapter 11.
Often information can be offered using links from LLL websites and other reputable sources such as Kellymom, Biological Nurturing, Dr Jack Newman, or Ask Dr Sears. Links to LLL in other countries might be offered to mothers who would find help easier in their native languages. Reassurance and emotional support can be offered alongside resources for mothers to consider. It can be overwhelming to have too much to read in a reply. Providing links for further reading allows a mother to choose which topics to investigate further.
Although the Help Form disclaimer1 asks mothers not to share the Help Form reply with others, we always have to be aware that she may share it with others, including her doctor or other health care providers. It is therefore especially important that our facts and references are accurate, and that we distinguish between information that does and does not come directly from LLL. We also need to be careful not to trespass on territory that belongs only to the mother and her doctor. The section on “The Art of Sharing Information without Giving Medical Advice” in Chapter 1 of the Leader’s Handbook is invaluable here, as it is in any one-to-one helping situation.
Empower the mother
When answering a written question without the benefit of conversation, Leaders must analyze the question and consider a variety of possible background scenarios that may not be fully explained. The aim is to support the mother in finding her own solutions to her problems, so it is important to offer information even when the focus of the problem is initially unclear. A variety of links exploring differing scenarios may need to be included. The focus can be narrowed when further discussion gives greater detail. Equipped with information, the mother can take what is useful and leave the rest. If we respond by only asking questions, the mother could choose not to engage further, leaving the Leader unsure how to proceed. Some mothers may ask further questions and may even make contact again months later as new situations arise.
Reply when convenient
Most Help Form Leaders work on replies in spare moments. Many print out the Help Form question and note down ideas on it as they go about their daily tasks, creating the full response later when they have more time. The process is very family friendly and replies can be written at any time of the day or night. Responses can be read over several times or Leaders may even get a second opinion before sending the email reply. It is often a good idea to leave a complicated written response overnight and come back to it fresh in the morning. This can spark new ideas or a new approach and can also give a chance to check that everything has been covered.
In the UK, we have an established Help Form volunteer orientation, which means that no Leader is launched into writing replies without:
- Knowing the relevant Help Form resources
- Looking at the standard practice of other experienced volunteers
- Considering what necessary disclaimers are needed
- Knowing how to ensure that mothers have access to a complaints procedure should it ever be necessary.
We have never had a complaint because Leaders generally phrase their replies diplomatically, but we do need to comply with legal requirements, as a written reply is more permanent than a conversation.
Support from Help Form team
Each reply is based on a template with an initial introduction, information about The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding and other LLL books, how to find local support, how to become a member or make a donation, plus the official disclaimer. This, of course, is thoroughly personalized for each mother but the template saves typing the same details over and over. In their orientation, Help Form volunteers receive feedback from another experienced Leader before finally sending a reply to the mother. Once both Leaders feel confident that she is ready, the new volunteer works independently but will always have the support of the Help Form team if she wants it.
The latest support venture for Help Form Leaders in LLLGB is our Facebook group, a space to seek support, share files, swap ideas, trace missing emails, voice concerns, share highlights, or distribute information through the whole group. This is also a rare opportunity to see what our fellow Help Form Leaders look like, and put faces to names.
Quotes from Leaders
“I like taking Help Forms because, unlike taking calls, they allow me to really think about and research my responses, so I know I’m not forgetting something or getting something wrong in the heat of the moment. It’s also lovely to hear back from mothers and find out how things are going and how my suggestions have helped.”
“I volunteered to do Help Forms as soon as I became accredited, and it’s been a fantastic experience: I’ve learnt loads, and it really fits around my life; I reply whenever I have some time, and if I have to stop for some reason (such as a certain four-year-old) I simply save the document and finish it later. You can ask for as many Help Forms as you can manage, and if one comes at a particularly bad time, you just reject it and it will be sent to another volunteer. My highlight so far has been answering a query from a mum in India!”
“I like being on the Help Form team as it’s often difficult for me to contact mothers during the day, but I can email late at night, or start an email and then finish it later, so I find it fits in well with everything else I do.”
“Help Forms are especially good for those of us who are short of time, and perhaps get interrupted by little ones when we try to achieve anything that requires concentration during the day! Unlike phone calls and meetings, you don’t have to “think on your feet.” You can spend time perfecting them before they are sent out into the world. For this reason, they are not only very satisfying to write, as well as a brilliant learning opportunity for new Leaders to practice helping skills. You quickly build up a more thorough knowledge of online and written resources, which is invaluable in other helping situations, and the ‘cut and paste’ possibilities of word processing programs mean that after a while, you can complete a Help Form really efficiently without having to start from scratch.”
Best things about being a Help Form volunteer
- Rush of adrenalin every time I see “***LLLGB Help Form***” in my Inbox!
- Being able to use my skills to help mothers at times convenient to me.
- Getting lovely emails back (especially the ones with baby photos or videos attached).
- Mothers who have been helped by the Help Form team coming to my Group, or hearing they have settled in a different Group, or even become a Leader!
Having a tangible result from an hour’s work (fits in well with my partner putting my youngest daughter to bed).
- Unusual helping situations I may never have come across before, and the time to find out all about them before I reply.
- Fabulous online resources; all I usually need to do is point mothers in the right direction.
- Lovely helpful colleagues and the Coordinators who look after us.
- It can involve a lot of typing!
- The occasional mother who never acknowledges my email (probably fewer than 1 in 10).
- Sometimes having to say no to a really interesting Help Form just because I’m too busy.
For anyone who has not seen how mothers can submit Help Forms, here are some examples:
If answering online queries sounds like something that could fit into your life please contact your LLL entity’s Help Form coordinator.
Jill Unwin co-leads LLL Berkshire, England and coordinates Help Forms in Great Britain. She had four breastfed babies (daughters Yvonne, Nicky and Charlotte and son Alex) who are now all working adults. Yvonne is still breastfeeding Jill’s first grandson.