It may seem that breast-feeding is a natural, instinctive procedure. However, as many new and inexperienced mothers discover, things are not always so simple. In fact, the learning process can prove so difficult for both mother and baby that many women, not knowing where to turn for advice, give up and move on to bottle-feeding.

While sitting in on the group of ten mothers (and one father) attending a monthly meeting of La Leche League (LLL), an international non-profit organisation founded 50 years ago to give breast-feeding mothers moral and practical support, it seemed that very little had changed since I struggled to breast-feed my own first baby over 30 years ago.

The group recounted how it is still common for doctors and paediatricians to advise their patients to go on to bottle-feeding because it is considered easier and more convenient. Although these experts do not go so far as to suggest, as was the case 30 years ago, that manufactured milk is healthier and more nutritious, old myths, such as that some women have breast milk that is too rich or fatty, or too weak, die hard. During the meeting, mothers complained of little or no support during the difficult early stages after giving birth and of some hospitals that still insist on separating mothers and babies immediately postpartum, and which impose strict feeding routines during the crucial early days puerperal women spend under their roofs.

Martina Carabetta, president of the Italian branch of the LLL, said that most of the women who come to the monthly sessions are looking mainly for reassurance: In modern society, many new mothers feel quite isolated and dont know who to ask for help.

LLL counsellors are all volunteers who have had personal experience of breast-feeding and are able to provide the kind of information and common sense advice which, sadly, seems to be often lacking in the medical profession. The volunteers receive training on the kind of down-to-earth, practical advice they should give mothers. They also have a lot of literature published by La Leche, which mothers can purchase. For medical problems, there are doctors that they can consult, who are not actually volunteer members but kind of affiliated helpers.

Carabetta soothingly went on to reassure anxious mothers that the standard six feeds a day supposed to be normal for babies isnt relevant for breast-fed babies. Every baby is different, she said. And the consistency of the mothers milk also changes throughout the course of the day. The baby automatically takes what he or she needs.

The double weighing regime before and after each feed that most paediatricians insist on is totally misleading, she told the group. Weighing your baby before and after feeds is simply no use at all, she explained. The fact is, the established standard growth curve for infants is based on research done in the 1960s, when breast-feeding in the western world was at its lowest peak and the majority of babies were bottle-fed. It simply doesnt apply to breast-fed babies. This practice, in fact, often only creates anxiety and stress in mothers, who tend to believe that their babies havent taken enough.

The meetings also give women an opportunity to air their worries on other issues. Carabetta calmly comforted one mother who had been traumatised during labour by overhearing an argument between the doctor and the midwife attending her about whether it would be more convenient to deliver the baby by caesarean. Another mother was struggling with her sense of guilt because her baby had been born prematurely. Its common in these cases for women to blame themselves, Carabetta said. They think they must have overdone it and brought on the birth. But actually, this isnt the case. Just think how tough women were in the past, working in the fields and giving birth behind a bush. Then you realise how resilient a womans body is.

The problem of newborn babies who are slow and unresponsive after the birth was also aired. Doctors rarely inform patients of the consequences anaesthetics can have on their babies. An epidural means that the baby is absorbing the anaesthetic for maybe hours on end. And the effects can linger on for quite a long time after the birth. Women should be given more information about the consequences of certain processes, she believes. She thinks that women are frequently not given enough say in the way their labour is handled.

LLL celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. It was founded by seven women in the United States in 1956, when the number of breast-fed babies had dropped to around 20 per cent of all newborns. The first meeting was held at the home of one of the founders, Mary White, and soon afterwards the group invited Dr Grantly-Dick Read (whose revolutionary book Childbirth without Fear ushered in the concept of natural childbirth in the 1950s) to give a lecture at the local high school. Four years later, a branch of the LLL opened in Quebec, Canada. The League became truly international in 1964, when delegates from Canada, Mexico and New Zealand attended the first conference in Chicago and the organisation is now present in 66 countries. The Italian branch opened in 1979 and has 135 consultants in various parts of the country, offering invaluable advice on this natural, but often complicated, art.

- La Leche League meets once a month at the Centro Sociale, Casale del Podere Rosa, Via Diego Fabbri, corner Via dei Stefani (Via Palmiro Togliatti). 10.00-12.00. There is no charge and prior booking is not required. For more information contact Martina Carabetta, tel. 064072326.

- Meetings are also held in English at Il Nido, Via Marmorata 169, tel. 065758648, 0657300707. 10.00 on 24 April, 15 May and 18 June. For more information contact Deanna Fenton, tel. 069511170.