BFUSA Celebrates Larry Gartner, MD ― Founding (and Current) Board Member

Published On: February 5, 2024|

He was there before BFUSA was BFUSA ― in the early 1990s, as part of the initial formative discussions about how to implement the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative in the United States. Then, in 1997, he became a founding member of BFUSA’s Board of Directors. And now, more than a quarter century later, Lawrence Gartner, MD, remains on the BFUSA Board, a steady force, a trusted advisor, and an impassioned champion of breastfeeding. Over those years, his many contributions to improved maternity care practices have enhanced the lives of countless babies, mothers, and families.

Dr. Gartner’s professional interest in breastfeeding began in the late 1950s when he was conducting general pediatric clinic visits while at medical school at Johns Hopkins.

“A mother who was a recent immigrant from Germany came in with her baby who was probably about three or four months old,” he recalls. “When I was taking the history, the baby started to cry. And she did something that I had never seen before ― she put the baby to the breast. I had never seen a baby breastfeed before. In fact, in all of my medical education at Hopkins, nobody had ever mentioned or indicated in any way that breastfeeding was something one should know about. But seeing this, and seeing the baby calm down, just turned something on in me and I thought, ‘That’s amazing and important. I’ve got to know more about this.’”

His emerging interest in breastfeeding was cemented during his residency at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he began to focus on neonatal jaundice. And once again, his interest was sparked by a visit from a mother from a European country.

“One day I got a call that there was a baby who had come in who was more jaundiced than usual and they had admitted the child,” he remembers. “The other residents and faculty knew I was interested in neonatal jaundice, so they called me. I went to see them and the baby looked perfectly well. The only unusual thing about this was the mother, who had recently come from Italy, was breastfeeding. And that made me wonder if this baby’s slightly exaggerated but not dangerous jaundice was, in fact, related to the breastfeeding.”

This hunch was the beginning of Dr. Gartner’s long and prestigious research career exploring the relationship between bilirubin metabolism and breastfeeding. As a world renowned expert on jaundice and breastfeeding, he has published more than 200 papers on this subject and on other aspects of breastfeeding, liver disease and neonatology.

“Breastfeeding prolongs and slightly exaggerates the levels of bilirubin,” he explains. “This is a positive and important issue because bilirubin is an antioxidant and babies have no other antioxidants. All mammals have some increase in the jaundice in the early days as a protective mechanism.”

This area of interest brought Dr. Gartner to the attention of La Leche League leadership, who invited him to speak at a meeting in Chicago.

“La Leche introduced me to people who knew a lot about breastfeeding,” he recalls. “They invited me to come to more meetings, and eventually I became the director of the annual meeting they ran for physicians and nurses. Later, I got involved with Audrey Naylor and giving talks at WellStart as part of their training program.”

Dr. Naylor invited Dr. Gartner to be part of the initial discussions about implementing the BFHI in the United States, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“When we started out, breastfeeding and the role of human milk ― what it does and how it functions ― was essentially unknown and ignored,” he says. “I remember arguing with eminent pediatricians about the importance of human milk. Over the years, there has been a great deal of research demonstrating the effects of human milk on many aspects of infant development. Clearly, the knowledge and understanding about breastmilk and its importance has been established as a scientifically proven phenomenon.”

And, of course, he is proud of the achievements made by BFUSA, the organization he helped to form.

“We knew we would get here, but we weren’t sure how that was going to happen,” he says. “It was a struggle at first, no question. We had an organization in its own infancy working to get hospitals through the process.”

And through it all, Larry Gartner has been there as one of the key individuals helping to sustain the organization.

“I had a choice of organizations to continue to be involved with,” he reflects, “and I decided that one of the two organizations I was going to stick with and put time into was Baby-Friendly USA. I love the people, I love the organization, and I love the mission, which I consider to be very important.

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