A researcher discovered one big difference among cultures when it comes to successful nursing.
In the 50s and 60s, breastfeeding in America became stigmatized. Only poor, lower-class women breastfed — the ones who could afford it used formulas and bottles. It took a few decades for the negative health repercussions of formula and the benefits of breast milk to be widely recognized, and even longer to turn the cultural tide back to breastfeeding.
Now, doctors and hospitals do everything they can to encourage breastfeeding. Baby-friendly hospitals prioritize immediate breastfeeding following delivery, encourage rooming-in, discourage pacifiers and formula supplements, and provide lactation consultants for new moms. Despite these efforts, American moms still have a hard time breastfeeding, and most give up well before the recommended six months to a year.
Brooke Scelza, an evolutionary anthroplogist at UCLA, decided to figure out exactly why that was. She assumed, like many, that it was a combination of early separation of baby from mother and the lack of breastfeeding prevalence in American culture. But as she told NPR, that’s not what she found.
A few years ago, Scelza interviewed 30 Himba women in depth about their experiences breast-feeding, especially in the first few days after birth. And guess what? Himba women are a lot like American women.
“Many of the women that I talked to actually struggled a lot with learning how to breast-feed,” she says.
Two-thirds of the women said they had some problems at the beginning, such as pain, fear, troubles getting the baby to latch and concerns about the milk supply — just like American moms.
Scelza was stunned to learn that Himba women also struggle with breastfeeding and early infant care, and found that the difference between their culture and ours comes down to one important person: grandmothers.
Himba women spend the last trimester and the first few months after birth living with their mothers. They even sleep in the same room, and the grandmother will often wake up the new mother when it’s time to feed her baby.
This practice is by no means isolated to the Himba — many indigenous cultures have a tradition of older women and experienced mothers teaching and supporting a new mother, even for months after birth. In Asian cultures, new mothers are expected to stay in bed for 30 days while their mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters, and aunts care for them and their baby, and teach the new mothers what they need to know about caring for a newborn.
American women are given 2 days of hospital support (5 if they’ve had a C-section) and then sent home. Lactation consultations require appointments, money, and — worst of all — trying to leave the house with a newborn. Rare paternity leave and limited maternity leave combine to leave women feeling both unsupported but also pressured to breastfeed for whatever time is available.
None of this is conducive to learning how to breastfeed, and many American women live too far from their families to count on for help. Moreover, many American grandmothers didn’t breastfeed their own daughters — so American moms are often learning to breastfeed in a void, bereft of the wisdom of prior generations. The only way to encourage extended breastfeeding is for American moms to help each other.
I had a hard time breastfeeding my first baby. We had thrush, which is incredibly painful, and none of the medications the doctors gave me worked. It seemed like the only cure was to stop breastfeeding altogether. That’s when my godparents’ daughter stepped in.
She and her husband had five kids at that time, and she had experienced every breastfeeding nightmare known to woman. She told me about a dye called gentian violet, which doctors dismissed as messy and ineffective. But she had used it with success when her babies had thrush, so I decided I would make it my last-ditch effort.
It dyed absolutely everything purple and worked like a charm. In two days, the symptoms of thrush started to clear up. I didn’t have to stop breastfeeding at all — I just needed someone who had overcome this particular challenge to help me out a little.
That’s all most American moms need — understanding and support. Breastfeeding might be natural, but it’s hard. It’s something that must be learned, and it’s vital that we remind new moms of this. And then help them learn.