Secrets of the best breastfeeders in the world
Come with us on a journey around the world! These mums also have one simple, yet effective tip when it comes to winning at breastfeeding...
For many new mums-to-be, the thought of holding and cuddling their new baby is beyond exciting. With this feeling comes the confidence that being a mum is completely natural – and of course it is, almost always.
However, there are certain aspects of motherhood that might not be as instinctual as others, and breastfeeding is one of them.
Some mums and babies have no issues at all getting breastfeeding initiated. Others might struggle a bit. Some persist through their issues, and go on breastfeeding for years even. But for others, the struggle is just too hard and they may give up.
Ultimately, what matters is that mummy and baby are happy and healthy. But at the same time, we cannot ignore the strong messages from authorities in health such as the World Health Organisation about the benefits of breastfeeding up to a year (and beyond) that both baby and mummy get.
From time immemorial, mothers around the world have breastfed their babies. In some cultures, they still think nothing of nursing their children for even five or six years (or longer). It was the same in the past in many now-developed nations around the world, both Western and non-Western.
But in the recent past, the act of breastfeeding has increasingly become stigmatised for a variety of reasons. The good news is that many campaigns have been launched to #normalizebreastfeeding around the world.
With a lot of focus on those trying to normalise the act of breastfeeding again, we thought of bringing you examples of cultures from around the world where breastfeeding was always normal – then and now, and what we can learn from them.
Let’s go on a quick journey around the world with evolutionary anthropologist Brooke Scelza (University of Los Angeles, California), as she examines the habits of some of the best breastfeeders in the world and pinpoints the one thing in common with all these super breastfeeders.
The Himba are an ethnic group who live in the Northern Namibian desert, far away from modern cities. They live off the land and their homes are basic mud huts.
Mothers in this tribe give birth at home and they all breastfeed their babies. Scelza says, “I have yet to encounter a woman who could not breast-feed at all. There are women who have supply issues, who wind up supplementing with goat’s milk, which is not uncommon. But there’s basically no use of formula or bottles or anything like that.”
It’s common to see a Himba woman get about her daily chores with her baby strapped to her back, feed the baby when he is hungry, pop him back, and continue with whatever she was doing.
Scleza and other anthropologists had hypothesised that the Himba are so good at breastfeeding because:
- They have long, uninterrupted contact with their baby after birth.
- There are no medical professionals whisking the newborn away from various tests, which gives baby time for his suckling reflexes to kick in.
- Breastfeeding in public is normal because women see their own mothers, friends, and relative breastfeeding their own children while growing up. When they have babies of their own, they know what to do.
All this happens in their tribe. But it turns out that the hypotheses weren’t quite right.
When Scelza actually spoke to these women a few years ago, she discovered that like other women around the world, they also had ‘new mum’ problems, among them pain, concerns about milk supply and more.
So what is their secret weapon to getting past these problems?
The baby’s grandmother!
“When a woman gives birth, she typically goes home to her mother’s compound in the last trimester of pregnancy and stays there for months after the birth,” says Scelza. Grandma then shows and teaches the new mum everything she needs to know about looking after a newborn and breastfeeding.
“Their mothers actually sleep in the hut with them after birth and wake up the new mom and say, ‘It’s time to feed your baby! It’s time to feed your baby!'” she explains.
In this little community, new mums learn how to breastfeed with the support of other women, explains anthropologist Alma Gottlieb in her book The Afterlife Is Where We Come From.
“During the first few weeks, a newly delivered woman — especially a first-time mother … has a constant stream of visitors, particularly women,” Gottlieb writes. “Most have breast-fed many babies themselves, and they spontaneously share their nursing wisdom. Through them, a new mother is quickly socialized into accepting an almost continual round of breast-feeding suggestions dispensed by more experienced women.”
We come closer to home now. In China, new mothers traditionally practice zuo yue zi (坐月子), or ‘sitting the month’. We also know it as the ‘confinement period’ and it’s where a new mum stays confined in her home for a month, looked after by female relatives.
The members of this all-female support system make nutritious food for the new mum, many recipes which help her produce more milk and recover from birth. They also teach her how to nurse her little one and look after him/her in general.
Again, new mums learn from their older, more experienced network.
What is clear from each of these three examples is the importance of having a strong support system in place. This can help new mums overcome breastfeeding issues and ideally continue for six months and beyond.
Support, education and awareness can go a long way in helping new mothers in all aspects of mothering. Never before has that proverbial “village” been more important. So reach out to your own tribe, mamas, and don’t forget to offer your own support to new mums you might know.