In honor of Global Breast Feeding Week, GC4W is proud to share Secrets Of Breast Feeding from Global Moms in the Know.

Many think breast-feeding is instinctual. Although easy for some women, for many new moms — including Brooke Scelza, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Los Angeles, California — it’s a struggle. “I was shocked at how hard it was,” she says. In a survey a few years ago, 92 percent of women said they had problems in the first few days of breast-feeding. They couldn’t get the baby to latch onto the nipple. They had pain. Sore nipples. And they were worried they weren’t making enough milk.

It’s almost like in the U.S. we’ve lost the breast-feeding instinct. That Western society has somehow messed it up. Scelza wanted to figure out why: What are we doing wrong? So a few years ago, she traveled to a place with some of the best breast-feeders in the world: in the desert of northern Namibia, there’s an ethnic group that lives largely isolated from modern cities. They’re called Himba, and they live in mud huts and survive off the land. Moms still give birth in the home. And all moms breast-feed.

“I have yet to encounter a woman who could not breast-feed at all,” Scelza says. “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.”

Scelza and other anthropologists have come up with several hypotheses for why Himba women and women in other traditional cultures are so successful at breast-feeding. One idea is that the mom and her newborn have long, uninterrupted contact right after birth. Since women are at home, there are no doctors and nurses whisking the infant away for weighing, fingerprinting or tests. This contact allows the newborn’s suckling instincts to kick in, researchers have hypothesized.

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The second hypothesis is that Himba women learn how to breast-feed throughout their childhood. Because women see their moms, siblings and friends breast-feed while growing up.

“Breast-feeding in public isn’t stigmatized at all,” Scelza says. So by the time they have their own babies, Himba women know what to do and it appears instinctual. Here in the U.S. we hardly ever see mothers breast-feeding. So women never really learn.

Well, turns out both hypotheses aren’t quite right.

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. 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.

So how do the Himba get over these problems? They have a secret weapon many American women don’t, Scelza says: Grandmothers.

“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,” she says.  “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!” Scelza exclaims.

So it’s really not that we’ve lost the natural instinct for breast-feeding. But instead we no longer have a grandma around 24/7 to be a teacher. We’ve lost the guidance. We’ve lost the support. So it’s no wonder American women struggle with breast-feeding. It would be strange if they didn’t. Because women have problems breast-feeding everywhere. Moms have evolved to need help, to be taught.

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“I think that there’s enormous pressure to succeed with breast-feeding in the U.S. and that you feel like if you can’t do it that this is a huge failing as a mother. But Himba women didn’t seem to think the problems related to breast-feeding were a big deal: when [the baby] had trouble latching, they were just like, ‘Yeah, this is part of what you have to learn if you’re going to breast-feed,” she says. “They didn’t stigmatize the failing.”


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