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OUR BABIES, OURSELVES PART 7: The Culture of Breastfeeding

by Sarah on March 2nd, 2011

Ok, so this is the second last section of the book that I’m going to share with you. Quite a bit of it was touched on when I spoke before about the different child-raising practices around the world.

What I learned about the culture of breastfeeding in general, is that ever since humans invented containers which could hold things, mothers have artificially fed their children with milk which wasn’t theirs. This goes back thousands of years. Presumably because it made their lives easier, and so they did what was best for them and not for their babies.

Studies have also shown that most nonindustrial societies (eg. the Amele of Papua New Guinea, the !Kung San of Southern Africa, and the Indonesians of Central Java) feed their babies on cue and in short intervals, all day long and at night as well. In most westernised, industrial cultures, mothers feed their babies on a schedule with long intervals. In all cultures though, to some extent, women will adapt their lifestyles to their babies needs, and babies will adapt to their mother’s availability.

Something else that was interesting to read is that although things like nicotine and caffeine can be found in breast milk, and that different foods change the chemical makeup of breast milk, there is no clinical evidence that small amounts of any food type affects babies. The idea that a baby is crying because of something a mother ate, is strong with the western culture.

Studies have shown that all mothers will use supplemental food in addition to breast milk at some point. Some as early as three days after birth. There is a long tradition in the West of using milk from other species to feed babies. Although goats milk is more like human milk, cows milk is most commonly used. Wet nurses have been used in the western culture for as long as history has been recorded, meaning that babies are fed milk from another woman besides their own mother. This became unfashionable in the 1940′s.  This was about the same time when formula became more widely used in the West. It was invented in the 1800′s, but only took off later, when medical companies colluded with the formula companies. This collusion was revealed in the USA in the 1980′s, when Nestle was boycotted. This is when UNICEF and the World Health Organisation began to publicly promote that breast feeding is best for infants.

Interesting to know, is that when when artificial feeding is more fashionable, more babies die, especially in places where not practised under sanitary conditions. UNICEF estimates that 1.5 million babies die each year because they are not breastfed. This is because of loss of natural immunities and sanitation.

Something else that the book discusses is the myth that women can have insufficient milk. This problem only exists in Western, industrialised cultures. It is believed that this largely due to things like stress and anxiety in urban environments, and the lack of multi-generational female support and advice. The western, urban styles of caretaking make breast feeding really challenging (like women having to work) and so it’s not surprising that so many women give it up.

Like the author, Meredith Small, says, “Surely we can come up with a biologically sounder way to combine the lifestyles we live, or are compelled to accommodate to, with the biological needs of an infant. Maybe if breasts were perceived as less sexual objects and more as nutritional devices; if fashion followed suit…; if the sight of breastfeeding women became common…; if sanitary wet-nursing became more acceptable; or if babies were allowed into the workplace – maybe then we could better interface biology and culture for this issue”.

  • Juliemiller78

    This book sounds amazing. Where did you get it Sarah?

  • Anonymous

    Hey Julie! It really is amazing. I ordered my copy from
    Definitely worth reading!