If you had a hard time in the early days of breastfeeding, it’s time to give yourself a break. A recent survey of moms showed that 92 percent of new mothers struggled with latch issues, fears of low supply, and painful or cracked nipples during the early days of breastfeeding. While breastfeeding is a natural function of our bodies, it’s also something we don’t learn much about it until it’s our turn to try it out. Globally, America has one of the lowest rates for breastfeeding, so a team of anthropologists set out to compare the American breastfeeding experience with that of a Himba village in Namibia where every mother breastfeeds.
Unlike American women, every Himba woman breastfeeds her baby. Babies are born at home and often worn while mothers tend to cattle or crops. Breastfeeding is ingrained in the lifestyle of the Himba women. When anthropologists began their research, their assumptions about why Himba women all breastfed included that Himba women had seen breastfeeding done by their sisters, mothers, neighbors and relatives and it had become very normalized and second nature. They also assumed that the home births allowed long, uninterrupted contact between mom and baby shortly after birth which is a direct contrast to the experience of many American mothers.
What the researchers learned however, was that the Himba women did not find breastfeeding to be easy or necessarily instinctual. Like American women, the Himba women worried about their supply, about their baby’s ability to latch, and whether baby was getting enough milk or eating too much. Unlike American women, however, Himba women remain part of a support network that helps them facilitate their breastfeeding. After a Himba woman gives birth, she returns to her own mother, who guides her through the early days of breastfeeding while helping her bond with and care for her new baby. Grandmothers help remind new moms that struggling with latching, worrying about supply is all normal, they’re just hurdles to overcome while learning the new process of nursing their child.
Learn more about the Himba women and the power of intergenerational and woman-to-woman support at NPR: Secrets of Breastfeeding Moms in the Know.