In many ways, parenting newborns seems instinctual.
We see a little baby, and we want to hold her. Snuggle and kiss her. Even just her smell seems magical.
Many of us think breast-feeding is similar.
“I had that idea before my first child was born,” says Brooke Scelza, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Los Angeles, California. “I definitely thought, ‘Oh, I’m going to figure that out. Like how hard can it be?’ ”
Although breast-feeding is easy for some women, for many new moms — including Scelza — 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.
“This is just surprising because breast-feeding was a critical function for child survival in the past, and if you couldn’t figure it out, your infant was going to be in really big trouble,” Scelza says.
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.
“They’re cattle herders basically,” Scelza says. “But they also have gardens where they grow maize, sorghum and pumpkins.”
Moms still give birth in the home. And all moms breast-feed.
“I have yet to encounter a woman who could not breastfeed 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.”
And Himba women make breast-feeding look easy, Scelza says. They even do it while they’re walking around.
“So women will carry the babies with them on their backs, and then if the baby cries, they take the baby out, feed the baby and then put the baby on their back,” she says.
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.
“Farmers know that separation of mother and newborn farm animals results in … an inability on the part of the baby to suckle,” anthropologist Meredith Small writes in her book Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent.
“We have only recently become aware that human babies have the same sort of reflexes designed to seal the pact between mother and infant right after birth,” Small continues. But if you take the baby away from the mom during the first hour or so, you can “derail the whole process.”
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.
“I’m telling you that’s exactly what I thought was going on until I started to talk to Himba women,” Scelza says.
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.
And their problems went behind breast-feeding.
“Most women talked about having little knowledge about early infant care, such as how to hold babies or how to be sure they’re sleeping safely,” Scelza says.
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.
And then the new mom’s mom — the grandma — shows her everything she needs to know about breast-feeding and infant care.
“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.
“As I started to read about this [Himba practice] you can find so many examples of this in so many cultures,” Scelza says.
For example, there’s a small ethnic group in the Ivory Coast, called Beng. In their community, a woman learns to breast-feed from other moms, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb describes 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.”
In many Asian cultures, women have traditionally practiced what’s called “sitting the month,” or zuo yue zi in Mandarin. For 30 days, a women stays confined in her home and is looked after by grandmothers, in-laws and aunts.
These women cook and help the new mom recover from giving birth. But they also teach her how to breast-feed.
“Researchers often write about this period as a time for recuperation,” Scelza says. “But I’m increasingly interested in thinking it as critical period of learning for new moms.”
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.
“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,” Scelza says. 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.”
Tell us a tradition about breast-feeding in your culture. Send an email to email@example.com with the subject line “Breastfeeding” and we’ll consider it for a possible story on NPR.org.