While breastfeeding is in many regards a universal practice, the truth is that where someone lives, the culture they're a part of, and even their spiritual beliefs can impact how they approach breastfeeding. For this reason, the breastfeeding practice of a mother who lives in the Middle East may differ from the breastfeeding practice of a mother in the United States. In honor of National Breastfeeding Month, Romper looks at breastfeeding traditions from around the world.
Unlike formula, which was invented in the 19th Century, breastfeeding is believed to have been around since, well, prehistoric times. Researchers have found evidence of at least seven months exclusive breastfeeding in the tooth of a 100,000-year-old Neanderthal child, according to Science. What's more, references to breastfeeding have been found in ancient Greek myths and Egyptian hieroglyphs. However, despite how common breastfeeding may appear to have been throughout history, many aspects of its practices, including how it's done, when babies are weaned, and how it's viewed by society vary. In fact, according to Slate, anthropologists believe that "human culture and lifestyles have influenced the practice of breastfeeding since the beginning of civilization."
And while mothers likely weren't aware of the specific health benefits breastfeeding provided their children in prehistoric times, experts and medical professionals now know that breast milk contains a number of beneficial nutrients. So what do breastfeeding traditions look like today? Here are seven fascinating breastfeeding traditions from around the world:
Himba Women In Northern Namibia Often Breastfeed On The Go
In an interview with NPR, Brooke Scelza, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, shared what she learned about breastfeeding from the Himba, an ethnic group that resides largely isolated from urban cities in the desert of northern Namibia. While Scelza found that some Himba women suffered with latching or ran into supply issues, there was no use of formula or bottles among women and families in the village.
In fact, Scelza claimed Himba women made breastfeeding "look easy" and often managed to do it while walking. "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," NPR reported she said. Talk about getting a meal on the go.
Nursing Mothers Are Celebrated In Mongolia
In an essay published by InCulture Parent, Ruth Kamnitzer discusses the differences she experienced living — and breastfeeding — in both Canada and Mongolia. While breastfeeding is certainly encouraged for babies in Canada, Kamnitzer said the practice was more than encouraged in Mongolia, it was celebrated, especially in public.
"In Mongolia, instead of relegating me to a 'Mothers Only' section, breastfeeding in public brought me firmly to center stage," she wrote. "From the time Calum was four months old until he was three years old, wherever I went, I heard the same thing over and over again: 'Breastfeeding is the best thing for your baby, the best thing for you.' The constant approval made me feel that I was doing something important that mattered to everyone — exactly the kind of public applause every new mother needs." According to Kamnitzer, mothers in Mongolia often nurse well into their child's toddler years.
In China, The Tradition Of "Sitting The Month" Can Help
In China, the tradition of Zuo Yuezi, or "sitting the month," can be traced back thousands of years. According to Motherly, it is, in essence, a month-long period of confinement that comes with strict rules about food, clothing, and even hygiene in an effort to restore internal balance to a new mother's body following childbirth.
While the rules and guidelines laid out for "sitting the month" are mainly focused on bringing a restored sense of balance to a new mother's body, it's also a time when family members (mothers, aunts, grandmothers, and mother-in-laws, specifically) impart their knowledge and wisdom about child care. And while the tradition has its pros and cons, it can provide new mothers with the time and support needed to tackle many of the frustrating issues that can crop up with breastfeeding, such as trouble getting baby to latch.
Baby Pageants Encourage Breastfeeding In Sierra Leone
In an effort to combat high rates of infant mortality and one of the world's lowest rates of exclusive breastfeeding, Sierra Leone began organizing pageants for breastfed babies in the early 2000s, according to UNICEF, which helped roll out the strategy. The goal? Encourage more mothers to breastfeed by enabling them to show off their child's chubby cheeks and pudgy legs in pageants where they can win awards.
"The community pageants and awards have made an impact, with health surveys conducted by UNICEF Sierra Leone and the government showing an improvement of 3 per cent in the number of infants who are exclusively breastfed," a 2006 report from UNICEF noted.
Female Relatives Wash A Hindu Mother's Breast Before She Feeds
It is tradition in Hindu culture that female relatives wash the breasts of a nursing mother before she breastfeeds her child for the first time, according to the weekly peer-reviewed medical journal BMJ.
The Royal Family Is Embracing A Tradition Of Breastfeeding
While previous monarchs (including Queen Victoria) are reported to have not approved of breastfeeding, Queen Elizabeth II has helped Britain's Royal Family embrace a tradition of breastfeeding. According to Moms.com, the queen breastfed her own children and now encourages other members of the royal family to breastfeed if possible. That being said, The Mirror has reported that Kate Middleton "feels that [breastfeeding] is a matter of personal choice, and that new mums should do whatever feels right for them and their baby."
In Bangladesh, Objects Help Ward Off Evil During Breastfeeding
Families in Bangladesh often tuck objects under a babies' mattress in an effort to ward off evil winds and spirits they fear may reach them through a mother's milk, according to a 2012 report in Health Science Journal. Families may opt for a match box, the bone from an animal sacrifice, or the hairs of a broom that has been used to drive the negative spirit away.
While breastfeeding traditions vary from country to country and cultures around the world approach and view the practice of nursing from different perspectives, breastfeeding can have major benefits for mom and baby. That being said, decisions about nursing are personal and no mother should feel shame for how they choose to feed their child.