Breastfeeding Taboos Across Cultures
It`s 2pm in New York,on a bright Saturday morning.Two months old Bryan Osward and his mother are sitting in the front porch of their Brooklyn home, enjoying the mild morning sun.He is lying on his mother`s laps,sucking her breasts profusely, while pulling his thick black Afro hair.The eye to eye contact between the two is so endearing and they both seem to be in a deep relationship.As I push my shopping cart passing by their home on my way to the grocery,my eyes fall on them and my curiosity gives me a wake up spank!I halt immediately and my mind gossips in a question and answer;“we`ve not seen in a while ,have we?” “Yes it`s true, I have spent several months in New York and this is the first baby I am seeing being breastfed!Why?’’
I make my way towards the mother and son.A few minutes of conversation with Tina Osward unveil the painful truth.Breastfeeding is a taboo to many black American women!They consider it indecent and embarrassing to use their breast as a source of nutrients to their babies.Tina says she had never seen a baby breastfeed until she had her own baby.‘‘My husband and other relatives are not comfortable about the fact that our son is exclusively breastfed,they think it`s primitive and deprives them of the opportunity to feed him too.I have maintained my choice to breastfeed because of the lessons I learnt from my breast feeding counsellor at the WIC clinic.It`s not an easy task but it`s quite fulfilling.Besides it`s the only thing I can give him that no one else can”Tina tells me.
According to Maricel Vasquez,a breastfeeding counsellor in Brooklyn, New York, breastfeeding is natures best gift to babies,it is always ready at the right temperature,easily digested,can be expressed and stored for up to six months in a deep freezer and a week in the refrigerator.It helps the baby fight infections,helps contract the mother`s uterus and facilitates weight loss after delivery.Breastfeeding prevents pediatric diabetes and obesity.‘‘Research has proven that breastfed babies are by far smarter than formula fed babies, says Maricel with a look of certainty on her face.
She tells me, it is an uphill task to get her clients to breastfeed.She sometimes has to go right to the maternity wards and the homes of some moms to ensure that breastfeeding is initiated in the early days of the baby`s life.According to her, when breastfeeding begins the first hours after delivery, it helps establish milk supply and enables the baby to ingest colostrum which is highly nutritive and medicinal.She says the moms need proper follow up and support during breastfeeding.If the baby is not properly latched on,breastfeeding might be painful for the mom and even cause sores.The mothers also need tips on how to produce and store milk incase they need to return to work after delivery.The job of a breast feeding counsellor also involves giving regular phone calls to these mothers to ensure breastfeeding is unfolding smoothly.
Helen Lamilola, a Nigerian immigrant mother of four who lives in the Bronx says she is in a cultural shock due to the the breast feeding discrepancies between the US and Nigeria.‘‘The day I arrived this country, my second son was just four months old.We were at the at the airport when the baby started crying,I immediately unbuttoned my blouse and put him on my breast, only to realize all eyes were on me.I immediately knew I was the center of attraction and left quickly to a secluded area. I have seen women and girls dressed with their breast "sexily" exposed,but I have not seen a single mother proudly and openly feeding her baby publicly.’’ She says in Nigeria mothers breast feed every where and anytime but in the US it is extremely rare to find a mother openly breastfeeding.
Sasha, my black American neighbor tells me, she feels embarrassed to show her breasts in public,so she feeds her baby with formula.As we speak,my eyes fall on her portrait picture hanging on the wall of her living room.In that picture she is wearing a shirt that shows her cleavage so clearly .About the picture she tells me it is more acceptable for her to show her “boobs’’ through her clothes than to give it to a baby in public view.
Has the media succeeded to reduce the feminine body to a sex tool to this extent?Not that every woman must breastfeed but the reason for not doing so should not be inclined to sex as in some cases!
Statistics from the Center of Disease Control and prevention indicate that 75% of women in the US initiate breastfeeding immediately after birth but this percentage experiences a 15 %drop when it comes to exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months.The Healthy people 2020 initiative plans to increase the early breastfeeding initiation rate to 81.9% by 2020.
Few months back, Mayor Bloomberg began pushing hospitals in New York to keep free formula in boxes away from mothers and only provide them in case the mother cannot breastfeed for a medical reason.17 out of 40 hospitals in the state have adopted this policy which has met with huge controversy.Some mothers think it is not ok for them to be pressured to breastfeed.
The free distribution of formula in maternities,WIC(Special supplemental Nutrition Program for Women,Infants and Children) and through food stamps has gone a long way to encourage bottle feeding in the US.
Breastfeeding is one of the most controversial practices world wide.The choice of breastfeeding a baby largely depends on the cultural believes of its mother.Societal influence plays a very huge role in determining the introduction and continuation of breast feeding.
In Cameroon, breastfeeding is highly encouraged and is seen as a way of life for almost every mother.Unfortunately the children of this country are amongst the world`s highly malnourished because although breast feeding is a widely spread culture,exclusive breast feeding for the first six months which is the current public health recommendation for babies,is still a myth to many mothers. Mothers continue to argue that breast milk alone cannot satisfy fully their babies.
In most cases, grandmothers are highly influential when it comes to making decisions about the feeding of babies.These old women consider it abominable for babies to be left without drinking water for six months.They often play very strong roles in encouraging breast feeding as well as mix feeding,with the argument that breast milk alone cannot satisfy the babies hunger and will lead to less weight for the baby.Babies who are fussy are more likely to be introduced to other forms of feeding especially water in the first months of their lives.
Engaging in sexual intercourse while breastfeeding is considered a taboo in most Cameroonian villages and men who support polygamy use breast feeding as an excuse to have more than one wife, so that their sexual gratification is not perturbed by a breastfeeding wife.It is strongly believed that if mothers indulge in sex while breastfeeding the baby will not be healthy and if she breastfeeds while pregnant, the infant will have a life threatening diarrhea.
In the Fulbe tribe in Cameroon it is believed that babies have to be administered some liquids other than breast milk for the first minutes after delivery to facilitate the evacuation of meconium.In some tribes in the Northern region, babies are deprived of colostrum which is regarded as “bad milk”.
The use of a traditional broom or towel that has been dipped in boiling water to beat the bellies of mothers after delivery is believed to be effective in the evacuation of unwanted after birth fluids from the mother`s body and also facilitate the free flow of milk.In other parts of Cameroon,the practice involves the mother sitting on a bucket of boiling water to enable the penetration of vapor into the vagina,is also seen as a method of flattening the bellies of mothers after delivery,shortening the duration of bleeding and reducing the possibility of lower abdominal pains after birth.Women who propagate this practice believe it encourages breast feeding by reducing post delivery discomfort in mothers,thereby making it possible for them to concentrate in breastfeeding.Unfortunately the mother`s often end up with vagina infections,burns and scars.
A 2011 survey by the country`s ministry of public health shows a drop in exclusive breast feeding in Cameroon.(24% in 2004 to 20% in 2011).However 98% of infants less than six months were breastfed with only 20% of them receiving exclusive breast milk.76% of infants between six and nine months were given complementary food in addition to breast milk and malnutrition in infants was measured at 33% .42% of babies between 18 to 35months were discovered with stunted growth.
The gross decline in breast feeding rate in Cameroon is blamed on increase urbanization,HIV, the influx of the western cultures.Many young mothers think it is fashionable to not breastfeed so as to maintain the firmness of their breasts while others see formula feeding as modernity and a proof of high living standards.
Unlike in countries like the US,breastfeeding is an acceptable practice in the eyes of the public in Cameroon.An exposed breast of a breastfeeding mother is not considered as nudity.
The government of Cameroon through the ministry of Public Health has embarked on several campaigns to encourage exclusive breastfeeding in infants from 0-6months.Unfortunately figures for exclusive breast feeding continue to dwindle as the years go by.Mix feeding babies is a deep rooted cultural practice which requires a lot of efforts in the form of sensitization and follow up to be eradicated.
The media has a very crucial role to play if breastfeeding has to regain its original position of importance in countries worldwide.The media`s portrayal of women`s bodies as sex objects is directly responsible for the decline of breastfeeding and is one of the most dangerous forms of violence against women.So long as we as women continue to evaluate ourselves based on standards prescribed by the media,we shall continue to give society the upper hand to define our relevance and values. The breast flowing with milk is a stronger and respectable symbol of the woman.It can preserve, protect,nurture and yield more respect to the woman than the well rounded ,smooth and firm breasts that only goes to give more power to the male ego.