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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.

This story was written for World Pulse’s Ending Violence Against Women Digital Action Campaign.

World Pulse believes that women's stories, recommendations, and collective rising leadership can—and will—bring an end to gender-based violence. The EVAW Campaign elicits powerful content from women on the ground, strengthens their confidence as vocal grassroots leaders, and ensures that influencers and powerful institutions hear their stories.
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Comments

Sharontina's picture

Wonderful!

A wonderful and mind capturing piece. Thanks for sharing this.

In India too this status prevails much in the urbanized regions where women believe or made to believe by the media that they lose their beauty on breastfeeding. whereas in the villages breastfeeding is considered to be a must. But yet another pathetic condition exists and that is the scenario of malnourished mothers due to the lacking maternal care both pre and post natal.

And as you said, media holds the responsibility of playing a crucial role in changing this situation.

Much Love.

Merlin Sharontina

Leina's picture

Dear Sharonita, Thanks for

Dear Sharonita,
Thanks for adding your voice! It is quite interesting to learn what different cultures world wide hold about breastfeeding.It is sad to realize how this fallacy of loosing beauty because of breastfeeding has infiltrated the minds of women all over the world to the detriment of the health and well being of babies .
With Love,
Leina

Mukut's picture

Great post

Leina,

As Sharontina said, the media in India, overpowers the women into believing that their "figure" or "sex appeal ' is lost once they become a mother or breastfeed. It is sad. Though the Government, through ads, is compelling and encouraging mothers to breastfeed their child for the first 6 months.

As you put it beautifully in your post-"Breastfeeding is nature's best gift to babies." Mothers shouldn't succumb to the societal pressure and stop this beautiful bond from forming, of nurture and care.

Thank you for voicing the various stigmas attached to breastfeeding,across the globe.

Much love,

Mukut Ray

Mandi's picture

thank you

Leina nice article and thank you for presenting in words. Like India, Nepal has similar stories with younger generation mothers. In Nepal breastfeeding culture is highly practiced as we still believe in traditional breastfeeding and on belief that drinking mother's milk in child is pride and honor. Though there are different stories in different communities.

Your way of writing this story is incredible. keep writing new stories..

lovely work
Mandira

Leina's picture

Dear Mukut, I am so glad to

Dear Mukut,
I am so glad to get perspectives of breastfeeding from different parts of the world!The story in India appears to be similar to that in most parts of the world.Thank God through sharing of information we can inform ourselves of the reality in our communities and fight for a better tomorrow!Thank God for World Pulse!!!
with Love,
Leina

Leina's picture

Hey My dear Mandi, How sweet

Hey My dear Mandi,
How sweet to see you active on this platform!We have to undo the media`s agenda for a better perception of women first and for the health of our babies too!Thank you so much. I can`t wait to begin reading your work here too!
hugs,
Leina

Greengirl's picture

Captivating and rich post!

Leina, thank you so much for sharing this very crucial but overlooked issue.

You touched on a lot of vital issues which bothered on breastfeeding. As a Nigerian, I could readily identify with Helen's style of breastfeeding, because it is acceptable within our country's cultural context. It is common practice to see women in Nigeria breastfeeding their babies in the public, even the upcoming and very trendy mothers have nothing to fear. Interestingly, some babies are even breastfed up to age two.

I hope that globally, mothers would wake up to the reality that exclusive breastfeeding is vital to their baby's health as well as their own.

You did well by sharing this well written piece.

Hugs,

Olanike

Leina's picture

Thank you sister Olanike, I

Thank you sister Olanike,

I am more than grateful to get your opinion on this issue which to me is a burning one!Breastfeeding is the most natural thing to do.I think any society that fails to accord this right to women is violating the rights of mothers and babies.I am believe change is on it`s way,especially with platforms like this and open minded women like you!
hugs,
Leina

kmwelch's picture

Thank you for sharing these

Thank you for sharing these observations, Leina. Being from the United States, it is true that in most places it is seen as shocking or abnormal to breastfeed "in public" while it is not seen as strange to expose your breasts in dress.

In my opinion, the medicalization of health (institutions controlling the birthing "industry" and giving authority of medical doctors over what we do with our bodies) and the influences of our patriarchal society here want to prevent us from having close relationships with our own bodies and choosing for ourselves what is best--whether it be giving birth, breastfeeding, growing hair, menstruating etc., The majority of us here are not encouraged to express these parts of ourselves nor talk about it openly, especially in the presence of men or in public forums. Women who attempt to run for political office face unequal scrutiny and media coverage about what they wear, if their menses will affect their ability to make decisions, and if and how they mother. As these forces are commodifying and controlling how we experience and talk about these practices, we as women lose the power and opportunity to express ourselves and make decisions about what we feel is best for our health and the lives of our family.

I agree with your words and hope we can find ways to embrace the symbols of strength and respect breast feeding represents for all of us, whether or not we ourselves give birth.

Katie

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