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Here’s the Real Reason Why Breastfeeding Is Harder for American Women

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It’s no secret that breastfeeding can present some challenges for moms, especially at the beginning. Sore nipples, babies who won’t latch, milk supply worries, babies who scream anytime they are near the nipple — the list goes on.

And yet, we’re constantly told that breastfeeding is “beautiful” and “natural,” and should come easily for us. So why is it so damn hard, then? And why, as the CDC reports, do almost half of all American moms give up breastfeeding altogether by the six-month mark? What’s really going on here?

Recently, one determined woman set out on a mission to find out. As NPR reports, Brooke Scelza, an evolutionary anthropologist from UCLA, headed for the desert of northern Namibia, where she went to study the people of the region (who are known as the “Himba”) for one main reason: The women are all successful at breastfeeding — and Scelza was determined to unlock their secret.

“I have yet to encounter a woman [in northern Namibia] who could not breastfeed at all,” Scelza recently told NPR. “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.”

Scelza also told NPR that she herself found breastfeeding difficult, admitting that she was “shocked by how hard it was.” But what she was even more shocked to learn was that the Himba moms also found it difficult — at least at the beginning.

During her research, Scelza interviewed 30 Himba women about their experiences breastfeeding in the first few days after birth. And it turns out, Himba women struggle with many of the same things American women do.

“Many of the women that I talked to actually struggled a lot with learning how to breastfeed,” Scelza tells NPR.

For example, two-thirds of the Himba women reported issues with pain, milk supply, and latching.

Sounds familiar, huh?

And even though Scelza says that Himba women are part of a culture where breastfeeding is done casually and out in the open — with women having been exposed to public breastfeeding since their childhoods — when Himba women become moms, they still don’t really know what they’re doing. (You know, just like us.)

Scelza reports that new Himba moms also lacked serious confidence in their ability to properly care for their babies.

“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 shared.

I mean, how many of us can relate to that one? I truly didn’t know what on earth I was doing at first.

Okay, so why is it then that Himba moms seem to make it past all this initial struggle, and end up having a virtually 100 percent success rate with breastfeeding?

Scelza’s answer might surprise you … Ready for it?

It’s all about the grandmas.

Yes, grandmas.

“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,” Scelza explained to NPR.

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!’
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While there, her mom (who is now the baby’s grandma) gives her a crash course in all things baby and breastfeeding. Not only that, but Himba grandmas take care of both babies and moms.

“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!” as Scelza describes it.

Compare that with what happens to mothers in our culture, and you might start to see why breastfeeding is so difficult for so many of us, at least according to Scelza’s theory and research.

American mothers generally get a few days of rest, pampering, and breastfeeding instruction in the hospital (although lactation support still isn’t offered in all U.S. hospitals). But once they come home, many are essentially left alone with their babies to figure it all out. These days, American families don’t live as close as they used to, and even if new mothers do have their own moms nearby to help, chances are she doesn’t have much breastfeeding advice to offer, since breastfeeding rates during the ’80s and early ’90s were on the decline.

Yes, new moms may have partners or friends nearby to lend a helping hand; but when it comes to navigating breastfeeding difficulties, they typically have to resort to online support groups or find a local lactation consultant, which may or may not be within their financial means.

Plus, heading back to work adds even more challenges for American moms who wish to breastfeed. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, only 14 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave through their employer, which means that many moms return to work just a few short weeks or even a few short days after giving birth. Considering babies need to be breastfed between 8 and 12 times a day, for 10 to 45-minute spans (depending on their age), breastfeeding can be a full-time job in and of itself. Heck, even pumping takes a ton of time.

So is it any wonder then that American moms are finding it harder to muster the energy or the time to work on their breastfeeding difficulties during those challenging early days?

The idea that a woman would be given time to do nothing after birth but rest up and be cared for — all while receiving informative breastfeeding support and newborn care tips ’round the clock — sounds like a total pipe dream to most of us.

And yet, according to Scezla, it could make all the difference for some women when it comes to their breastfeeding success. And as Scezla points out, it’s not just Himba mothers who have this kind of postpartum tradition. It’s pretty common in other parts of the world, too.

Take China, for example, where many families still follow the “30 days in your pajamas” tradition of staying in bed and being cared for by grandmothers and other extended family. How awesome is that?

Maybe traditions like that one sound too far-fetched to be adopted here anytime soon. But I think we can all agree on this: Whether breastfeeding success is the main goal or not, new moms deserve so much more than they are currently getting in America. And you need only look at our dismal parental leave policies (or lack thereof) and shocking maternal death rates to know that postnatal care in the U.S. is in desperate need of an overhaul.

Hopefully, building awareness about this issue will cause the tide to turn a little toward more compassionate and comprehensive care for new moms and their babies. After all, we’ve got nowhere to go from here but up.

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