An infant nursing at their parent’s chest.
Author: TLN

The global and intercultural story of breastfeeding

We may not remember how we were fed as babies, but it’s certain that our caregivers do. Most cultures across the globe tie ritual, meaning, and intention into food, and feeding children is no exception to tradition. Breastfeeding empowers a deep and profound connection between parent and child, and for some, feeding also represents a connection to a cultural lineage as well.

What can we learn from parents who practice breastfeeding from coast to coast and across the globe?

That breastfeeding is nuanced. Beautiful. Integral. Interwoven.

Breastfeeding across cultures

Historically, many cultures have innately understood this. There are myriad traditions and expectations around new parents that are designed to facilitate that close connection in diverse cultural contexts. Chinese and Taiwanese parents have the practice of “sitting the month” to spend the time recovering from delivery with their children. Parents in Namibia learn breastfeeding from their parents, moving in with them during pregnancy. And many countries are offering up to a year of paid parental leave — a dramatic difference from the available time and expectations in the United States. A family’s breastfeeding and postpartum choices should be just that — their choice, based on what’s right for their family and what they feel is best. These choices shouldn’t be dictated by lack of information or inadequate access to care.

The history of breastfeeding for Black Americans

In the United States, having a child, caring for a child, and particularly the act of breastfeeding is tied to a long history of social, economic, and racial upheaval. During slavery, Black mothers weren’t always permitted to breastfeed their babies, even as they were forced to serve as “wet nurses” to their enslaver’s children. Post-slavery, the physical demands and time needed to nurse children left Black parents grasping for viable alternatives, leaving them convinced that human milk substitutes (like formula) were the only viable option. Even now, Black families cite a “lack of social, work, and family support” as well as inadequate information as key systemic barriers to breastfeeding.

Challenging breastfeeding norms

The question of hypersexualization arises here, too — what kinds of bodies are we, as a society, comfortable with seeing, and in what context? The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) considers the right to breastfeed a feminist issue, asserting that “breastfeeding confirms a woman’s power to control her own body, and challenges the male-dominated medical model and business interests that promote bottle feeding.” Breastfeeding encapsulates conversations about perceptions of modesty while simultaneously raising legitimate, persistent concerns about medical care and the level of support the U.S. government provides to working parents.

Political perspectives on breastfeeding in the U.S. 

With so much social, emotional, and economic complexity surrounding the decision and ability to breastfeed, it’s not surprising that people see the very act as a political one. In truth, it’s probably impossible to separate any culture from its political history. There is, however, an opportunity to shift the cultural and social narrative around breastfeeding — and perhaps create something entirely different. After all, we now understand the benefits of breastfeeding on broader social and scientific levels.

In some ways, the U.S. has felt like a battleground for the right to choose. But it’s also brought to light more perspectives and possibilities than many were ever able to imagine. The quintessential “melting pot,” the U.S. represents a diverse scope of every kind of family imaginable. There’s no one way that a family looks, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for what families need. Parents in the U.S. can learn from a blend of cultures and practices to ultimately determine what aligns with their unique circumstances and goals.

Empowering family decisions in breastfeeding 

We must first empower parents to make decisions that feel good for their families as we define what breastfeeding means for families and communities alike. Breastfeeding helps parents feel secure in their ability to care for their children. Amidst the opinions of others and any early breastfeeding challenges they may face, this may even be the first time they find themselves needing to defend how they choose to raise their kids.

Navigating breastfeeding and the postpartum period is also an opportunity to build a village. 97% of parents seek out some kind of support in those critical, early days. New parents learn to understand oneself, one’s culture, and to intentionally create a new dynamic — one that starts with the mother-baby dyad as a partnership of sorts. It’s these small decisions, these seemingly straightforward “to breastfeed or not to breastfeed” choices, that help to shape us into the parents and people that we hope to become.

The role of IBCLCs in breastfeeding advocacy 

As the professionals tasked with supporting this dyad, International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs) serve as allies to autonomy and advocacy. Their work is so much more than just clinical care and breastfeeding support. In fact, the nature of their role places them right at the intersection of women’s health, social justice, and economics — just as the act of breastfeeding evokes all those same, greater, contextual concerns.

There are reasons why a family might decide that “just breastfeeding” isn’t right for them. The goal of breastfeeding support and advocacy is to provide all families with access to appropriate lactation support, and evidence-based lactation information so they can make informed choices that are right for their family.

A parent should not have their choices, traditions, and needs in caring for their children limited by external factors. Lactation care is a right, not a “nice-to-have,” and an essential part of empowering a healthy, thriving family.

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