Breastfeeding is Food Sovereignty
Breastfeeding is Food Sovereignty
Years ago I was honored to visit with some of the elders on the Yavapai reservation in Arizona. I listened to their stories of being taken from their homes as young children, being criticized by their own children who are regaining a sense of their Native ways, and dealing with the challenges of their grandchildren, who are facing a high suicide rate. Their stories penetrated my heart. Growing up near the Sisseton/Wahpeton Dakota Reservation in South Dakota, I have come to respect Native cultures.
I want to help Native mothers who want to breastfeed their babies. Perhaps MilkWorks can find a way to take inspiration from the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington and partner with Native women in Nebraska or South Dakota to encourage, support and lend a hand.
A Little History
Breastfeeding is not unique to humans. All 4,000 species of mammals produce a milk designed specifically for their infants. The first mammary glands evolved some 160 million years ago to provide nutrients and protective factors. Human infants have surprisingly few physical abilities in their first six months of life. Yet one of their most vigorous instincts when placed on their mother’s chest - moments after being born - is an ability to lift their heavy head, open their mouth, and latch to their mother’s breast. The dream of every newborn!
Unfortunately, we have done much to interfere with this very natural, but complex, protective process that is designed to ward off illnesses, inhibit inflammation, heal diseases, provide nutrition, promote brain growth, and help a human infant learn how to trust others. What a big order for this substance called mother’s milk!
Mothers make milk because they give birth to a baby. The baby suckles and milk is removed, which makes more milk. When removal stops, the milk goes away. The World Health Organization recommends that human infants have no other foods or liquids than human milk for the first six months of their lives, with breastfeeding to continue once solids are introduced for at least two years.
Indigenous cultures incorporated feeding at the breast as part of the natural cycle of womanhood. Babies were born, they were carried and held close to protect them from wild animals and other dangers. Mothers went about their daily lives with their babies strapped to their bodies –safe and secure. Breastfeeding for several years played a strong role in spacing pregnancies, protecting the health of both mothers and their babies. Only in very isolated indigenous populations does this practice continue to this day.
From the beginning of life, infant feeding has been influenced by religious, political and economic factors. Historically, if a mother could not feed her own baby, another mother, or a wet nurse, would feed her baby.
Breastfeeding was virtually abandoned in industrialized societies by the 1960s due to multiple, complex factors. Women entered the work force outside the home and were separated from their babies, mass immigration led to poor living conditions, high maternal death rates and crowded urban environments, baby doctors took the place of grandmothers in passing down feeding wisdom, the Space Age was fascinated with commercially made food products, and human breasts became part of girlie magazines, isolated from their role as a feeding tool.
Human milk, a complex bodily fluid that evolved over centuries of adaptation to diverse living situations, was replaced by processed cow’s milk, altered to provide necessary nutrients. (It is fascinating to note that about 75% of indigenous people are intolerant to cow’s milk.)
Isolated indigenous populations continued to breastfeed their babies. But people who were moved to urban areas, such as the Ojibwe in northern Minnesota, or indigenous children that were sent to boarding schools, faced issues that interrupted breastfeeding. Young girls lost contact with their grandmothers, who taught them the ways of being a woman. Extended families were now isolated in individual homes. Urbanization led to higher rates of poverty and exposure to western diets high in sugars and processed foods. The exact diseases that breastfeeding helps to prevent - diabetes, obesity, ear and respiratory illnesses, and hypertension - skyrocketed in urban indigenous populations around the world.
When mothers stopped breastfeeding, low income women could not pay for formula. The federal government stepped in and gave low income women free formula, conveying an attitude that formula must be better than breastfeeding. Today, breastfeeding rates are highest among well educated, higher income women who are not given free formula and may feel more empowered to make their own decisions about how they feed their babies.
A 2007 meta-analysis of 9,000 research studies conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that infants who are NOT breastfed have significantly higher rates of acute infections, eczema, asthma, obesity, diabetes, childhood leukemia, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Mothers who do not breastfeed their children have higher rates of breast and ovarian cancer, as well as an increased incidence of type II diabetes.
Kanesatake, a community in Mohawk territory in Canada, found that only 32% of their babies were breastfeed at birth. (In Nebraska, 80% of all babies are breastfed at birth for some period of time.) They determined that mothers chose not to breastfed for the same reasons that non-indigenous mothers cited: sore nipples, uncertainty about their milk supply, returning to work or school, lack of information and a lack of family support.
The community realized that infant feeding behaviors are deeply rooted in a set of cultural values and that interventions needed to reflect their traditions. They hired a grandmother who knew the young mothers and cared for their children. She provided accurate information about breastfeeding from an oral tradition and gently involved the whole community in supporting breastfeeding mothers. Breastfeeding rates gradually increased and mothers in this community are now providing support to each other to improve the health status of their babies and their people.
An Ojibwe traditional educator summarized breastfeeding by saying that “Breast milk is a gift and a medicine a mother gives her child.” We know that in order to help all mothers provide this gift and this medicine we need to create a community of support. Family members, employers and health care providers need to value breastfeeding and provide accurate information and support services that meet the needs of all mothers.
Breastfeeding is real food for babies. It provides the best nutrition, helps a baby feel safe and secure, costs no money and results in no environmental pollution. The issue is reaching mothers and their support systems to adapt breastfeeding practices and beliefs to women’s lives in the 21st century. A daunting task, but one that is well worth pursuing!
Editor's Note: "Breastfeeding is Food Sovereignty" photo of Camie Jae Goldhammer (Sisseton-Wahpeton), MSW,LICSW, IBCLC courtesy of the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington. Camie is the founder and chair of the Native American Breastfeeding Coalition of Washington. You can buy the shirt and other cool items at their store.