Recovering the Sacred: Breastfeeding nourishes the mind, body and spirit
Special to First Nation's Focus
Benefits to breastfeeding
The benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and baby are numerous; a few are listed below:
Benefits for Baby
Provides ideal nutrition
Breastmilk contains important antibodies
Reduces disease and infection risks for baby
Promotes healthy weight gain and promotes healthy gut development
Promotes better brain development
Benefits for Mother
Lose pregnancy weight gain faster
Reduces the amount of bleeding following birth
Lowers risk of postpartum depression
Decreases disease risk such as cancer, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes
Saves time and money
Breastfeeding is more than nourishing babies the way nature intended; breastfeeding nourishes the mind, body and spirit of both mother and baby.
Traditionally, breastfeeding was seen as a natural part of being a woman and a mother. When babies were born, they were bundled into slings, moss bags or cradleboards. Women went about their daily lives with their babies strapped securely to their bodies, protecting their little ones from harm while caring and feeding them as needed.
Babies developed and grew in an environment of security and love. It was normal for a mother to breastfeed her child for several years.
This practice was healthy for both baby and mother: the baby receiving much needed nutrients and immunities from the mother while breastfeeding encouraged pregnancy spacing, allowing a woman’s body time to heal and strengthen before becoming pregnant again. Nowadays, we acknowledge these practices as scientifically proven to be true.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life. Sadly, native mothers have one of the lowest rates of initiating breastfeeding (59%) of any race of ethnicity in the US. Studies also show the native mothers have the highest rate of supplementing their babies diet with formula (97%) and will terminate breastfeeding altogether around four months.
At the same time, native people face serious health challenges such as diabetes and obesity; challenges that could be avoided by breastfeeding and early introduction of healthy eating.
Barriers to Breastfeeding
For many Indigenous women, the belief and tradition of breastfeeding has decreased over generations of historical trauma. Assimilation policies divided families and discouraged or outright outlawed cultural teachings.
The boarding school era caused devastating gaps where very little traditional customs were passed on to the next generation. Young women lost contact with female relatives, who taught them the ways of being a woman.
Urbanization led to further isolation, poverty and exposure to western diets high in refined sugar and processed foods. Human milk was replaced by processed cow’s milk; an interesting fact considering that about 75% of indigenous people are intolerant to cow’s milk.
Even today, lack of resources, late or no prenatal care and continuing lack of support within families, communities and workplaces remain as barriers to breastfeeding.
Resources for Successful Breastfeeding
Although breastfeeding is a natural process, many mothers need help. Breastfeeding takes patience and practice. For some women learning how to breastfeed can be uncomfortable, painful and/or frustrating.
If a baby is born too early or if the mother has health problems, breast-feeding can be difficult. Under the Affordable Care Act, more women have access for free lactation support.
If you are experiencing difficulty with breastfeeding:
- Other breastfeeding mothers can be a great source of support. Ask family or friends who have experience at breastfeeding for help.
- Ask your doctor or midwife to suggest a support group. Some hospitals, OB and pediatric practices have a lactation consultant on staff who lead regular support group meetings.
- Ask your doctor or midwife for help finding a peer counselor. A peer counselor is someone who has breastfed her own baby and can help other mothers breastfeed successfully.
- Search the internet for a breastfeeding center near you. Check if the hospital you delivered your baby at has a breastfeeding center.
- Local resources include: WIC, nevadawic.org; and La Leche League, lllnorcal.org/groups/northernnevada
Even if a woman is unable to successfully breastfeed, this does not mean she has failed. So long as there is skin-to-skin contact during feeding, the joyful closeness and bonding her baby needs can still be achieved.
Talking to her baby, humming, singing and making eye contact are important in development and nurturing feelings of trust and security.
Rebecca Chavez (Western Shoshone) is a certified nurse-midwife, women’s healthcare provider and a mother of two. If you have any questions or ideas for future topics, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.