Secrets Of Breast-Feeding From Global Moms In The Know : Goats and Soda Many American women want to breast-feed — and try to. Only about half keep it up. It's like they've lost the instinct. One researcher thinks she's figured out why and how to get the instinct back.
NPR logo

Secrets Of Breast-Feeding From Global Moms In The Know

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/534021439/534365641" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Secrets Of Breast-Feeding From Global Moms In The Know

Secrets Of Breast-Feeding From Global Moms In The Know

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/534021439/534365641" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today in Your Health, we're going to learn about the secrets of breast-feeding. Many women want to breast-feed and they try to, but only about half keep it up. It's like we have lost the instinct in some way.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And there is a researcher who thinks that she has figured out why and also how to get the instinct back. Here's NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff.

AMARA SCHUMACHER: (Crying).

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Little Amara Schumacher (ph) is only 5 days old, and she's very hungry. She's lying on her mother's bare chest trying to nurse.

MARELLA ABUNAYAN: There you go. There you go.

DOUCLEFF: But she can't get the hang of it.

ABUNAYAN: I know. I know. It's right there.

DOUCLEFF: Amara's mom, Marella Abunayan (ph), desperately wants to breast-feed, but the baby isn't getting enough milk. She has already lost nearly 10 percent of her body weight. The pediatrician is worried. So is her dad, Scott.

SCOTT SCHUMACHER: The problem is you get to the hospital, I mean, they give you the baby. And they don't really tell you what to do.

DOUCLEFF: So Amara hasn't been nursing correctly, and she damaged Marella's breast.

ABUNAYAN: Oh, my God. She was off to the side of my nipple just, like, chomping on my areola, like, and bruising it. I was like, what did we do to you, you poor thing?

SCHUMACHER: Yeah.

DOUCLEFF: And then that makes it harder and harder.

SCHUMACHER: Yeah, that...

ABUNAYAN: Yeah, I'm in pain. She's starving. It's...

SCHUMACHER: And she's getting frustrated.

DOUCLEFF: And not getting enough food.

SCHUMACHER: We definitely need some help.

DOUCLEFF: Scott and Marella aren't alone. Researchers at UC Davis Medical Center have found that more than 90 percent of new moms have problems breast-feeding at the beginning. A year and a half ago, I was one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUCLEFF: At this point, I'm about 33 days into breast-feeding, and I have to say that (crying) I really want to quit. It's so much harder than I thought it was going to be.

For almost all mammals, breast-feeding is basically an instinct. It's automatic. If you have any doubt of this, just search on YouTube for puppies nursing, and you'll see the instinct in action.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good girl. There you go.

DOUCLEFF: In one video, a little pit bull puppy with his eyes closed and his body wet crawls to his mom's chest, nuzzles in and starts nursing.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good girl, Brandy (ph). Go ahead. You're a good girl. You're a good girl, Mom.

DOUCLEFF: It's easy. It's beautiful. And it's exactly the opposite of what happens with so many moms in the U.S. Brooke Scelza is an evolutionary anthropologist at UCLA. She says women have a huge number of problems breast-feeding. They have pain, infections, low supply of milk and about half can't get the baby to latch onto the nipple.

BROOKE SCELZA: Which is surprising - right? - because this is a really critical function for child survival. And if you can't figure this out, your infant is going to be in really big trouble.

DOUCLEFF: It's almost like in the U.S. we've lost the breast-feeding instinct, that Western society has messed it up somehow. Scelza wanted to figure out why, what we've lost, what are we doing wrong.

So a few years ago, she traveled to a place with some of the best breast-feeders in the world. In northern Namibia, along the coast of Western Africa, there's a rocky desert where a tribe still lives a lot like they did hundreds of years ago. They're called Himba.

SCELZA: They're cattle herders, basically, but they also have gardens where they grow maize and pumpkins and things like that.

DOUCLEFF: Moms still give birth in the home in mud huts, and all moms breast-feed.

SCELZA: There's basically no use of formula or bottles or anything like that in this community.

DOUCLEFF: She also says Himba women make breast-feeding look easy. They even do it while they're walking around.

SCELZA: So women will carry the babies with them on their backs, and the baby cries, they take the baby out, feed the baby, put the baby to sleep.

DOUCLEFF: Scelza and many researchers have thought this might be the reason why Himba are so successful at breast-feeding. They see it all the time while they're growing up.

SCELZA: It's not stigmatized at all.

DOUCLEFF: They see their moms do it, their friends, their siblings. But in the U.S., we hardly ever see mothers breast-feeding, so we never learn. Turns out, that idea is completely wrong.

SCELZA: Yeah, well, I'm telling you, that's exactly what I thought was going on until I started to talk to people.

DOUCLEFF: Scelza interviewed dozens of Himba women, and guess what?

SCELZA: Many of the women that I talked to actually struggled a lot with learning how to breast-feed.

DOUCLEFF: Many women had all the problems American women have - pain, sore nipples, they can't get the baby to latch. So how do Himba women get over these problems? Scelza says they have a secret weapon that many American women don't.

SCELZA: Grandmothers.

DOUCLEFF: Grandmas - that's right, the new mom's mom.

SCELZA: When a Himba woman gives birth, she - typically, she goes home to her mother's compound, and she stays there for months after the birth.

DOUCLEFF: And the grandma shows her everything she needs to know about breast-feeding.

SCELZA: What to do, when to do it, how to get the baby to latch, how to hold the baby - so really giving them a lot of direct guidance.

DOUCLEFF: So what our culture has lost is having a grandma around 24/7 to be a teacher, a guide. But there is a way of getting this help back, at least partially. In fact, many health insurers will pay for the next best thing to a Himba grandma.

SCHUMACHER: Hey, how's it going?

CAROLEEN CAHAVE: Hi, Scott.

DOUCLEFF: Back in San Francisco, that's just what Marella and Scott have done.

SCHUMACHER: Good, good.

DOUCLEFF: They've hired Caroleen Cahave (ph), a certified lactation consultant. She's come to their home to teach Marella all the tricks of breast-feeding...

AMARA: (Crying).

DOUCLEFF: ...Like using a pump to help the milk start flowing, massaging the breast and putting pillows underneath the baby to get her in the right position.

AMARA: (Crying).

CAHAVE: If you want to help her and get her a little bit more on this side, that's OK. There you go. Perfect. Perfect.

DOUCLEFF: And then Cahave does something that's almost unbelievable. She shows Marella a trick that's exactly what Himba women do to get newborns to latch.

CAHAVE: You can kind of scissor - yeah, scissor is great. Perfect.

DOUCLEFF: She uses her two fingers to make a scissor motion around her breast to help Amara latch on.

AMARA: (Cooing).

DOUCLEFF: Then almost like magic, Amara opens her mouth...

CAHAVE: In your mouth.

DOUCLEFF: ...And...

ABUNAYAN: Oh, my God.

DOUCLEFF: ...Starts nursing.

CAHAVE: She's doing it.

ABUNAYAN: Yeah (laughter).

DOUCLEFF: Once she got the hang of it, Amara quickly gained weight. And a few weeks later, Marella was a breast-feeding pro, even nursing while carrying Amara in a sling, just like a Himba woman. And for those of you wondering, I also got help with a lactation consultant and made it through.

Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARLISS PARKER'S, "TAKEN TO ANTRIM")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.