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?
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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...
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.
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.
DOUCLEFF: Then almost like magic, Amara opens her mouth...
CAHAVE: In your mouth.
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.
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