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Early years

01st Mar 2020

It takes a village: New study finds grannies can be a breastfeeding mum’s best support

Just call granny!

Trine Jensen-Burke

breastfeeding mothers

Breastfeeding is the most natural thing in the world.

So we are all told, right?

And sure, it is – in theory. It’s just when you are there, during those first few weeks, and your baby is crying and your nipples are so sore you week when the towel brush against then after your shower and you can’t find your nipple shields and you are starting to hate the sounds of your breast pump, well, then breastfeeding is starting to feel anything but.

Those first few days and weeks are challenging – for all of us. In fact, so many new mums experience issues with latching, pain and production, and the problem? Without easily accesible resources for breastfeeding help, so many give up on breastfeeding sooner than they would have liked.

However, what is rather interesting, is that in many other countries and cultures, breastfeeding rates are much higher. And recently, Brooke Scelza, an anthropologist at the the University of Los Angeles, travelled across the world to find out why.

As a human behavioral ecologist, Scelza studied the reproductive and partnership decisions of the Himba, a pastoral ethnic group in northern Namibia. Isolated from urban centers, the Himba rely on herding cattle and growing maize, sorghum and pumpkins.

What more, they also have a very high rate of success with breastfeeding and as a mother who struggled with breastfeeding herself, Scelza wanted to find why.

“I have yet to encounter a Himba woman who could not breastfeed at all,” Scelza says. “There are women who have supply issues, who wind up supplementing with goat’s milk, which is not uncommon. But there’s basically no use of formula or bottles or anything like that.”

However, for herself and other Western mums, things are often a little different.

“I think that there’s enormous pressure to succeed with breastfeeding in the U.S. and that you feel like if you can’t do it that this is a huge failing as a mother,” she told NPR in an interview.

Initially, Scelza suspected the Himba’s breastfeeding success was due to the prevalence of home births and the result of a childhood spent witnessing women breastfeed. But, when she interviewed several Himba women, they actually credited the grandmothers who, according to the Himba women, act as their personal lactation consultants.

“When a woman gives birth, she typically goes home to her mother’s compound in the last trimester of pregnancy and stays there for months after the birth,” Scelza explains.

The women told her it’s not that they find breastfeeding any easier than American women do—in fact, many struggled with learning to breastfeed, and two-thirds reported the same early struggles (pain, latching and supply issues) as American mums.

The difference? The Himba have access to 24-hour help – via their baby’s grandmother.


According to Scelza, this kind of breastfeeding assistance is the key to the nursing success seen in many other cultures. Meaning, breastfeeding is often more about being a skill to be practiced and learned than it is an instinct that comes natural to new mums.

The problem? To so many of us Western mums, having around the clock assistance from a grandmother with breastfeeding experience isn’t always possible. But maybe we should get a lot better at reaching our to our community and family and friends – our tribe. Because asking for help should be part of  our post-birth plan. Make contact with your local ciudiu or other breastfeeding group, call a lactation consultant, ask your friends who breastfed for tips and tricks.

Scelza agrees that nursing mums should learn from the Himba by leaning on others—and recognizing that struggling is totally normal.

“When [the baby] had trouble latching, they were just like, ‘Yeah, this is part of what you have to learn if you’re going to breastfeed,” says Scelza of the Himba. “They didn’t stigmatize the failing.”