18th May 2006
Is it true that you are still …
March 2006 / Mumbai
A woman interrupted me last night as I was taking printouts of the petitions we were planning to send to the Prime Minster to stop the Sardar Sarovar project from going up to 121 m. Urging me aside, she told me, “As early as possible you should stop breastfeeding her.”
She was probably not the only one surprised when my daughter nursed during the meeting, but she was the only one to state her views so directly. Unprepared for such a confrontation, I simply said, “I am very busy, and I am not going to stop breastfeeding now.” Seconds later, more crisp responses filled my head … “Really, this is neither the time nor the place…” but alas, the moment was gone. Not that it is the first time. I was once stopped on the street by an elderly woman who looked uncomfortable as I said “hi” as I walked into a party that she was just leaving. As she walked slowly towards me I smiled and waited for her acknowledge my greeting before I continued walking towards the house. She finally said, “Is it true that you are still breastfeeding your daughter?”
Most of the conversations I’ve had about breastfeeding (and I do have a lot) are among friends who are also mothers and who don’t need to be reminded of the basic facts … that the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding at least for 2 years and beyond as long as mother and child wish. That breastfeeding offers nutrition superior to any other food or drink. That cow’s milk is for baby cows and human milk is for baby humans. That breastfeeding is so much more than nutrition – it is immunity not only to germs but also to excessive stimuli from the environment, it nurtures one’s sense of wholeness, it is comfort after a fall or stress, and of course, it is a warm cozy place to sleep, etc. The world offers alternatives for all of these functions, and the child who learns to avail these at her own pace will utilise them best. Children in adivasi societies, from whom we have much to learn, are allowed to wean naturally, meaning that no one really monitors their weaning. One fine day people may notice that the child hasn’t nursed in a while. Somewhat the same way children in urban societies may start eating meals on their own, or knowing the way home on their own.
A rural parent may be more than amused to see urban children being spoon-fed. I myself have seen urban parents spoon feeding their children even into adulthood. However the rural parent will refrain from judgement, at least aloud. If only we afforded them the same courtesy!
Breastfed children may have the freedom to discover the world of solid foods at their own pace, since they are not dependent on these for nutrition. They need not be fed at all – parents need only present fresh and healthy food and let the babies do the rest. Spend a day with an adivasi family and you will see that babies and young children are quite self sufficient when it comes to eating. No coaxing, cajoling. These parents read no research articles like (quote) which meticulously urge parents to allow self feeding from infancy, avoiding even suggesting that the child “finish the plate” or have an extra bite after the child stops on his own. In this way, they say, the child learns to guage his own hunger and satiety and not reply on external signals like parental approval, or amount on the plate as an indicator of how much he should eat.
While the adivasi diet is not as varied as the city diet, nearly all the food is not only grown locally but prepared fresh, to the point of freshly stone grinding their grains twice a day. Their chapatis perhaps offer more nutrition than our vegetables which we import from long distances and eat days or even weeks after they are harvested before the point of ripeness. And though their fruits and vegetables are far fewer, they are always fresh.
Often writings in the West take for granted that breastfeeding is better understood, supported and more widely practiced in “traditional societies.” While this may be true in the fourth world, i.e. tribal or indigenous communities, and those parts of the “third world” that have sustained their natural resource base and along with it, their parenting traditions, in the semi-urban, urban, and urbanizing parts of the third world, we see an abrupt departure from generations of family living wisdom. Nearly every component of the “attachment parenting” model that is gaining popularity as well as growing support from the medical establishment in Western countries – sleepsharing, breastfeeding, babywearing and natural infant hygiene (using cloth diapers or no diapers) is falling out of fashion among those who have been practicing these for generations without ever having to read a book, consult a doctor or chat in an online support forum.
What may be most telling of all, of course, is what my friends at the meeting last night may not have noticed. Without the benefit of breastfeeding, what 2 year old child is able to attend a meeting for 2 hours late in the evening? Sure, she brought along snacks, but breastmilk is much more than protein, vitamins, superior fats and highly absorbable minerals. In a crowded room, breastfeeding gives baby a safe haven where she can touch home base, settle and process her observations.
[to be continued …]