The old saying “breast is best” is taking on a new significance for some American Indian mothers, who see that breast-feeding is not only a responsible course for raising healthy babies, but also a culturally significant one.
Recent awareness of the importance of breast-feeding and the role it plays in Native culture stems from a new call by the surgeon general to make nursing easier for mothers. At a press briefing in Washington in January, Dr. Regina Benjamin explained that her new initiative will highlight the need for greater cultural support for nursing in the home, at work, and in everyday life. “One of the most highly effective preventive measures a mother can take to protect her child and her own health is to breast-feed,” Benjamin said. Scientific studies have shown that breast milk helps bolster a child’s immune system, protects against obesity in babies, reduces the risk of seizures, pneumonia, diarrhea, ear infections and asthma. It is also correlated with a lowered risk of ovarian and breast cancer in mothers.
The latest national data indicates that 75 percent of new mothers start out breast-feeding, but only 43 percent are still doing it six months later. And only 13 percent are exclusively nursing at the six-month point, meaning the vast majority of women have begun supplementing with formula by that time, and missing out on the health benefits of nursing. Benjamin, who would like to increase that number, said her aim is for all women who feel comfortable exclusively breast-feeding to be given the tools and support to do so.
None of this data surprises Rosebud Bear, the lactation counselor for the American Indian Health and Family Services center in Detroit. She works to educate and support Native mothers and their children. Concrete data on a national level is not available, but several regional studies indicate that Natives are less likely than their non-Native peers to breast-feed. Bear has heard a range of reasons, including a lack of designated areas at work and school to do so comfortably, and a hostile work environment. “Being an ‘urban Indian’ as well as a mom, I do see how it might be easier to not breast-feed when you live in the city,” she said. She said many moms she has worked with have had every intention of exclusively breast-feeding, but when the realities of life set in (including nurses who heavily push formula at the hospital), sometimes the best intentions get set aside.
Obstacles created by an employer are one of the main areas being addressed by the surgeon general, but Bear said it’s not just the job that holds back some Indian moms. Bear and her Indian peers in the field believe the lower breast-feeding rates among Native women is yet another mark of colonization. After all, before colonization and the many changes in society that came along with it (baby formula included), Indian moms didn’t face the same kinds of barriers to breast-feeding that they do today. “We have gotten away from our grassroots,” she said.
Many American women have been pushed away from their natural breast-feeding roots, according to federal officials. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius hit on this point in a report accompanying the surgeon general’s call to action, noting that, “for much of the last century, America’s mothers were given poor advice and were discouraged from breast-feeding, to the point that [it] became an unusual choice in this country.” That problem, Bear said, has been compounded for low-income women and those with less education—two more consequences of colonization that have tended to hit Native women disproportionately.
To combat these effects, some Native moms have become breast-feeding advocates. They believe it’s not only an excellent way to provide a healthy meal for their babies, but also a way to take back their Native identities. Kris Rhodes, director of the American Indian Cancer Foundation and a former researcher at the University of Minnesota, said there is a yearning among Native women for a stronger tribal and spiritual connection. In her research she has found that mothers who practiced traditional teachings are breast-feeding more than women who are not practicing these ways. “There is a connection,” Rhodes said. “Breast-feeding is a way for Native women to connect with their indigenous roots and raise their babies in a way that strengthens mom and baby in many ways, from the start.” One study by Rhodes published in Maternal and Child Health Journal in 2008 found that the women who were most connected with traditional tribal ways were 16 times more likely to breast-feed their babies.
Bear said that even though the importance of breast-feeding has been forgotten by some Native women, she’s seeing it make a strong comeback. “We need basic education not only for women but for the men in their lives, along with grandmas and aunties,” she said. “A new nursing mom needs support not just from her health-care providers but from the people she’s closest to.” Danielle Le Bon Gort, a maternal counselor at the Center for American Indian Resources in Duluth, Minnesota, said that in her community, having Indian women serve as doulas and breast-feeding peer counselors has helped women learn how breast-feeding would work for their family on a level that holds cultural significance to them. “Women in urban areas seem to especially benefit from our doula program, as often they do not have as strong of social supports as women residing on the reservation, where family ties are close at hand,” Le Bon Gort said.
Rhodes also said Native moms should be encouraged when they see that the federal government now views breast-feeding as important. She noted that federal and state governments provide support and education to many Indian women on breast-feeding, most often through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program for low-income women. “Many people associate the WIC program with free formula, but there are extra food benefits through WIC for breast-feeding moms,” Rhodes said.
At the same time, some tribes are doing amazing work promoting and supporting breast-feeding. Rhodes’ tribe, the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe, promotes breast-feeding as the healthy and traditional thing to do, and offers incentives to breast-feeding moms. In 2010, the USDA awarded the Navajo Nation $50,000 “for doing an exceptional job in promoting and supporting breast-feeding among mothers,” according to a press release. A group of tribal citizens was credited with the success, having started the Navajo Nation Breastfeeding Coalition to educate businesses on ways to support working moms who nurse, like offering dedicated rooms for pumping.
Rhodes said that, on the individual level, “The most important thing we can do is point out the benefits to moms: The baby bond is stronger; the health benefits are immediate and long-lasting for both mom and baby; the cost savings are huge. The time savings in preparing and washing bottles also was something I valued. It is important that mom has someone she can count on for advice, support and cheerleading.” She added, “I breast-fed each of my children until they were 1½, and they are wonderfully healthy. In fact, my 15-year-old son has never needed an antibiotic.”
Le Bon Gort told her favorite story, involving a Native teen mother: “I walked in for our visit and she was nursing her daughter on the couch. I commented on how beautiful it was to see her nursing her baby so comfortably and how the love she had for her daughter was almost palpable in the room. She looked up at me and said very seriously, in a voice older than her 15 years, ‘I can give her something no one else can.’?”