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Study: Grandmothers can be a breastfeeding mama’s secret weapon

It’s a frustrating dilemma for many new moms: We’re told breastfeeding is instinctual and should come naturally, but when you’re donning nipple shields and washing pump parts it feels anything but. The first few days can be especially challenging, with surveys showing the majority of new moms experience issues with latching, pain and production. Without easily accessible resources for breastfeeding help, nearly half of American mothers give up breastfeeding after six months.

But in many cultures, the breastfeeding success rate is much higher. Brooke Scelza, an anthropologist at the the University of Los Angeles, traveled across the world to find out why.

As a human behavioral ecologist, Scelza studies 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.

They also have a very high rate of success with breastfeeding and—according to Scelza— they make it look easy.

As a mother who struggled with breastfeeding herself, Scelza wanted to find why.

"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 a June 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 30 Himba women, they credited the grandmothers who act as 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 moms.

The difference is that 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. For Western moms struggling with breastfeeding and early motherhood the takeaway is this: Breastfeeding is not so much an instinct as it is a skill to be practiced and learned from others.

Unfortunately, for many of us, around the clock assistance from a grandmother with breastfeeding experience isn’t a realistic part of the post-birth plan. But technology is making connecting with the right advice during those late-night feedings a little easier: New apps, like Momseze, are stepping up to be our digital grandmothers by connecting moms with certified lactation consultants and new baby support specialists 24 hours a day via video, voice chat or text.

Whether you use an app or just text your mom, sister or breastfeeding BFF, nursing moms should learn from the Himba by leaning on others—and recognizing that struggling is 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."

Bottom line: You’ve got this—and your chances are even better if you surround yourself with a breastfeeding support team. ?

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