Breastfeeding Across Cultures

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Breastfeeding is a natural act, but in the United States in recent years, it has often turned into a political one: Breastfeeding mothers have been kicked off planes, intimidated by restaurant managers, even singled out by Barbara Walters as an affront to decency. The response from the pro-breastfeeding community–call them “lactivists” if you must–to such snubs has often been swift and vigorous, and some moms have even organized public “nurse-ins” to publicize their right to feed their babies.

So it was refreshing to read “Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan” in the July-August issue of Mothering, in which Canadian-born Ruth Kamnitzer writes about Mongolians’ distinctly different attitude toward the practice. Living in Mongolia while nursing her son, she soon learned she didn’t have to take pains to be discreet:

In Mongolia, instead of relegating me to a “Mothers Only” section, breastfeeding in public brought me firmly to center stage. Their universal practice of breastfeeding anywhere, anytime, and the close quarters at which most Mongolians live, mean that everyone is pretty familiar with the sight of a working boob.

Kamnitzer still felt a bit out of step with cultural norms–but this time, roles were reversed. She had to learn to become comfortable with much looser standards about who should be drinking breastmilk:

If weaning means never drinking breastmilk again, then Mongolians are never truly weaned–and here’s what surprised me most about breastfeeding in Mongolia. If a mother’s breasts are engorged and her baby is not at hand, she will simply go around and ask a family member, of any age or sex, if they’d like a drink. Often a woman will express a bowlful for her husband as a treat, or leave some in the fridge for anyone to help themselves.

Sources: Huffington Post, Blisstree, New York Times, Mothering (article not available online)

Image by maessive, licensed under Creative Commons.

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