Supplementation and Weaning

In the West, medical specialists and lactation consultants recommend that infants who are exclusively breastfed receive iron supplements at six months of age. Human milk is low in iron, so by the time the infant is that age, anemia may occur if breast-feeding is not supplemented. This is the age that is most commonly cited for supplementation in other cultures as well (e.g., Minturn & Hitchcock, 1966). Food supplements may include a gruel made from a common grain such as rice or millet, cow's or goat's milk, or finely ground meat.

Just as there is variation in beliefs about breastfeeding, there is variation in beliefs about the timing and method of weaning. Commonly, an infant is weaned when the mother becomes aware of another pregnancy. Milk from a pregnant woman may be seen as dangerous for the nursing infant, or nursing may be seen as dangerous to the developing fetus. Women may choose to terminate breast-feeding in order to increase their fertility. In much of West Africa, sexual intercourse during the nursing period is believed to be dangerous to the infant, so women may choose to terminate breast-feeding to end the postpartum sex taboo and resume sexual relations with their partners.

One of the most common reasons given for termination of breast-feeding is "insufficient milk." Certainly there are rare instances when a woman is limited physiologically in her ability to produce sufficient milk for her infant, but under most circumstances, milk production is a supply-and-demand phenomenon, which means that the more an infant suckles, the more milk is produced. In fact, "insufficient milk" is often associated with food supplementation. If an infant is satiated because of other foods and liquids it is given, then it is less likely to suckle when placed at the mother's breast. If the infant suckles less, less milk is produced, and soon the mother finds that the infant is not getting sufficient nutrients from the breast alone and that food supplements are required to maintain a healthy weight. Thus begins a cycle that usually terminates with weaning from the breast and permanent transfer to infant foods other than breast milk.

The marketing of milk substitutes has had a profound effect on breast-feeding practices worldwide. Some women believe that canned or powdered milk is better for their infants and that, at the very least, they should supplement their breast-feeding with bottle feeding. As noted above, this often leads to "insufficient milk," and women find they cannot continue to nurse even if they want to. In some cases, particularly among urban populations, work in the public sector and breast-feeding are incompatible and infants may be weaned when a woman returns to work following childbirth. This is one of the most frequently cited reasons for terminating breast-feeding in the West.

Methods of weaning a child are highly variable across cultures. In some cases the child is said to wean himself or herself, choosing to nurse less and less often until complete cessation. When mothers take the lead in weaning, there is usually stress associated with the transition from breast to solid foods. Mothers may place bitter or pungent substances on their breasts to discourage nursing. For example, the !Kung woman Nisa recalls her mother putting a bitter paste on her breasts to discourage Nisa from nursing after she became pregnant again. Nisa was told that the milk was for the new baby and that it would make her sick if she continued to nurse (Shostak, 1981). Weaning is apparently quite traumatic for the !Kung, and several people that Shostak interviewed in her fieldwork had vivid memories of the unhappiness they experienced at that time. Among the !Kung and in other cultures, an older child may be shamed into terminating breast-feeding.

The Gusii believe that an infant should be nursed until it is walking well and is able to take care of other basic needs. Thus, weaning begins in the second year of life, although it may occur earlier if the mother becomes pregnant. The severity of the weaning process is illustrated by the word used, which means "to stamp on" or "step on" (LeVine & LeVine, 1966). Mothers may put noxious substances on their nipples, or they may actually hit the child who attempts to nurse once the weaning process begins. The child may even be sent to live with grandparents or may be given great quantities of solid food in order to decrease hunger.

As noted, cultural practices most often determine how long an infant should be breast-fed. Evolutionary anthropologists, however, have tackled the question of how long the human nursing period is expected to be when placed in an evolutionary and cross-species context. Four years is the most common figure cited for the nursing duration for our close relatives, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, and for women in foraging societies. Other factors that have been used to assess the "natural" age of weaning in humans include life history variables such as adult body size, gestation length, and tooth eruption, all of which point to an approximate 4- or 5-year nursing period for humans (Dettwyler, 1995b). But no matter what criteria are used to estimate nursing length in humans, it is clearly much longer than the six months commonly reported in industrialized nations.

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Pregnancy Guide

Pregnancy Guide

A Beginner's Guide to Healthy Pregnancy. If you suspect, or know, that you are pregnant, we ho pe you have already visited your doctor. Presuming that you have confirmed your suspicions and that this is your first child, or that you wish to take better care of yourself d uring pregnancy than you did during your other pregnancies; you have come to the right place.

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