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Is breastfeeding the same around the world?

Woman holding baby

When deciding whether to breastfeed, each new mum is influenced not only by her physical ability and personal beliefs, but also by social and cultural customs. But just how much do attitudes to breastfeeding differ around the world?

Breastfeeding is an accepted part of everyday life for millions of women worldwide, and the practice is strongly endorsed by health bodies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO). However, many cultures differ in their attitudes to breastfeeding, how it should be done, and for how long, so it's useful to understand how perceptions vary across the globe.

Breastfeeding is important, wherever you are

To begin, it's worth noting that breastfeeding is almost universally recognised as the best way to nourish a baby. A recent worldwide survey of pregnant women and new mums found that a majority felt breastfeeding is better than using infant formula, and would feel guilty if they did not breastfeed their babies.

When it comes to the ideal length of time to breastfeed a baby, however, there was more variation between both individual respondents and countries. In Brazil, China, Germany, Hungary, Mexico, the UK and the USA, most mothers felt six to 12 months is ideal, whereas French mothers favoured a shorter period of three to six months, and Turkish mothers felt it better to carry on for 12 to 24 months.

In every country surveyed, a sizeable percentage (between 26 and 58 percent) of respondents felt that a two-year-old is too old to be breastfed – although the WHO recommends that breastfeeding should continue throughout the first two years of a baby's life.

Attitudes to breastfeeding in public

The survey also revealed varying attitudes to breastfeeding in public, with 41% of mums in France and 47% in China the most likely to find it an embarrassing experience. On the opposite end of the spectrum, only 7% of the Hungarian mothers and 13% of the Mexican mothers who responded found it embarrassing to breastfeed in public. A large number of respondents in all the countries (between 19 and 63 percent) believed it was perfectly natural to breastfeed in public.

Breastfeeding practices in individual cultures

Many cultures have their own individual beliefs and customs when it comes to breastfeeding. Some of these are helpful to mothers and babies; others are fairly harmless; while others could potentially have a negative impact on a baby's health. 

Here are a few examples of breastfeeding traditions in various cultures:

  • In many countries, including India, there is a widespread belief that colostrum (the nutritionally-dense liquid produced by a mother immediately after her baby's birth) is impure or "dirty"; hence it is often expressed and then thrown away. The baby is then fed formula for the first few days of its life.
  • In Lebanon, it is commonly believed that a mother's stomach ache can be passed to her baby through her breastmilk. Similarly, many believe that eating foods such as cauliflower and cabbage can cause the nursing baby to develop gas and bloating. 
  • In predominantly Muslim countries, breastfeeding is often seen as a religious duty, as the Qu'ran specifies that babies should be breastfed by their mothers or a wet nurse for approximately two years. In the past, shared breastfeeding was not uncommon, with relatives or neighbours with babies of a similar age sharing the nursing amongst themselves. 
  • In some areas of Kenya, women are advised not to breastfeed after a quarrel until they have undergone a ritual cleansing, whereas in other regions it is believed that breastfeeding in public makes the mother and child vulnerable to the evil eye. 
  • In Mongolia, breastmilk is considered so healthy and appetising that even adults will occasionally indulge. It is not uncommon for a nursing mother to offer excess milk to her husband or another family member, and it is often given to the elderly for medicinal purposes.

As this list shows, a woman's approach to breastfeeding (and willingness to do so) can reflect local customs, although her personal views, physical ability to breastfeed and education also play a role.

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