Editor’s note: Moms in this group interview shared their lived experiences and beliefs with the Report. For breastfeeding resources in Tarrant County, visit Fort Worth Moms.
A small brick building at the corner of Modlin Avenue and Haskell Street in Fort Worth held a slice of the world last Wednesday morning. Seven moms, most with babies in tow, gathered over lunch to discuss breastfeeding across cultures.
The majority moved to North Texas from countries with higher breastfeeding rates than the U.S., according to UNICEF data.
They came from Sudan, Congo, Myanmar, Mexico and Louisiana. The thrum of their languages filled the room, punctuated by the occasional shriek from a baby carrier nearby. Interpreters who spoke Swahili, Arabic and Burmese took turns cradling babies, whispering words.
The conversation in the middle of World Breastfeeding Week addressed not only each woman’s beliefs about breastfeeding, but how motherhood and birth care differ across time and place. They spoke about breastfeeding not only as best practice but as the only option; pressure from an American medical system over-reliant on time; and a conviction that, regardless of where you’re from, mother knows best.
Healthy Start Director Misty Wilder hosted the group interview for the Fort Worth Report after the Report asked her if she knew any breastfeeding moms willing to share experiences for National Breastfeeding Month. The majority of the women are part of the Healthy Start program, Wilder said.
Breastfeeding as best practice and, sometimes, the only practice
Rita Ngam, from Myanmar, began breastfeeding her son partway through the discussion. So did Vanessa Castañeda, from Mexico, and Dawan Bruce, from New Orleans. The casual inclusion of the practice echoed group consensus: breast is best.
Ngam said breastfeeding can help prevent breast cancer. Eshraga Ibrahim, from Sudan, said it’s common in her home country for moms to breastfeed for the baby’s first two years. Doing so offers “complete growth” for the baby, she said. Growth of mind, body and emotion. Ibrahim spoke only through Arabic interpreter Nada Aref.
In late June, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended moms breastfeed their babies, along with safe complementary foods after 6 months, “as long as mutually desired by mother and child for 2 years or beyond,” citing continued health benefits for mom and child after the child’s first birthday. The World Health Organization has long encouraged that timeline.
Vung Ciin, from Myanmar, said her husband didn’t drink much breast milk as a baby. She did, and she attributes her relative strength to that part of her upbringing, she said through Burmese interpreter Emelda Thein. She decided to breastfeed all of her children. The choice created space for a loving bond between them, she said.
Castañeda agreed, but the stories she learned from her family in Mexico focused less on the benefits of breastfeeding and more on its practicality. “It was more like, that’s just what you did, because that’s how you fed your baby,” she said. “There was really no formula option.”
Saada Mateso and Julienne Bendera, both from Congo, experienced a similar lack of options. “In Africa, there is no formula,” their Swahili interpreter, Nabila Viriot, said. Mateso and Bendera spoke only through Viriot during the interview.
‘I already have nine kids — I know how to do it.’
Mateso has nine children. The youngest, she held throughout the conversation. His shirt read, “Mommy is my favorite word.”
Some of her children, she birthed and raised in Congo. They’re healthy kids, she said through Viriot. When she came to the U.S., her American providers urged her to maintain a strict breastfeeding timeline: Every 2-3 hours, even during the night, even if the child is sleeping.
“They cannot tell me,” she said, “because I already have nine kids. I know how to do it.”
That focus on a regimented schedule extends into other areas of birth care, Bendera said. She’s noticed that, in the U.S., the due date reigns. In her experience, if a pregnant woman passes her due date, providers encourage a C-section or induction.
“In Africa, we don’t have it. They let you stay with God — God will,” Viriot said. “When you’re ready, you go. But here, they give you the date.”
Providers in the U.S. might recommend a C-section for myriad reasons, from slow labor to a baby entering the birth canal feet-first, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, too many C-sections can put the woman at greater risk for problems with future babies.
The focus on C-sections and inductions can also feel pushy, Bruce said. There’s a sense of, “Let me get you out of the way so I can work with the next person,” she said. She prefers to rely on the wisdom of her family and other moms, rather than providers.
For her part, Castañeda said she’s worked to trust herself. She hopes providers in the U.S. recognize the specific knowledge women possess about their own babies and through their own experience, rather than providing one-size-fits-all directives. “They want to tell you this rule, black and white, and this is how all the babies are, but all babies are different,” she said.
“No matter what culture you’re in, your mom instinct is there.”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.