Why African Babies Don't Cry:
An African Perspective
|by Claire Niala
I was born and grew up in Kenya & Cote d'Ivoire. Then from
the age of fifteen I lived in the UK. However, I always knew that
I wanted to raise my children (whenever I had them) at home in
Kenya. And yes, I assumed I was going to have them. I am a modern
African woman with two university degrees and I am a fourth
generation working woman - but when it comes to children, I am
typically African. The assumption remains that you are not
complete without them; children are a blessing it would be crazy
to avoid. Actually the question does not even arise.
I started my pregnancy in the UK. The urge to deliver at home
was so strong that I sold my practice, setup a new business and
moved house / country within five months of finding out I was
pregnant. I did what most expectant mothers in the UK do - I read
voraciously: Our Babies, Ourselves, Unconditional
Parenting, anything by the Searses - the list goes on. (My
grandmother later commented that babies don't read books - and
really all I needed to do was "read" my baby).
Everything I read said that African babies cried less than
European babies. I was intrigued as to why.
When I went home I observed. I looked out for mothers and
babies and they were everywhere (though not very young African
ones - those under six weeks were mainly at home). The first thing
I noticed is that despite their ubiquitousness it is actually
quite difficult to actually "see" a Kenyan baby. They
are usually incredibly well wrapped up before being carried or
strapped onto their mother (sometimes father).
Even older babies already strapped onto a back are then further
protected from the elements by a large blanket. You would be lucky
to catch a limb, never mind an eye or nose. It is almost a
womb-like replication in the wrapping. The babies are literally
cocooned from the stresses of the outside world into which they
My second observation was a cultural one. In the UK it was
understood that babies cry - in Kenya it was quite the opposite.
The understanding is that babies don't cry. If they do -
something is horribly wrong and must be done to rectify it immediately.
My English sister-in-law summarized it well. "People
here" she said "really don't like babies crying, do
|It all made much more sense when I finally
delivered and my grandmother came from the village to visit. As it
happened - my baby did cry a fair amount, and exasperated
and tired, I forgot everything I had ever read and sometimes
joined in the crying too. Yet for my grandmother it was simple -
nyonyo (breastfeed her!). It was her answer to every single peep.
There were times when it was a wet nappy, or the fact that I
had put her down, or that she needed burping that was the problem,
but mainly she just wanted to be at the breast - it didn't really
matter whether she was feeding or just having a comfort moment. I
was already wearing her most of the time and co-sleeping with her,
so this was a natural extension to what we were doing.
I suddenly learned the not-so-difficult secret as to the joyful
silence of African babies. It was a simple needs-met symbiosis
that required a total suspension of ideas of "what should
be happening" and an embracing of what was actually going
on in that moment. The bottom line was that my baby fed a lot
- far more than I had ever read about anywhere and at least five
times as much as some of the stricter feeding schedules I had
At about four months, when a lot of urban mothers start to
introduce solids as previous guidelines had recommended, my
daughter returned to newborn style hourly breastfeeding. She
needed hourly feeds and this was a total shock. Over the past four
months the time between feeds had slowly started to increase. I
had even started to treat the odd patient without my breasts
leaking or my daughter's nanny interrupting the session to let me
know my daughter needed a feed.
Most of the mothers in my mother and baby group had duly
started to introduce baby rice (to stretch the feeds) and all the
professionals involved in our children's lives - pediatricians,
even doulas, said that this was OK. Mothers needed rest too, we
had done amazingly to get to four months exclusive breastfeeding,
and they said our babies would be fine. Something didn't ring true
for me and even when I tried (half-heartedly) to mix some pawpaw
(the traditional weaning food in Kenya) with expressed milk and
offered it to my daughter - she was having none of it.
|So I called my grandmother. She laughed and asked
if I had been reading books again. She carefully explained how
breastfeeding was anything but linear. "She'll tell you when
she's ready for food - and her body will too." "What
will I do until then?" I was eager to know. "You do what
you did before, regular nyonyo". So my life slowed down to
what felt like a standstill again. While many of my contemporaries
marveled at how their children were sleeping longer now that they
had introduced the baby rice, and were even venturing to other
foods, I was waking hourly or every two hours with my daughter and
telling patients that the return to work wasn't panning out quite
as I had planned.
I soon found that quite unwittingly I was turning into an
informal support service for other urban mothers. My phone number
was doing the round and many times while I was feeding my baby
I would hear myself uttering the words, "Yes, just keep
feeding him/ her." "Yes, even if you have just fed
them" "Yes, you might not even manage to get out of your
pajamas today" "Yes, you still need to eat and drink
like a horse" "No, now might not be the time to consider
going back to work if you can afford not to". "It will
get easier". I had to just trust this last one as it hadn't
gotten easier for me - yet.
A week or so before my daughter turned five months we traveled
to the UK for a wedding and for her to meet family and friends.
Especially because I had very few other demands, I kept up her
feeding schedule easily. Despite the disconcerted looks of many
strangers as I fed my daughter in many varied public places (most
designated breastfeeding rooms were in rest rooms which I just
could not bring myself to use), we carried on.
At the wedding, the people whose table we sat at noted,
"She is such an easy baby - though she does feed a lot".
I kept my silence, then another lady commented, "Though I did
read somewhere that African babies don't cry much." I could
not help but laugh.
My grandmother's gentle wisdom:
- Offer the
breast every single moment that your baby is upset - even if
you have just fed her.
Many times you can feed your baby before they are fully awake,
which will allow them to go back to sleep easier and get you
- Always take
a flask of warm water with bed to you at night to keep you
hydrated and the milk flowing.
- Make the
feeding your priority (especially during growth spurts) and
get everyone else around you to do as much as they can for
you. There is very little that cannot wait.
- Read your
baby, not the books. Breastfeeding is not linear - it goes up
and down (and also in circles). You are the expert on your
|J. Claire K. Niala is a mother, osteopath
& writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.