Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan
by Ruth Kamnitzer
In Mongolia, there's an oft-quoted saying that the best wrestlers are breastfed for at least six years - a serious endorsement in a country where wrestling is the national sport. I moved to Mongolia when my first child was four months old, and lived there until he was three.
Raising my son during those early years in a place where attitudes to breastfeeding are so dramatically different from prevailing norms in North America opened my eyes to an entirely different vision of how it all could be. Not only do Mongolians breast feed for a long time, they do so with more enthusiasm and less inhibition than nearly anyone else I've met. In Mongolia, breastmilk is not just for babies, it's not only about nutrition, and it's definitely not something you need to be discreet about. It's the stuff Genghis Khan was made of.
Like many first-time mums, I hadn't given much thought to breastfeeding before I had a child. But minutes after my son, Calum, popped out, he latched on, and for the next four years seemed pretty determined not to let go. I was lucky, for in many ways breastfeeding came easily - never a cracked nipple, rarely an engorged breast. Mentally, things were not quite as simple. As much as I loved my baby and cherished the bond that breastfeeding gave us, it was, at times, overwhelming. I was unprepared for the magnitude of my love for him, and for the intensity of his need for me and me only - for my milk. "Don't let him turn you into a human pacifier," a Canadian nurse had cautioned me just days after Calum's birth, as he sucked for hour after hour. But I would run through all the possible reasons for his crying - gas? wet? understimulation? overstimulation? - and mostly I'd just end up feeding him again. I wondered if I was doing the right thing.
Then I moved away from Canada, to Mongolia, where my husband was conducting a wildlife study. There, babies are kept constantly swaddled in layers of thick blankets, tied up with string like packages you don't want to come apart in the mail. When a package murmurs, a nipple is popped in its mouth. Babies aren't changed very often, and never burped. There aren't even hands available to thrust a rattle into. Definitely no tummy time. Babies stay wrapped up for at least three months, and every time they make a sound, they're breastfed.
This was interesting. At three months, Canadian babies are already having social engagements, even swimming. Some are learning to "self-soothe." I had assumed that there were many reasons a baby might cry, and that my job was to figure out what the reason was and provide the appropriate solution. But in Mongolia, though babies might cry for many reasons, there is only ever one solution: breastmilk. I settled down on my butt and followed suit.
A Working Boob Hits the Streets
In Canada, a certain amount of mystique still surrounds breastfeeding. But really, we're just not very used to it. Breastfeeding happens at home, in baby groups, occasionally in cafes - you seldom see it in public, and we certainly don't have conscious memories of having been breastfed ourselves. This private activity between mother and child is greeted with a hush and politely averted eyes, and regarded almost in the same way as public displays of intimacy between couples: not taboo, but slightly discomfiting and politely ignored. And when that quiet, angelic newborn grows into an active toddler intent on letting the world know exactly what he's doing, well, those eyes are averted a bit more quickly and intently, sometimes under frowning brows.
In Mongolia, instead of relegating me to a "Mothers Only" section, breastfeeding in public brought me firmly to center stage. Their universal practice of breast feeding anywhere, anytime, and the close quarters in which most Mongolians live, mean that everyone is pretty familiar with the sight of a working boob. They were happy to see I was doing things their way (which was, of course, the right way).
When I breastfed in the park, grandmothers would regale me with tales of the dozen children they had fed. When I breastfed in the back of taxis, drivers would give me the thumbs-up in the rearview mirror and assure me that Calum would grow up to be a great wrestler. When I walked through the market cradling my feeding son in my arms, vendors would make a space for me at their stalls and tell him to drink up. Instead of looking away, people would lean right in and kiss Calum on the cheek. If he popped off in response to the attention and left my streaming breast completely exposed, not a beat was missed. No one stared, no one looked away - they just laughed and wiped the milk off their noses.
From the time Calum was four months old until he was three years old, wherever I went, I heard the same thing over and over again: "Breastfeeding is the best thing for your baby, the best thing for you." The constant approval made me feel that I was doing something important that mattered to everyone - exactly the kind of public applause every new mother needs.
The Lazy Mum's Secret Weapon
By Calum's second year, I had fully realized just how useful breastfeeding could be. Nothing gets a child to sleep as quickly, relieves the boredom of a long car journey as well, or calms a breaking storm as swiftly as a little warm milk from mummy. It's the lazy mother's most useful parenting aid, and by now I thought I was using it to its maximum effect. But the Mongolians took it one step further.
During the Mongolian winters, I spent many afternoons in my friend Tsetsgee's yurt, escaping the bitter cold outside. It was enlightening to compare our different parenting techniques. Whenever a tussle over toys broke out between our two-year-olds, my first reaction would be to try to restore peace by distracting Calum with another toy while explaining the principle of sharing. But this took a while, and had a success rate of only about 50 percent. The other times, when Calum was unwilling to back down and his frustration escalated to near boiling point, I would pick him up and cradle him in my arms for a feed.
Tsetsgee had a different approach. At the first murmur of discord, she would lift her shirt and start waving her boobs around enthusiastically, calling out, "Come here, baby, look what mama's got for you!" Her son would look up from the toys to the bull's-eyes of his mother's breasts and invariably toddle over.
Success rate? 100 percent.
Not to be outdone, I adopted the same strategy. There we were, two mothers flapping our breasts like competing strippers trying to entice a client. If the grandparents were around, they'd get in on the act. The poor kids wouldn't know where to look - the reassuring fullness of their own mothers' breasts, granny's withered pancake boasting its long experience, or the strange mound of flesh granddad was squeezing up in breast envy. Try as I might, I can't picture a similar scene at a La Leche League meeting.
When They're Walking and Talking... and Taking Their Exams?
In my prenatal class in small-town Canada, where Calum was born, breastfeeding had been introduced with a video showing a particularly sporty-looking Swedish mother breastfeeding her toddler while out skiing. A shudder ran through the group: "Sure, it's great for babies, but by the time they're walking and talking ... ?" That was pretty much the consensus. I kept my counsel.
It was my turn to be surprised when one of my new Mongolian friends told me she had breastfed until she was nine years old. I was so jaw-dropped flabbergasted that at first I dismissed it as a joke. Considering my son weaned just after turning four, I'm now a little embarrassed about my adamant disbelief. While nine years is pretty old to be breast feeding, even by Mongolian standards, it's not actually off the scale.
Though it wasn't always easy to fully discuss such concepts as self-weaning with Mongolians because of the language barrier, breastfeeding "to term" seemed to be the norm. I never met anyone who was tandem breastfeeding, which surprised me, but because the intervals between births are fairly long, most kids give up breastfeeding at between two and four years of age.
In 2005, according to UNICEF1, 82 percent of children in Mongolia continued to breastfeed at 12 to 15 months, and 65 percent were still doing so at 20 to 23 months. A mother's last child seems to just keep going, hence the breastfeeding nine-year-old - and, if the folk wisdom is right - Mongolia's renown for wrestling.
As three-year-old Calum was still feeding with the enthusiasm of a newborn and I wondered how weaning would eventually come about, I was curious about what prompted Mongolian children to self-wean. Some mothers said their child had simply lost interest. Others said peer pressure played a part. (I have heard Mongolian teenagers tease each other with "You want your mommy's breasts!" in the same way Canadian kids say "Crybaby!") More and more often, work commitments force weaning to happen earlier than would otherwise have occurred; children will often spend the summer in the countryside while a mother stays in the city to work, and during the extended separation her milk dries up. My friend Buana, now 20, explained her gold-medal breastfeeding career to me: "I grew up in a yurt way out in the countryside. My mom always told me to drink up, that it was good for me. I thought that's what every nine-year-old was doing. When I went to school, I stopped." She looked at me with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "But I still like to drink it sometimes."
Pass the Milk, Please
For me, weaning from the breast seemed a fairly defined event. I always expected that, at some point, feedings would decrease, and continue to taper off until they ceased altogether. My milk would dry up, and that would be that. Bar closed.
In Mongolia, that's not what happens. Discussing breastfeeding with my friend Naraa, I asked her when her daughter, who was then six, had weaned. "At four," she replied. "I was sad, but she didn't want to breastfeed anymore." Then Naraa told me that, just the week before, when her daughter had returned from an extended stay in the countryside with her grandparents and had wanted to breastfeed, Naraa obliged. "I guess she missed me too much," she said, "and it was nice. Of course, I didn't have any milk, but she didn't mind."
But 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 woman'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.
While we've all tasted our own breastmilk, given some to our partners to try, maybe used a bit in the coffee in an emergency - haven't we? - I don't think many of us have actually drunk it very often. But every Mongolian I ever asked told me that he or she liked breastmilk. The value of breastmilk is so celebrated, so firmly entrenched in their culture, that it's not considered something that's only for babies. Breastmilk is commonly used medicinally, given to the elderly as a cure-all, and used to treat eye infections, as well as to (reportedly) make the white of the eye whiter and deepen the brown of the iris.
But mostly, I think, Mongolians drink breastmilk because they like the taste. A western friend of mine who pumped breastmilk while at work and left the bottle in the company fridge one day found it half empty. She laughed. "Only in Mongolia would I suspect my colleagues of drinking my breastmilk!"
Living in another culture always forces you to reevaluate your own. I don't really know what it would have been like to breastfeed my son during his early years in Canada. The avalanche of positive feedback on breastfeeding I got in Mongolia, and Mongolians' wholehearted acceptance of public breastfeeding, simply amazed me, and gave me the freedom to raise my child in a way that felt natural. But in addition to all the small differences in our breastfeeding norms, the details of how long and how often, I ended up feeling that there was a bigger divide in our parenting styles.
In North America, we so value independence that it comes through in everything we do. All the talk is about what your baby's eating now, and how many breastfeedings he's down to. Even if you're not the one asking these questions, it's hard to escape their impact. And there are now so many things for sale that are designed to help your child amuse herself and need you less that the message is clear. But in Mongolia, breastfeeding isn't equated with dependence, and weaning isn't a finish line. They know their kids will grow up - in fact, the average Mongolian five-year-old is far more independent than her western counterpart, breastfed or not. There's no rush to wean.
Probably the most valuable thing about raising my son in Mongolia was that I realized that there are a million different ways to do things, and that I could choose any of them. Throughout my son's breastfeeding career, I struggled with different issues, and picked up and discarded many ideas and practices, in my search to forge my own style. I'm glad I breast fed Calum as much and as long as I did - it turned out to be four years. I think breastfeeding was the best thing for my son, and that it will have a lasting impact on his personality and on our relationship.
And when he wins that Olympic gold medal in wrestling, I'll expect him to thank me.
Ruth Kamnitzer lived in a traditional felt tent in the Mongolian countryside for three years while her husband, Steve, conducted a wildlife study on the Pallas cat of Central Asia. She has an MSC in Biodiversity Conservation and currently lives in Bristol, UK with Steve and Calum (4).
Reprinted with permission of the author. Originally published in Mothering Magazine, issue 155, July-August 2009.