This is my second cultural report for my breastfeeding educator certification.
For my cultural reports I researched breastfeeding in Mexican, Indian, Mormon and Muslim cultures. This is my report on breastfeeding in Mexican culture. Traditionally, breastfeeding has been an integral part of the mothering experience in Mexico. Among public health professionals the traditional practice of cuarentena (where the mother has 40 days of rest and special foods after the baby is born to establish breastfeeding) is considered beneficial. Other traditions such as drinking atole ( a cornmeal beverage) are considered neutral. One tradition that is negative is the idea that an emotional upset will “spoil” the milk (Skeel).
Breastfeeding is culturally at a crossroads in both Mexico and Mexican-American communities. Breastfeeding rates in Mexico are declining and many of the older traditions are being lost. Mexico remains a country that refuses to regulate the sale of formula and has not agreed to the World Health Organization’s regulations prohibiting the distribution of formula samples to mothers in hospitals. Many mothers work long hours outside the home and are prohibited from pumping (Kahn). The situation is similarly bleak for Mexican women living in the United States. Mexican women who have become more more entrenched in American culture are less likely to initiate breastfeeding (Gill, Reifsnider and Tinkle).
Many Mexican mothers are no longer breastfeeding and have a weak support system if problems do arise. Gill, Reifsnider and Tinkle point out that one of the strongest predictors of continuation of breastfeeding for a Hispanic woman is the support of her mother. However, Mexican mothers who are living apart from their families may not have the support of female relatives in initiating breastfeeding and continuing it.
The challenge that many Mexican and Mexican-American women face is reconnecting with traditions that encourage breastfeeding while dealing with an environment that frequently discourages it. Breastfeeding educators can help fill in some of these gaps and support Mexican mothers in breastfeeding, possibly helping to re-ignite some of the very positive traditions associated with motherhood. A burgeoning movement of Latina breastfeeding advocates are trying to do that. Public health campaigns aimed at Latina mothers are trying to help as well. Latina celebrities like Christina Aguilera are becoming more vocal about their positive experiences with breastfeeding, hoping to encourage other Latina mothers to breastfeed their babies as well.
Knowledge is not as much of a problem with Mexican and Mexican-American mothers. Gill, Reifsnider and Tinkle Point out that many Mexican-American mothers know that breastfeeding is better for their babies. But the knowledge alone is not enough. With little support, many mothers lack confidence that they can breastfeed their babies and quickly turn to formula or introduce solids at a very early age.
Other issues that Gill, Reifsnider and Tinkle point out are a lack of discussion between partners. A study of Hispanic WIC participants in Texas showed that men weren’t necessarily opposed to breastfeeding. They liked the cost-effectiveness and the way it allowed the baby to bond with the mother. But all of the men said that the decision to breastfeed or artificially feed was up to their partners. Frequently the mothers said they wanted to formula feed and the men simply tried to be supportive of that decision. Some men expressed that they were uncomfortable with their partners breastfeeding in public. Outsiders often stereotype Mexican men as being “machismo” types who dictate what women should do, but in the case of infant feeding, many men seem to be very passive. Along with increasing confidence in mothers, helping fathers to become a support system could be very helpful for many mothers, especially if they are living far from family.
Mexican culture has a long and rich tradition of breastfeeding support. The challenge is reconnecting with it as families are separated by geography and the challenge of an increasingly industrialized culture. Approaching traditions and the hard realities of working mothers with low support systems requires a great deal of sensitivity. The roots are there and bringing breastfeeding back to Mexican and Mexican-American families would be a great way to preserve many positive cultural traditions.
Gill, Sarah L. Reifsnider, Elizabeth and Tinkle, Mindy B. “Assessing Infant Breastfeeding Beliefs Among Low-Income Mexican Americans.” Journal of Perinatal Education, vol. 13, no. 2, 2004. doi: 10.1624/105812404X1761.
Kahn, Carrie. “Mexico City’s Campaign To Encourage Breast-Feeding Backfires.” National Public Radio. 26 May 2014. Accessed 8 February 2017.
Sleek, LS. “Mexican cultural beliefs and breastfeeding: a model for assessment and intervention.” Journal of Human Lactation, vol. 4, no. 4, 1988. Retrieved 7 February 2017.