Real talk, moms: to decolonize our feminism we have to actively look around the world and consider how other societies parent with the assumption that there’s nothing backward or “undeveloped” about it. Communal breastfeeding is one of those things we rarely see in primarily white societies since the advent of commercial formula. While it certainly isn’t free of controversy elsewhere (specifically, the class issue attached to wealthy women hiring poor women as wet nurses), there tends to be a certain matter-of-fact maturity about its benefits that could teach us a few things.
Because sure, the idea of another woman putting her nipple in your baby’s mouth might give you the creeps, but remember, only a few generations back breastfeeding itself was taboo. Even doctors did their best to convince our grandmas that nursing is uncivilized and inferior to bottle-feeding. Since then science has vindicated nature’s design, and it may just be time to de-stigmatize the notion of communal breastfeeding, or allo-nursing, where a pair or group of women nurse each other’s children, either together or as a division of labor.
Consider the benefits
1 | Nutritional breadth
Through your milk, baby absorbs your diet. Thus, a baby exposed to several women’s milk is likely introduced to a broader diet. Of course there’s a downside to be aware of – women with poor eating habits or drug issues are not the ideal candidates for allo-nursing – but then there’s the upshot: milk informed by biodiversity can expand baby’s palate for when it’s time to introduce solid foods, gently acclimate her to potential allergens, and introduce a greater range of nutritional sources.
2 | Boosting immunity
One amazing thing about breast milk is its wealth of helpful antibodies. Scientists now believe breastmilk changes in response to feedback gleaned from the baby’s spit via glands on the mother’s nipple. (Take a moment to appreciate how awesome that is.)
If the baby is fighting a cold, for example, the mother will produce antibodies in her milk to help the baby cope. Now imagine one baby catches a pathogen in a circle of allo-nursing moms. Any woman who nurses that baby will produce antibodies in her next letdown – meaning the other babies can receive this natural medicine before having to get sick themselves! So the immunity of the whole brood is strengthened – and presumably everyone gets more sleep.
3 | Social bonding
In Islamic countries where allo-nursing is an established cultural practice, children who shared a breast grow up with a lifelong bond. Known as “milk brothers” or “milk sisters”, they are believed to have a familial relation as valid as one by blood. (After all, these are both life-giving body fluids!) With so many reasons to have a small family, yet so many reasons to want siblings for our kids, this socially constructed kinship makes a lot of sense.
Bonding is not just for the younger generation. Renewed interest in attachment parenting has heightened awareness of breastfeeding’s greatest gift, which is a dedicated space to promote quality time between mother and child. Weave those bonds between neighbors, and you get a rock solid community.
Let’s not forget, mothers have a real need for social contact and support, especially in the early years where we can feel damn near invisible. Sharing this time together, loving each other’s families, and being respected by each other’s children paves a smoother road to walk down together.
4 | Relief for moms who need it
There are many reasons a woman may not breastfeed even if she wants to. She might need to work, have other kids to attend to, be dealing with an infection or be on meds she doesn’t want to pass on. She might have post partum depression, maybe partied too hard the night before, or just needs a frigging day off.
Not to mention, some babies just don’t latch well to some breasts, and it’s nobody’s fault. Does that mean they must miss out on the physiological and cognitive boons of being breastfed? Nope.
With allo-nursing, moms can pick up each other’s slack and help maintain each other’s supply even when the little ones go on strike (or favor one breast disproportionately – we all love that, right ladies?). Women can even trade off nursing two babies at a time, allowing themselves to stagger their letdowns and maximize intervals of rest – or productivity! Whatever it is you need to do when baby isn’t rooting through your blouse.