LLL Today #2 – It takes a village to breastfeed a baby

Why talk about a village in an age of globally interconnected social networks, in an age when we can see and hear someone who lives in the other hemisphere, and we consume what is produced on the other side of the world? And why settle for a village when we have the world at our fingertips?

Within reach of a click, but not within reach of human arms… Arms: what a baby needs and what a baby expects to find when she leaves the womb. The needs of a baby in 2023 are the same as the needs of a baby from the Paleolithic period when humans lived in small groups of ten to one hundred people. Incidentally, one hundred people is the approximate number of people with whom one can maintain regular and continuous relationships.[1]

A human baby needs intense physical closeness from their caregivers. This is because babies are born “premature”, certainly endowed with many skills to attach and create bonds,[2] but not independent for survival. And in fact, even as adults, none of us is truly independent for survival. We need each other for shelter, protection from danger, food and also to reproduce. The human baby is so vulnerable and dependent at birth and its need for protective and supportive arms is so intense, so vital, that part of reproduction is the period outside the uterus, in the arms of attentive adults.

So in a way, it’s as if pregnancy continues even after the birth, except that outside the baby feeds on milk and no longer on blood. Taking care of a primate baby, who needs to be carried[3] and breastfed a lot, is intense and takes a lot of time and energy. And the people who take on this work need a lot of support from their family, from their community. They need connections because breastfeeding is an art of imitation and a set of gestures, of “body techniques” that are transmitted from woman to woman, from peer to peer, from generation to generation. Secondly, nursing parents need their basic needs to be taken care of by the members of their community: food, hygiene, rest, sleep, socialization, recognition of the value of their “reproductive work”. Finally, they need to share their experiences: their doubts, their questions, their difficulties, but also their pride and joy with others who are more experienced or with sympathetic ears, and to pass on their acquired know-how.

This is the meaning of the expression “it takes a village”: breastfeeding mothers and parents local care emanating from their community. They too need to be “mothered”, they too need to be “carried” in a figurative sense. This care cannot be entrusted to one person only, such as a partner, and must be distributed among all members of a larger community, so that the reproductive work is shared and easier to bear for everyone. Mothers and parents need immediate, short-distance connections, also within reach of warm, reassuring, supportive arms. It is within close and warm social ties that babies develop best. The village, as a metaphor for this community surrounding parents and babies, is the basic ecological unit for their development, much more so than the nuclear family to which many parents are unfortunately reduced today.

Daliborka Milovanovic

[1] According to Robin Dunbar, professor of psychology at Oxford University, our social “capital” is limited. In fact, according to a 2016 study published in the Royal Society Open Science, the maximum number of people with whom we can maintain advanced relationships hovers around 150. This limit is related to the size of our brains.

[2] Several of his archaic reflexes are intended to ensure this attachment (the sucking, grasping or palmar grasp, and rooting reflexes, the ability to find the breast). The English word “latch on” (from “latch”), which designates the ability to fix one’s mouth on the nursing breast, is very evocative of this ability to cling and hold on in a secure manner.

[3] Babies who are held cry little. But it doesn’t have to be only the mother who holds the baby.