Seeing Moms Breastfeed in Public Is Actually Vital for Our Future

gorilla with babyCan you imagine being really sheltered, not exposed to anything, and then having a baby without any knowledge on how to care for that baby? We can hope we all have instinct, but does that instinct come from seeing other mothers nurturing their children? In an article from 1981, the story of the gorilla named "Gigi" got me thinking. It's told through the eyes and emotions of a professor of animal psychology, Deborah Schildkraut.

Eight-year-old Gigi, like many gorillas, was raised in captivity her whole life, and was set to give birth in the Walter D. Stone Memorial Zoo in Massachusetts. The problem was, having never seen other gorillas raise babies, Gigi had no idea how to be a mother, or even to react to birth.

And, in a way, the same thing is happening to us.


Gigi's story is actually pretty sad, and one part made me tear up. But the reason I find it so important is not just about rethinking zoos, but also to help people understand why things like seeing natural births (not just dramatized TV births) and breastfeeding is so important for us as a society if we want to evolve and grow back to the healthy, natural standards we are designed for as a species.

Deborah spent a lot of time with Gigi, trying to train her how to care for a baby, how to be gentle, how she would feed one, playing sounds of baby gorillas crying so it wouldn't scare her, and took heart when Gigi showed a lot of interest in a human baby. After all, Gigi's own mother had also been lacking mothering skills, as many captive animals do. It turns into neglect leading to death or even aggression or aversion. When it came time for Gigi to birth, sadly, she seemed to lack any ability to understand what happened to her body, or what the thing was that had come out of her. In a gut-wrenching description, she dropped the newborn repeatedly, seemed distressed by the umbilical cord and placenta, and ran around until it snagged and pulled the placenta out of her, then ignored the baby even when it cried, until the medical team finally had to step in and take the baby.

Meanwhile, an orangutan named Betty who had been born in the wild and had her own baby, and was an amazing mother, knowing all the instincts she'd learned while wild, was restless in her cage, completely distressed by the unanswered cries of Gigi's baby.

We talk a lot about how we have natural instincts, but as Gigi's story shows, there's another major influence as well called "cultural behavior." This is what Gigi lacked -- she didn't know how gorillas behaved, what birth was, and she had absolutely no idea what a baby was, or what she was supposed to do with it. It just scared her. In fact, in other zoos, gorillas who aren't as bad off as Gigi still need to be shown videos of other gorillas breastfeeding in order to even know what to do with their own babies.

breastfeeding momNow obviously, we as humans are a little more educated than this. We know about contractions, that breastfeeding means a baby's mouth attaches to our breasts. However, for many, that's it -- they've never actually seen a birth other than on dramatic TV shows, and they've never seen breastfeeding, aside from quick clips in videos that show a baby's head in front of a breast. I'd never seen breastfeeding until I was expected to do it myself. So then you're left with what you're familiar with, which can be very limited. Many women try the cradle hold to breastfeed, since that's what they see, but if it's not comfortable, they often have no idea what else to do -- despite the fact that "laid-back/biological" breastfeeding is a position that actually takes most advantage of the baby's instincts and takes a lot of the positioning responsibility away from the mom.

In short, we have edited out public view of so much natural human behavior that we're really left now with a distorted view of how babies should be born and cared for. We're not going to end up like chimpanzees who are even losing the instincts for procreation, but we definitely make our own lives and mothering much more difficult by trying to hide natural parts of mothering behind puritanical veils of privacy and modesty.

Do you think we've dulled our "cultural behavior" senses by not showing more natural behaviors?


Images via zpics/Flickr; Sarah Berrie

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