I was born and grew up in Kenya and Cote d’Ivoire. From the age of fifteen I lived in the UK. However, I always knew that I wanted to raise my children (whenever I had them) at home in Kenya. And yes, I assumed I was going to have them. I am a modern African woman, with two university degrees, and a fourth generation working woman – but when it comes to children, I am typically African. The assumption remains that you are not complete without them; children are a blessing which would be crazy to avoid. Actually the question does not even arise.
I started my pregnancy in the UK. The urge to deliver at home was so strong that I sold my practice, setup a new business and moved house and country within five months of finding out I was pregnant. I did what most expectant mothers in the UK do – I read voraciously: Our Babies, Ourselves, Unconditional Parenting, anything by Sears – the list goes on. (My grandmother later commented that babies don’t read books and really all I needed to do was “read” my baby). Everything I read said that African babies cried less than European babies. I was intrigued as to why.
When I went home, I observed. I looked out for mothers and babies and they were everywhere, though very young African ones, under six weeks, were mainly at home. The first thing I noticed is that despite their ubiquitousness, it is actually quite difficult to actually “see” a Kenyan baby. They are usually incredibly well wrapped up before being carried or strapped onto their mother (sometimes father). Even older babies strapped onto a back are further protected from the elements by a large blanket. You would be lucky to catch sight of a limb, never mind an eye or nose. The wrapping is a womb-like replication. The babies are literally cocooned from the stresses of the outside world into which they are entering.
My second observation was a cultural one. In the UK, it was understood that babies cry. In Kenya, it was quite the opposite. The understanding is that babies don’t cry. If they do – something is horribly wrong and something must be done to rectify it immediately. My English sister-in-law summarized it well. “People here,” she said, “really don’t like babies crying, do they?”
It all made much more sense when I finally delivered and my grandmother came from the village to visit. As it happened, my baby did cry a fair amount. Exasperated and tired, I forgot everything I had ever read and sometimes joined in the crying too. Yet for my grandmother it was simple, “Nyonyo (breastfeed her)!” It was her answer to every single peep.
There were times when it was a wet nappy, or that I had put her down, or that she needed burping, but mainly she just wanted to be at the breast – it didn’t really matter whether she was feeding or just having a comfort moment. I was already wearing her most of the time and co-sleeping with her, so this was a natural extension to what we were doing.
I suddenly learned the not-so-difficult secret of the joyful silence of African babies. It was a simple needs-met symbiosis that required a total suspension of ideas of what should be happening and an embracing of what was actually going on in that moment. The bottom line was that my baby fed a lot – far more than I had ever read about and at least five times as much as some of the stricter feeding schedules I had seen.
At about four months, when a lot of urban mothers start to introduce solids as previous guidelines had recommended, my daughter returned to newborn-style hourly breastfeeding, which was a total shock. Over the past four months, the time between feeds had slowly started to increase. I had even started to treat the odd patient without my breasts leaking or my daughter’s nanny interrupting the session to let me know my daughter needed a feed.
Most of the mothers in my mother and baby group had duly started to introduce baby rice (to stretch the feeds) and all the professionals involved in our children’s lives – pediatricians, even doulas, said that this was ok. Mothers needed rest too, we had done amazingly to get to four months exclusively breastfeeding, and they assured us our babies would be fine. Something didn’t ring true for me and even when I tried, half-heartedly, to mix some pawpaw (the traditional weaning food in Kenya) with expressed milk and offer it to my daughter, she was having none of it.
So I called my grandmother. She laughed and asked if I had been reading books again. She carefully explained how breastfeeding was anything but linear. “She’ll tell you when she’s ready for food – and her body will too.”
“What will I do until then?” I was eager to know.
“You do what you did before, regular nyonyo.” So my life slowed down to what felt like a standstill again. While many of my contemporaries marveled at how their children were sleeping longer now that they had introduced baby rice and were even venturing to other foods, I was waking hourly or every two hours with my daughter and telling patients that the return to work wasn’t panning out quite as I had planned.
I soon found that quite unwittingly, I was turning into an informal support service for other urban mothers. My phone number was doing the rounds and many times while I was feeding my baby I would hear myself uttering the words, “Yes, just keep feeding him/ her. Yes, even if you have just fed them. Yes, you might not even manage to get out of your pajamas today. Yes, you still need to eat and drink like a horse. No, now might not be the time to consider going back to work if you can afford not to.” And finally, I assured mothers, “It will get easier.” I had to just trust this last one as it hadn’t gotten easier for me, yet.
A week or so before my daughter turned five months, we traveled to the UK for a wedding and for her to meet family and friends. Because I had very few other demands, I easily kept up her feeding schedule. Despite the disconcerted looks of many strangers as I fed my daughter in many varied public places (most designated breastfeeding rooms were in restrooms which I just could not bring myself to use), we carried on.
At the wedding, the people whose table we sat at noted, “She is such an easy baby – though she does feed a lot.” I kept my silence. Another lady commented, “Though I did read somewhere that African babies don’t cry much.” I could not help but laugh.
My Grandmother’s gentle wisdom:
1. Offer the breast every single moment that your baby is upset – even if you have just fed her.
2. Co-sleep. Many times you can feed your baby before they are fully awake, which will allow them to go back to sleep easier and get you more rest.
3. Always take a flask of warm water to bed with you at night to keep you hydrated and the milk flowing.
4. Make feeding your priority (especially during growth spurts) and get everyone else around you to do as much as they can for you. There is very little that cannot wait.
Read your baby, not the books. Breastfeeding is not linear – it goes up and down and also in circles. You are the expert on your baby’s needs.