Breastfeeding Cultural Beliefs

Baby mammals all drink milk, a natural adaptation to give each species the special blend of nutrients they need for optimal health and growth in a ready to eat, easily digested package. Humans are no different and our milk is uniquely formulated to promote brain growth.

When the benefits in terms of health and cost are so obvious, why are there so many babies around the world missing out on the special characteristics of human milk and instead consuming the milk of other mammals or bean juice from soy plants?

One of the most common reasons might surprise you. Many cultures harbor false beliefs about what moms should or should not eat while they are breastfeeding. Except for certain medications, recreational drugs or large amounts of alcohol their are very few dietary restrictions for the breastfeeding mom.

Here are a few facts


Mexico has one of lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world; furthermore, the percentage of Mexican moms who nurse their babies for 6 months fell from 22 percent in 2006 to 14 percent last year. Combine that with the statistics that Mexico has the highest infant mortality rate among the world’s 40 largest economies and that between 2005 and 2010, breast cancer deaths increased twice as fast as Mexico’s female population, with some experts blaming declining rates of breast-feeding; studies show it cuts a woman’s risk of cancer by 50 percent or more.

Despite the clear health and financial advantages, many Mexican women choose to feed their babies formula because of perceived dietary restrictions.  Mexican culture has a lot of food taboos for lactating women… a recent study revealed that nearly half (47.3%) of nursing moms avoided at least 3 healthy foods (mostly fruits, vegetables, and legumes) because of cultural beliefs.


On the other hand Brazil has made great strides during the same time. In another study, Brazilian women were found to harbor many scary beliefs about food combinations during pregnancy including eggs and fruit, milk and fruit, or meat, and fish…stating combinations are harmful or combination kills.

Brazil reversed a decline in breast-feeding in the 1980s by strictly limiting advertising by baby food companies and airing prime-time informational spots with national celebrities to dispel myths, such as that women with small breasts were incapable of nursing, and that there are very few foods or combinations that are harmful to nursing babies.


In Asia, postpartum maternal food restrictions (food avoidances) are common practices, which may have important health consequences in reducing the nutritional content of breast milk. In Laos, 93% of breastfeeding women reported that they followed a restricted diet or or phit kam. During the first months, mothers did not eat popular Lao foods, such as raw or fermented vegetables, fruits, meat, or spices. Most women ate only sticky rice with salt with occasional amounts of dry meat and drank herb tea. To do otherwise is considered harmful to the new baby.

Industrialized nations also have a number of dietary beliefs that influence early weaning. Many mothers incorrectly assume that alcohol and caffeine are off limits. Oftentimes normal behavior or fussiness is attributed to foods in mom’s diet like broccoli, onions, spices, garlic, milk and chocolate. The internet is flooded with stories of helpful advice of foods to cut out to cure colic. The reality is that no actual correlation between maternal diet and colic has been established and 3 recent studies show either no improvement or worsening when mother switch from breast milk to formula.

Should you worry

Some mothers worry about allergies, especially when there is a family history. At present, there is still no evidence that removing food from your diet while you are breastfeeding will prevent allergies in the future.

The pressure to eat the perfect diet while breastfeeding is just media hype…spurred by those who stand to benefit, the formula companies. They support breastfeeding superficially but are always ready to push their products when moms feel stressed or punished.

Most of the rules about what you should and shouldn’t eat when breastfeeding are based on cultural traditions rather than scientific facts. Diets around the world vary hugely. In one culture, women may avoid a particular food while breastfeeding while in another culture breastfeeding moms may eat that same food every day.

The misperception that lactating women must maintain perfect diets in order to have thriving breastfed babies is an unnecessary obstacle to breastfeeding.

Throughout human history breastfeeding mothers have often experienced periods of time where access to food is limited in diversity, amount or quality. Nature’s answer to this age old problem is that the mother’s body will draw upon her own resources to make milk that is complete and nourishing. When mom’s diet is lacking SHE is the one mostly likely to suffer the nutritional consequences, not her baby.

Humans have a built in negativity bias…they are much more likely to avoid things they perceive as bad or dangerous then make an effort for something the perceive to be superior. This is why a phrase like breast is best is so damaging. Breast milk isn’t best… it’s the normal food for a human baby. Instead of speaking about the benefits of breast milk we should do the scientifically appropriate method and discuss the risks associated with cow’s milk or soy based formula.

Mother’s all too often make decisions based on faulty assumptions that packaged milk doesn’t come with the same problems that mom’s milk does. It still contains toxins, pesticides and allergens because the cows and goats live in the same world we do!

As a species, humans are unique in that most of our brain development occurs in the two years after birth. There isn’t anything natural or synthetic that can be added to our milk to make it more suited to it’s intended purpose. You cannot make gold more golden with additives.