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Book Review
Our Babies, Ourselves:
How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent

By Meredith Small
Anchor Books, 1998
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 35 No. 2, April-May 1999, p. 38

Reviewed by Cindy Stotts Howard

Early bottles and supplements. Separate rooms for sleeping. Don't nurse too long. Stop those night nursings right away. The directives in mainstream American culture are clear: this is what babies need for healthy development. In fact, babies and children are raised differently all around the world and seem to thrive regardless.

Kung San parents practice sitting, walking and standing with their babies to make sure their babies acquire these skills as quickly as possible. Achenese children are carried until they are around five years old. Gusil mothers do not kiss or cuddle their babies. Japanese mothers work hard to foster infant and child dependence. Mothers in the United States are told to do all they can to move their babies toward independence.

Some babies adapt well to the terms of their culture but others do not. This leaves parents with a difficult choice: follow the culture's directives and hope baby adapts or ignore them and respond to baby's needs. Just how can we tell when the problem lies with our cultural expectations?

Our Babies, Ourselves by Meredith Small examines both the cultural biases reflected in parenting practices and the underlying biological needs of infants. Small is a member of a new academic field called ethnopediatrics. Ethno means the study of cultures and how they compare to each other. Ethnopediatrics focuses on child-raising practices across cultures and how different parenting styles affect the physical and emotional health of infants. Researchers in this field include pediatricians, child development researchers and anthropologists.

Small believes that infants have evolved to expect particular parenting styles and goals. Although there are as many different ways to raise children as there are parents and children, infants around the world have similar physical and psychological needs. Small believes ethnopediatrics can dramatically impact the way we parent.

The first chapters of the book provide a world tour of parenting styles. Small emphasizes that parenting styles reflect the cultures that created them. Parents around the world want the best for their children. They parent in ways they feel will best prepare their offspring for the life ahead of them. Thus Kung San babies who will lead a physically demanding life are encouraged and trained to develop physical skills early. Parents in the US value independence and encourage their babies to spend time separate from adults in order to foster this independence. Japan is similar: heavily industrialized and economically successful. But Japanese culture values group success over individual achievement. A Japanese mother sees her baby as an extension of herself and encourages infant and child dependency.

What about parenting practices that are not sanctioned in my culture but feel right to me? In my culture babies do not sleep with their parents. My babies do. How do parents who want to step outside of their culture know what is best for their child? These questions are answered in the latter chapters of the book.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 look at sleep, crying and breastfeeding. The chapters complement the information on evolution in Chapter 1 by looking at what infants expect biologically.

Chapter 4 quotes extensively from James McKenna's research on co-sleeping and its role in the prevention of SIDS. Although McKenna's research is still somewhat controversial, many mothers will appreciate the cross-cultural insight that infants around the world sleep with their parents with no noticeable sleeping problems in later life.

The chapter on crying addresses why babies cry and how parents can best respond. Crying is a signal sent by infants to their parents. When a baby's cry is ignored, the baby often responds by crying harder and longer. Mothers who spend a lot of time apart from their babies have a hard time learning what baby is trying to communicate. When mothers and babies are together frequently, they begin to work together recognizing each other's signals. Mothers find it easier to understand and respond to babies' needs; babies find less need to cry to have those needs met. The result is a symbiotic relationship between mother and child, or as Small calls it, a "dance of equilibrium."

Chapter 6 includes extensive information about the biological specificity of breast milk and the many health benefits related to breastfeeding. Leaders will find nothing surprising in this chapter but plenty to share with mothers. Katherine Dettwyler's research on the weaning ages of other mammals is discussed in detail. (See Dettwyler, K. A Time to Wean. NEW BEGINNINGS, May/Jun 1995; 87-7.)

Leaders should be aware that the author makes strong statements about the risks of breastfeeding if a mother is HIV positive (page 197). Current research shows that there are many unknown factors involved in maternal child transmission of HIV. In some situations, the risk of not being breastfed is greater than the risk of acquiring HIV through human milk. At this time, members of the LLLI Health Advisory Council are being asked to review current research and assist LLLI in developing a statement regarding HIV and breastfeeding. LLLI has been advised by the author that her statement. regarding HIV will be updated in the revised edition of Our Babies, Ourselves, due out May 1999.

This is not a "how-to" book. Although the research presented supports LLLI philosophy, the book is not a statement of the philosophy. It does not provide the mother-to-mother support and information that new mothers need. What Small does provide, however, is research: dramatic, startling and well-done research that supports the information LLL has worked so hard to promote over the past 42 years. Parents can use the research as they develop their own parenting styles or to defend the choices they have made to others. Leaders can use the research to increase our own understanding of why the information we share works so well for babies and their mother. Ultimately, the information in this book offers encouragement to mothers who struggle to balance their babies' needs with cultural expectations that may or may not support those needs.

Our Babies, Ourselves states explicitly what I have privately believed for some time now: parenting styles are culturally determined; much of the information about parenting is counter to what babies need and what mothers are biologically driven to provide. Small speaks out against misinformation in a reasoned, well-researched way. Although I believe that a mother's personal experience of parenting is more important than what experts say, even those I agree with, it is reassuring to read a book in which the parenting information is backed by research in many disciplines. That the research supports what LLL Leaders and mothers have been saying for so long is an extra bonus.

Last updated 11/17/06 by jlm.
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