Breastfeeding remains central to the raising of a child in communities around the world and in Africa it is no different. When a child is born, he/she belongs to the community, and if the mother dies at childbirth another member of the family or tribe, who has recently given birth, will take on the role of breastfeeding.
Women also use breastfeeding as a form of contraception. A mother ovulates less when she is producing milk and in many communities it is taboo to have intercourse while the baby is still fully dependent on breast milk. Many women will thus try to breastfeed for as long as possible and some will continue for up to twenty-four months. If her milk dries up, (which can be due to trauma or just when the body does not want to produce any more milk) alfalfa, or lucerne, a herb high in vitamins A, C and E, calcium, iron, phosphorous and potassium, is used to stimulate milk production. Birth spacing as a form of family planning helps the mother reduce her pregnancies, but will slow the growth of the population especially after the loss of life due to a disaster such as drought, flooding or war. On the other hand it does help to maximise the survival of the mother and the baby as it gives the mother's body time to recover fully between pregnancies.
HIV/Aids has impacted on the culture of so many African communities. When a new mother has been diagnosed as HIV positive, the baby is immediately taken off the breast to prevent transmitting the virus from mother to child through the milk. As soon as she returns to her community, many mothers tend to commence breastfeeding to prevent any stigma attached to HIV/Aids.
Besides the health benefits there are of course many advantages to breastfeeding. In poorer communities bottled baby milk is too expensive. Many babies become sick when their bottles are not properly sterilized. Then of course access to clean drinking water may also be a concern for the baby’s vulnerable immune system.
Balancing breastfeeding, pregnancy and birth spacing with a desire for a large family is a challenge for the African mother. Having many children shows virility, success and has economic benefits. The children may become successful and will look after their parents in their old age, so as the women in Nairobi refer to their children, “Those are my fields.”