The upcoming film by Thomas Balmes, Babies, which will be released in April 2010, follows the story of four babies in four very different cultures through their first year of life. Babies takes a look at the uniqueness and differences of this early stage of life in Mongolia, Namibia, Tokyo, and San Fransisco.
I look forward to seeing this film, especially learning about the other cultures. It also reminds me of one of the most interesting and refreshing articles, “Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan,” published in the July-August issue of Mothering Magazine, in which Canadian-born Ruth Kamnitzer writes about Mongolians’ distinctly different attitude toward the practice of breastfeeding. Living in Mongolia while nursing her son, she soon learned she did not have to take pains to be discreet:
Kamnitzer still felt a bit out of step with cultural norms—but this time, roles were reversed. She had to learn to become comfortable with much looser standards about who should be drinking breastmilk:In Mongolia, instead of relegating me to a 'Mothers Only' section, breastfeeding in public brought me firmly to center stage. Their universal practice of breastfeeding anywhere, anytime, and the close quarters at which most Mongolians live, mean that everyone is pretty familiar with the sight of a working boob. They were happy to see I was doing things their way (which was, of course, the right way). When I breastfed in the back of taxis, drivers would give me the thumbs-up in the rear view mirror and assure me that Calum would grow up to be a great wrestler. When I walked through the market cradling my feeding son in my arms, vendors would make a space for me at their stalls and tell him to drink up. Instead of looking away, people would lean right in and kiss Calum on the cheek. If he popped off in response to the attention and left my streaming breast completely exposed, not a beat was missed. No one stared, no one looked away--they just laughed and wiped the milk off their noses.
Not only do I look forward to the segment on Mongolia, I am also very curious about birth and nursing practices in Namibia, a culture where parenting is natural and nurturing, but the risk of illness from HIV, malaria, diarrhea and pneumonia is dangerously high. Namibia already had high rates of infant death and illness due to perils like HIV, malaria, and imposed pressure of powerful corporations to artificially feed babies, even amidst the poor water conditions common in this part of the world. In this case, artificial breast milk substitutes greatly increases malnutrition and diarrhea in infants and leads to higher instances of infant death. However, when Americanized birthing styles and mass immunizations (sometimes with good intentions but outdated ingredients or 'left-overs' from the U.S.) began to be imposed on mothers/babies in Namibia, rates of morbidity and mortality started to climb even further.If weaning means never drinking breastmilk again, then Mongolians are never truly weaned—and here’s what surprised me most about breastfeeding in Mongolia. If a mother’s breasts are engorged and her baby is not at hand, she will simply go around and ask a family member, of any age or sex, if they’d like a drink. Often a woman will express a bowlful for her husband as a treat, or leave some in the fridge for anyone to help themselves.
Japan, on the other hand, currently has the fourth best rate of infant health and survival in the world, drastically different than that of the United States, which does not even compare, sitting behind 44 other countries in infant mortality and morbidity rates--and, sadly, is continuing to fall farther every year, according to the CIA infant mortality statistics. It is interesting that, even though Japan has started to adopt many of the birthing and baby care trends common in the United States, they still maintain far better rates for infant survival then we do, although their rates did fall slightly after they began adopting these trends.
Infant morbidity and mortality statistics will exist no matter what we do--it is an inescapable part of nature. However, there are varying reasons for these statistics to exist as they do. We can learn from the birthing and infant care practices of countries with the lowest infant mortality and morbidity statistics, such as Singapore, Bermuda and Sweden, and make positive changes in our own practices as a result. I look forward to seeing the film Babies, and I anticipate that it will be both delightful and insightful. In the meantime, enjoy the trailer!