I was nursing my 13-month-old who was finally drifting off to sleep after an extremely wriggly hour on my lap (NB: salon trips and toddlers aren’t a happy mix).
My stylist, a fellow African, who had been busy teasing someone else’s tresses came back and stopped in her tracks.
‘What is he doing?’ she almost screamed. ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it.’ She tapped my baby’s head. ‘Stop that now!’
Jed pulled off and blinked at the lady. ‘You’re still sucking?’ She challenged him.
She told me how her son, now almost one, had nursed until 9 months and she thought he’d never quit the habit. ‘Boys love the breast too much,’ she added, shaking her head.
Some customers might have taken offence or even lodged a complaint. I simply smiled and calmly readjusted Jed to his former position where he eventually snoozed off. It didn’t phase me.
After all, I was born into a culture where as a child, an ‘auntie’ you’d never met before would correct you loudly in public if you stepped out of line. Where as an adult, a stranger in the street thinks nothing of adjusting your bra strap if it’s showing. Even in an urban setting, the village ethos reigns. Your business is everybody’s business.
‘Ah ah, Grandpa, are you still on breast?’ ‘I beg, mama, release him now!’
These were typical remarks I heard while nursing my first-born, then 10 months old, out and about during our first trip to Nigeria. Right from the arrivals gate, the commentary poured in. One airport official stopped just short of uncorking my nipple from Ezra’s hungry mouth.
Just as a 36-year-old mama is ‘geriatric’ in medical notes, in certain African circles a 10-month-old is too ‘mature’ for mummy’s milk. He should be eating ‘correct beans and rice’ not guzzling from the booby.
It’s ironic that in traditional African society it was and still is common to breastfeed through toddlerhood. But by the time my mum’s generation had been brainwashed by corporate giants into thinking formula was best, they largely abandoned the boob. Bottles were a status symbol, seen as the smarter, healthier and certainly more stylish option.
Studies across the developing world show that generally the better educated a woman is, the less likely she is to breastfeed beyond the early months, or even at all.
Thanks to organisations like UNICEF, the ‘breast is best’ message is slowly regaining ground. But it’s an uphill climb. In Nigeria, recent figures for exclusive breastfeeding up to six months were as low as 11.7 percent.
It’s depressing news from a nation where malnutrition and disease are rife, and the protective qualities of breastmilk could actually save lives.
It saddens me that in my birth country where I should feel most relaxed, I was actually more self-conscious feeding my children than when in London.
Now I’m not one of these extreme breastfeeding champions planning to nurse my kids through college graduation. Although he’s hooked on it like liquid crack, I’m hoping to phase out Jed’s feeds over the next few months.
But I almost want to attach a handbook to my passport crammed with statistics about the benefits of breastfeeding beyond the first year, including the WHO’s recommendation that nursing should carry on for AT LEAST two years.
Sometimes I feel like being a card-carrying lactivist.
Instead, I’ll just smile and carry on nursing.
No matter how foolish or backwards I may look to the untrained eye, both my boys have grown strong, smart, healthy and deliciously chunky on mama’s milk. The proof is in the pudding.
Photo via former Black breastfeeding web site