Whether we like it or not, human mothers share an intimate behavior with all other mammal mothers: we feed our babies milk designed uniquely for our baby’s growth and development. Some people may squirm at the comparison of a human mother to a cat or a dog or a mouse. Yet we are all mammals, who feed our young in the same manner. Humans may have more highly developed brains, but we are part of nature and the circle of life.
Earlier this year the Omaha Zoo welcomed a new baby gorilla. Until 15 years ago, all newborn primates at the zoo were taken away from their mothers and raised in a newborn nursery - very much like the hospital practices of 50-60 years ago for humans. Now it appears as though zoos are promoting skin-to skin contact immediately after birth, just like the hospitals in Lincoln and Omaha are doing for human babies.
We often talk about the lack of role models for young girls growing up in our culture. How can they learn to breastfeed when they never see breastfeeding? Animals in captivity have some of the same issues - they may never see another animal nurse.
A number of years ago, a zoo in Ohio apparently called La Leche League and brought in a group of mothers to breastfeed their babies in front of a mother gorilla. The gorilla had previously given birth and had no idea what to do with her newborn. This time, with her human role models, the mother gorilla gave birth, panicked, and then calmed down, mimicked the mothers, and settled her new baby at her breast.
Human newborns have some instinctual feeding behaviors. They suck on their hands and their lips and they turn and root towards what they hope is a breast with food. Like gorillas, humans are primates, an order of mammals with larger brains and more complex behaviors. Primate mothers appear to rely heavily on learned behavior when feeding their babies, which may explain why animals in captivity, or new mothers with no exposure to breastfeeding, may need to see other mothers take care of their babies.
The mother gorilla in the Omaha Zoo had difficulty feeding her baby, so her newborn was provided human care. With all good intent, the zookeepers tried to create a gorilla-like environment and wore a furry vest to simulate the feel of a gorilla mother. However, captivity may have been the bigger barrier. A panda in a China zoo is shown on YouTube delivering her baby. The mother panda is in a concrete and steel cage rolling around trying to get comfortable. There are a few stray bamboo leaves, but nothing to cushion her or support her. She eventually gives birth and gets her baby to breast, much to the amazement of anyone who watches the video!
At the same time that the Omaha Zoo was providing surrogate care for their baby gorilla, a mother grizzly and her cub were facing their own issues in the Wyoming wilderness. A male bear (boar) had ambushed a mother bear (sow) and her two cubs, which often happens when the boar wants to mate again. The sow ended up separated from her cubs. One cub re-surfaced. The other cub did not.
Humans in the area wanted to step in and reunite the sow and her cub, fearing the baby would starve, but the forest service resisted. Eventually, the mother and her cub reunited on their own and viewers were thrilled as they watched the mother grizzly roll over and her cub climbed on top of her mother’s belly and began to nurse.
Having a more developed brain may bring some advantages to a human mother. We can learn how to use a breast pump if we are back at work outside the home. If separated due to premature birth, we are receptive to learning how to care for, and bond with, our baby.
Human mothers process information and are influenced by their surroundings. 40-50 years ago mothers found little breastfeeding support in our culture. Today, moms may be heavily influenced by social media, breastfeeding images, health care provider guidance, and scores of research. On one hand, this appears to be positive. On the other hand, could it be overwhelming? Breastfeeding is a very basic mammalian process. Yet it is highly individualized. Its ease depends upon multiple actors, which is why breastfeeding support from a lactation expert is sometimes so necessary. While our highly developed brains help us process the why and how of breastfeeding, they may also make it difficult to tune into our hormones and our learned wisdom and make breastfeeding our baby a personal experience.
As we ponder being mammals, we might ask whether humans are taking a step backward when it comes to infant feeding methods, or embracing ancient practices that cannot be improved upon? Scientific research is influencing maternal-infant practices that we abandoned in hospitals and zoos. As much as we try and modernize the maternal experience, nature may not appreciate being messed with. Maybe, just maybe, we are learning to respect the inherent value of human milk and maternal touch.