March 17, 2009

A Traditional Gift for Future Generations

Campaign aimed at replenishing breastfeeding culture

In traditional aboriginal world view, children are seen as gifts and are to be respected. Aboriginal Peoples once considered breast milk as a sacred gift; a medicine a mother gives to her child. First Nations' breastfeeding mothers had special status as important contributors to the wellbeing of future generations.

Recent medical studies have proven breast milk provides some protection
against diabetes, results in decreased risk for childhood obesity, less ear
infections, fewer illness-related visits to the doctor, and a decrease in tooth decay in toddlers and children. In fact, the World Health Organization, the organization responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, developed "a global effort for improving the role of maternity services to enable mothers to breastfeed babies for the best start in life."

Unfortunately, Aboriginal Peoples have suffered a loss of culture and traditions which has had a significant impact on breastfeeding among aboriginal mothers.

According to the Status of Women Canada website, the negative experience of Aboriginal Peoples "is rooted in the intrusion of outside 'experts'." And, "Outside experts decided 'what was best for the Indians' which has proven to have devastating results."

For example, during the 1950s and 60s many aboriginal men and women moved from reserves in search of jobs. Many women who breastfed on reserve switched to formula feeding based upon urban physicians' advice - as it was common medical practice to advise formula feeding in that era.

This loss of culture and tradition continues with new aboriginal mothers either lacking support from their own mothers, who were told to formula feed, or by new moms leaving their reserves to gain employment or further education, severing ties with their social network and family support.

"It's important to have key support persons for all breastfeeding mothers," Jennifer Whitford, a Winnipeg health region public health nurse says. Whitford says all mothers, regardless of heritage, can gain confidence in breastfeeding when they have supportive networks. A new mom's network can include the infant's father, grandparents or other personal supports of the mom.

"We need to provide education to more prenatal families, supporting their ability to make an informed choice regarding infant feeding before delivery," Whitford says. She and many public health nurses work together promoting community peer support through Healthy Baby sites, in-home breastfeeding support, and by assisting families to find the resources they need.

Throughout Winnipeg, breastfeeding initiation rates vary. According to statistics taken in 2007, Assiniboine South ranked highest in breastfeeding initiation with 91.7 per cent of mothers leaving the hospital breastfeeding. Downtown ranked at 71.8 percent and the Point Douglas community area ranked at 60.4 per cent.

The Winnipeg health region works closely with the aboriginal community to celebrate and support traditional aboriginal values and holistic healing. Whitford and many other Winnipeg Regional Health Authority staff recently developed a public campaign to promote breastfeeding, focusing primarily on Aboriginal Peoples in the Downtown and Point Douglas areas. Research into the campaign message and image of an aboriginal mother actually breastfeeding her older baby involved guidance and feedback from a variety of aboriginal participants.

The campaign image of the breastfeeding mother (see right) was displayed on seven Downtown and Point Douglas bus shelters in December 2008. Winnipeg health region public health nurses will also hand out 5000 fridge magnets with the positive breastfeeding message "A Traditional Gift for Future Generations" to prenatal and new parents in the region throughout 2009.

Whitford says, "The positive public imaging of an aboriginal mother breastfeeding is just one approach to celebrating breastfeeding and the benefits it provides to our diverse community."

Healthy Baby Community Programs in Winnipeg

Health Baby drop-in programs are available throughout the Winnipeg community. At these friendly and supportive free drop-ins, moms and soon-to-be moms can:

  • Enjoy nutritious snacks, try new recipes, learn more about nutrition and health

  • Do activities with baby, visit with other moms and moms-to-be

  • Breastfeed in a supportive environment

  • Ask questions about pregnancy and baby's development

  • Milk coupons are available during pregnancy and up to 6 months postnatal

  • Bus tickets and on-site child care is provided if needed

Click here to find locations of drop-ins, or call the Healthy Child Manitoba Office at (204) 945-1301 or toll-free: 1-888-848-0140.

- Kathryn McBurney


For more health and wellness news, pick up the Spring 2009 edition of Aspire, now available at selected WRHA offices and facilities.

Aspire is also available for download here:

Aspire - Spring 2009

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