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African Babies Don’t Cry?

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A couple different times I have managed to run across this article that claims that “African babies don’t cry”.  The author (an African doctor and mother) explains how whenever an African baby cries the mother puts it to the breast.  Without exception.  Through the day, all night long, hiring nannies to get other tasks done or leaving things undone all together.  For many reasons this sounds entirely impractical to me and feels like just another one of those guilt inducers- if I were able to constantly breastfeed my children then they would never have felt the need to cry.  You know, maybe it would have worked if I had tried it (which would probably mean paying someone else to raise my other kids until this experiment was over, which might in fact cause them to cry), but that would assume the goal of my parenting is that my child never cries.  That is not my goal.

You know who else doesn’t cry?  Orphanage babies.  My first child didn’t cry much at all.  This was not a good thing.  He spent his first ten months in an orphanage where he needed to be fed/changed/napped on a schedule.  His needs didn’t necessarily matter.  How else do you manage 20 infants with just a few caregivers?  They did what needed to be done to meet the needs of their children and they clearly loved those babies, but my child learned crying didn’t change his situation so he quit crying.  When he started really crying after his placement with us it was for two things: food (he was 10 pounds at 10 months-old) and his mama.  Those cries were some of the most beautiful sounds I’d ever heard.  In my experience, crying is communication.  It may mean hunger, sleepiness, a desire for mama, who knows sometimes!  So I don’t strive to make sure my child never cries.  I’m not judging my success as a parent by if my child is crying or not.   (This is an incredibly beautiful post by Russell Moore on the topic of silent orphanage babies)

So I’m just confused by the assumption that crying is a negative.  I thought we were past the age of “children should be seen and not heard” or “real men don’t cry.”  Crying is the only method of communication available to a tiny child.  I can’t imagine a way to make a new mother doubt her instincts more or question her fitness as a parent more than implying that any crying is a negative.  If crying is only ever expressing a need for the breast, how would a baby communicate being too cold, too hot, a dirty diaper, or a scratchy tag on their onesie?  I don’t even want to contemplate how this message would come across to the parent of a child with colic or reflux where there are periods of time when the crying just can’t seem to be soothed.

This idea that breastfed on-demand babies don’t need to cry becomes part of my issue with the breastfeeding/bottle-feeding debate.  I have no doubt breastfeeding is beneficial, even “best” in most circumstances.  I have no doubt that a baby might not cry if every need was met at every moment, but I’m not raising my children with the main priority that they won’t cry.  Maybe African babies don’t cry, but I’m interested in other stuff.  The stuff we can’t know until those babies grow up.  Do they love God?  Do they serve others?  Do they have peace in their hearts?  Do they care well for their families?  Do they offer forgiveness to those who need it?  I’m sure like all of us, some of them do and some of them don’t.  I find it silly to generalize about the parenting habits and crying patterns of an entire content of people, but if this African doctor is saying African babies don’t cry, let’s look at an example that’s very close to my heart.  Maybe the babies in Liberia didn’t cry, but they did manage to grow up and start a pretty nasty civil war that touched just about everybody in the country.  Liberia is surely not the only country in Africa where such sad things have happened and I’m guessing the manner in which they were offered nutrition doesn’t have as much to do with it as the role-modeling they received and the love they were given and the social structures in their country.  Violence, crime and war existed long before the invention of formula.

Shockingly enough, it is possible to love and nurture a bottle-fed child or a child who is fed on some kind of schedule.  We can’t all control if breastfeeding was an option for us, but we have thousands of other ways to influence our children’s lives for good. Linking positive behavioral outcomes to a nutritional decision we can’t control can feel very defeatist.  Here’s my revolutionary thought-

Breastfeeding doesn’t address the heart.

It is a beautiful way to start a parenting relationship.  It requires a lot of self-sacrifice and perseverance.  It is an amazing gift to give to your child.  A perfect food and a simple way to bond.  BUT it isn’t a guarantee your child will avoid disease or injury or have a heart that chooses good things.  It doesn’t need to be an identity- theirs or yours.

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10 Comments

  1. Well said. Now if I could only get my little one to STOP long enough for me to give her the bottle and gaze into her beautiful brown eyes…a kind of nurturing she’s never had and doesn’t know what to do with.

  2. From someone who has spent several years living in an African country, I can say that it’s true…African babies rarely do cry, and, yes, the answer to cries is often breast-feeding. But, honestly, in these countries where many babies grow up to be kids whose basic needs are RARELY, if ever, met it’s quite serene to watch a mother very selflessly care for her baby. No method of feeding your child addresses the heart, but I dare say that an African mama’s heart is like no other. She will never again be able to meet her baby’s needs, in most cases, and breastfeeding comes at great cost to herself as most of her own nutrition is going to her child. If she can’t breastfeed she will find someone else who can because she simply can’t afford formula (again, in most cases). This is very much a part of African life because it’s how it’s always been done, good or bad, but all in all I, personally, think it’s beautiful. Yet, sadly, they know it doesn’t guarantee that their children will never get sick. In fact, they know that their children are very likely to get sick, but they do all they can to bring them nourishment as infants – whether breastfeeding, giving local food because they can’t breastfeed or using bottles if they have the resources.

    • Lauren, thanks so much for that perspective. I know an inability to continue breastfeeding was one of the reasons many kids ended up in my son’s orphanage. We are so quick to take for granted our ability to make choices about what kind of nutrition and care our kids receive throughout their lives.

  3. I too spent several years in Africa, and I just want to point out that in the culture I observed, breastfeeding was not done exclusively by the biological mother but by any woman (grandmother, aunt, neighbor) who happened to be near the baby when it cried, whether that woman was lactating or not. I wonder if this is the model that J.C. Niala would like to promote in western countries. I think it would be a hard sell. 🙂

    • Good point, Sarah. I think sometimes we want to imagine that whatever is “primitive” is good and natural. In every culture we have to make priority decisions and figure out what works to keep everybody healthy and sane. I’m not up for my child being breastfed by a neighbor, but I’ve also never been in a situation where that was a valid option or a necessity. My child might not have cried anymore, but I think I would have 🙂

  4. I am not African nor have I ever lived in Africa, but I do breast feed on demand and my daughter is very happy and rarely cries. Everyone always comments how she’s ‘such a good baby!’. I’m not saying she never cries, she does get a little fussy when tired, and of course she cries when she wants to eat. But she’s usually busy playing or observing or sleeping (or eating). It’s been beneficial for being able to go out with her in the sling in public to parties/museums/restaurants and not have to worry about being embarrassed by her crying. Of course not everyone can beast feed, but if you can, I definitely recommend breast feeding on demand– I think it makes life for both of us so much more relaxed!

  5. I am not African, I have never been in Africa. but I love the article about african babies don’t cry. I am from Czech Rep. living in Italy. Unfortunately I got the experience not to be able to breastfeed my first son. But I manage without any problems to brestfeed my second child. I am doing it on demand and I love it!! I can see a big difference between handling stressful situation. My first son cried a lot. 3-4 hours per day. I have to say it was terrible. I know it that if i was breastfeeding it would be much more better. So I was/am feeling guilty for it. I think that the main responsibility for this it is the culture/sociaty where we live. If we were surrounded by the people who woud support the mothers in breastfeeding on demand, much more woman would do that. I see that is some change in the air. And soon more woman will be breastfeeding on demand (in USA, in EUROPE). and they will be much more happier as well. I can see that breastfeeding is not only about the milk. but about realationship, which cann’t be replaced by the bottle or dummy. I am the natur dummy for my son and I am proud of it. Even they are many people (most of them) saying that it is not good. well I think it is the best thing what i can do for my baby. And it is sad that i figure out that only with my second son.

  6. I’ve been to Africa, but that’s not where I got my instincts from, nor my knowledge on evolutionary parenting. Crying is a form of communication – babies only do it when they are so far past what they need that their instincts are telling them that to survive they need to signal for help. It may not be ‘practical’ in the western world, but it is evolutionarily how humans are built, and how we will thrive. Very likely the abandoned in the orphanages aren’t crying because their instincts tell them that after a certain amount of time, crying won’t help them, and will be more likely to endanger them…

    I did breastfeed on demand and still do (15 months) and there’s nothing that makes me question whether what I’m doing is right. My instincts seem to be backed by all kinds of research that’s coming out on psychological health of babies and adults.

    No, breastfeeding doesn’t mean 100% that all diseases will be prevented, but statistically speaking it does increase the likelihood. And because of the endorphins and hormones that are enhanced at every nursing session for both baby and mom, does address the heart and the propensity for a mom to model kind, loving behavior. Creating a strong attachment is indeed – according to research – the most important thing you can do in the early months and years of a child’s life.

    And whilst adoption and medical issues do prevent some amazing moms from breastfeeding, saying that some people ‘just can’t’ means it becomes more acceptable, and so moms that want to breastfeed don’t have the support, like they would in traditional villages – African or elsewhere.

    Nobody’s saying that just because you breastfed, your child will be perfect in health and emotion, but please don’t reduce breastfeeding to ‘just another way to feed a child’. It is NOT just a nutritional need. Babies nurse when they’re sad, in pain, hungry, thirsty and scared. It’s how they learn that things can be ok.

  7. Everyone always said that my daughter was a “such a good baby” even though she was exclusively formula fed. I think she rarely cried in public because she was so interested in observing the world around her.

    Also, I don’t believe there’s a such thing as a “bad” baby. All babies are good. How can they be bad? When people say that I have a “good” baby, I’m really not sure what they mean.

    By the way, now my daughter is the tallest, strongest, most coordinated, and most talkative kid in her class of 3 year olds. So far, I don’t see what would have been improved by breast feeding, but I’m sure there’s something I’m missing.

  8. Yes, thank you for a great post! I tried to breastfeed but my first baby had heart surgery when he was only a few days old and didn’t take to the breast. In fact, one guaranteed way to make him cry was to try to breastfeed him – I didn’t let down like I should have and he’d scream at not getting enough milk. So when I went online to try to find help and instead only saw articles that said babies don’t cry in Africa so my baby’s only crying because I’m a horrible mother, it made me want to yell profanities at those ignorant people. And you know what? I had a second cuddly baby who I also couldn’t breastfeed and once he started getting the bottle regularly, he slept well and was the happiest cherub. Surprise, babies have personalities and sometimes extenuating circumstances, too. My advice to any new mothers is to stay far, far away from sanctimonious posts on the internet and connect with your friends, a moms group, or even your doctor.

    Again, Thank you for a great post! Sometimes a mother just needs to hear that she’s trying her hardest and that individual choices or circumstances don’t make or break the child.

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