Reflecting on her experience as a first-time grandmother, one of my colleagues and mentors expressed that, for most of us, “grandmothers are the closest thing to a village that we have.”
This colleague, a lactation care provider herself, described the intricacies, sweetness and sacredness of watching her daughter step into motherhood. My colleague’s notes described her thoughtful presence without overbearance, leaving space for her daughter and her new family to learn and to bond. For instance, she cleans the house, prepares their bed with sun-dried sheets, and sits at the foot of the bed while her daughter and granddaughter nurse. In this dreamy scenario, grandma, baby and parents are all met with challenges, however those challenges haven’t become insurmountable thanks in part to this level of grandmotherly support and care.
This week we bring to you some work that details grandmothers’ powerful influence on the perinatal experience and beyond. A 2016 systematic review found that “a grandmother’s positive breastfeeding opinion had the potential to influence a mother up to 12 % more likely to initiate breastfeeding. Conversely a negative opinion has the capacity to decrease the likelihood of breastfeeding by up to 70 %.”
Healthy Children Project’s own Barbara O’Connor, RN, BSN, IBCLC, ANLC – Faculty Emerita designed and authored the Grandmothers’ Tea Project for the Illinois State Breastfeeding Task Force (2011).
Through O’Connor’s interactive curriculum, grandmothers are invited to learn about breastfeeding through three activities that pose breastfeeding scenarios:
“The Grandmothers’ Apron activity updates grandmothers’ knowledge about the importance of breastfeeding.
During the Grandmothers’ Cell Phone activity, grandmothers talk about breastfeeding myths and barriers.
In the Grandmothers’ Necklace activity, participants create a beaded necklace to remind them of ways they can offer support through loving encouragement, updating their breastfeeding knowledge, and being helpful.” (As described in A Grandmothers’ Tea: Evaluation of a Breastfeeding Support Intervention)
Author Jane S. Grassley, RN, PhD, IBCLC and colleagues encourage perinatal educators to explore the curriculum for A Grandmothers’ Tea as they found that grandmothers and mothers who attended the teas in their study enjoyed their interactions with one another and with the class content.
Their work also unearthed a phenomenon of defensiveness in grandmothers who did not breastfeed their own children. The authors explain “Grandmothers who did not breastfeed may feel defensive about their infant-feeding decisions because of the current emphasis on the health benefits of breastfeeding (Grassley & Eschiti, 2007)” and advise that “perinatal educators can invite grandmothers to share their experiences and validate the cultural context in which these experiences took place.”
In this realm of validation and healing, Midwife Andrea Ruizquez of Partera Midwifery explores the implications of the Mother Wound. On Partera Midwifery’s Instagram page, Ruizquez writes:
“Props to all the people navigating complicated mother child relationships as adults. Now that I am in my 40’s I find myself reconnecting with my own mother in a deeper way. There was a time when we were estranged from each other. I learned how to recognize that I needed boundaries and practiced maintaining them. I am learning not to get triggered by my mother’s ways, and have compassion for her reasons behind them. I extend this sentiment to all of my grandmas ancestors who are in my lineage.
I am having more compassion for myself, and the ways I am like her my mom. I am learning to love myself deeper and become a more conscious mama to my children. I am still learning to love my child self that did not get all of her needs met, and I reparent myself with love. I feel myself heal.”
Cultural beliefs held by grandmothers have the potential to influence healthy infant feeding practices. In Grace Yee, Retired IBCLC and Tonya Lang’s, MPH, CHES, IBCLC Cultural Dimensions in Promoting, Protecting, and Supporting Lactation in East Asian Communities, they explained the prominent roles of aunties and grandmothers in the early postpartum. One example includes how colostrum is sometimes regarded in older generations as impure or unhealthy. Yee and Lang suggest that instead of positioning tradition and culture as a hindrance, to reframe barriers to breastfeeding into potential strengths. Respect of elders’ traditions and cultural practices will establish trust and foster positive relationships, as noted in Monique Sims-Harper, DrPH, MPH, RD, IBCLC, Jeanette Panchula, RN PHN, BA-SW, and Patt Young’s, Health Educator, CLE work entitled It Takes A Village: Empowering Grandmothers as Breastfeeding Supporters.
The physiological imprint of breastfeeding withstands generations and the sensations of milk production may surface decades later as mothers become grandmothers. Grandmothers who have previously breastfed have reported the tingling sensation of a phantom milk release when holding their grandchildren.
In South Sudan, grandmothers are relactating to help manage severe acute malnutrition. This practice has been documented elsewhere like Natal, South Africa and Vietnam for example.
Barry Hewlett and Steve Winn’s study on allomaternal nursing indicates that while this practice occurs in many cultures, “it is normative in relatively few cultures; biological kin, especially grandmothers, frequently provide allomaternal nursing and that infant age, mother’s condition, and culture (e.g., cultural models about if and when women other than the mother can nurse an infant or colostrum taboos) impact the nature and frequency of allomaternal nursing.”
For an illuminating anthropological perspective, read A Biocultural Study of Grandmothering During the Perinatal Period by Brooke A. Scelza and Katie Hinde. Their “findings reveal three domains in which grandmothers contribute: learning to mother, breastfeeding support, and postnatal health and well-being” and “show that informational, emotional, and instrumental support provided to new mothers and their neonates during the perinatal period can aid in the establishment of the mother-infant bond, buffer maternal energy balance, and improve nutritional outcomes for infants.”
We would love to learn about your perinatal and infant feeding experiences as grandmothers or with grandmothers. If you’d like to share, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.