What Our Primate Cousins Can Teach Us About Breastfeeding

Last month, the North Carolina Zoo welcomed the birth of baby Nori, the first chimpanzee born at the zoo in 12 years.  Excitement over the baby’s arrival soon turned to concern as it became clear that first time mama chimp, Maki, was unable to properly care for her newborn.  After observing Maki fail to properly hold or nurse her newborn for several days, zookeepers made the decision to remove Nori from her mother for hand rearing.  According to the NC Zoo Society’s Facebook page, baby Nori nursed fine when Maki was anesthetized – suggesting that Nori’s instinct to suckle was strong, but Maki’s understanding of how to nurse her was lacking.  Interestingly, the keepers attempted to teach Maki to bottlefeed Nori before removing her to hand rear.   I don’t claim to know anything about raising chimps, but I can’t help but wonder what was done to teach Maki how to breastfeed or to prepare her for motherhood before Nori’s arrival.  With no chimps born in over a decade, how would Maki have learned to mother much less to nurse?

Many who have never nursed think that breastfeeding is “easy” because it’s a natural instinct to care and nourish our young.  Certainly there is something to parental instinct – Maki was observed being caring towards Nori despite being unable to nurse or hold her properly – but for humans and our primate cousins, successful breastfeeding is not instinctual behavior – it is a learned skill.  Maki had never seen another chimp nurse so it is little wonder that she had no clue what to do with her baby.  Human mothers are no different.  While we may have a more sophisticated understanding of infant care, the act of breastfeeding is not something we automatically know how to do – we must learn that skill.

A story like Maki’s with a happier ending is often cited as a lesson for new nursing mothers.  In the early 80s, a mama gorilla at an Ohio zoo failed to care for and nurse her first infant.  Realizing that the gorilla needed to learn these skills before the birth of her next baby, the keepers brought in nursing mamas from La Leche League for the mama gorilla to watch.  When her next baby was born, the mama gorilla was able to nurse (with continuing support from her keepers) – the only difference was that she had learned from the example of other nursing mamas.  (Note:  I tried long and hard to find a good source for this story which I’ve heard/read in several places.  Oddly, the best source I found was a mention of it by Jack Hanna in an interview with Keith Olbermann!  It is also mentioned in the books So That’s What They’re For and Breastfeeding Made Simple: Seven Natural Laws for Nursing Mothers.  If you have another source for this story, please share!).

As this article published in The Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology notes, higher order primates (yup, including humans!) do not have the automatic ability to nurse present in other mammals.  We may have bigger, more sophisticated brains, but this is one area where “lower” mammals easily trump our skills.  The author has some interesting theories about why humans in particular struggle more than any other mammal in this seemingly most basic survival skill (I think it’s worth a read).  Whatever the reason, the fact remains that humans do not know how to nurse instinctively.

This simple fact has huge implications for new mothers struggling to nurse everywhere.  All too often, mamas are made to feel that breastfeeding is just something they should know how to do – that it’s “easy.”  And to compound matters, like Maki, most of us lack good breastfeeding role models.  Like many other new nursing mothers, I had almost no contact with another nursing mother prior to nursing my own child.  Unlike Maki, I have the advantage of books and websites to give me some insight, but that pales in importance to the value of hands on teaching by example and from experience.

So what should a soon-to-be-nursing mama do?

  • Get a copy of a breastfeeding book – we like So That’s What They’re For! What Our Primate Cousins Can Teach Us About Breastfeeding and The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding What Our Primate Cousins Can Teach Us About Breastfeeding.  Read it before baby arrives and keep it on hand for reference in the early days.  Kellymom.com is a great online resource.  Check out our right hand sidebar for additional breastfeeding links.
  • Find your local chapter of La Leche League.  If you’ve never been around nursing women, attending a LLL meeting while you are pregnant can be a great way to find some real life role models.  It’s also a great place to practice your nursing in public skills once baby arrives.
  • Talk to your friends and relatives who have nursed to learn about their experiences, struggles, and triumphs.  Simple Gift is a great website for reading (and sharing!) breastfeeding stories.
  • Locate a Board Certified Lactation Consultant in your area.  While many hospitals do have LCs on staff, it’s not a bad idea to have someone to call for backup should you encounter problems once you get home.  Check with your hospital and provider as well as some do offer LC support after discharge.

For those of us who are or have been nursing mothers, it’s important that we share our experiences with other women beginning their breastfeeding journeys.   Like Maki, we all need support and encouragement to learn how to nurse.

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10 comments to What Our Primate Cousins Can Teach Us About Breastfeeding

  • Kit

    I just wanted to say that I am loving this blog, and for drawing my attention to the article by Dr. Volk – I found it very interesting!

  • Kit

    Okay I asked a friend of mine, who is an expert in non-human primate behavior about her thoughts on this chimp and this is what she said (I thought it was relevent to this post):

    That chimp will be messed up forever. It’s sad. Chimps require other moms to learn how to be a mom so it’s not uncommon at all for first time captive moms to be bad moms. It’s hard to say from this description if the baby actually needed to be removed (I wouldn’t remove unless it lost or wasn’t gaining weight or there were clear signs of abuse). They shouldn’t be breeding unless they have a colony of breeders so that all the new moms can watch experienced moms and get some time aunting. In cases like accidents or something like this they should have arranged for a foster program with another zoo or something so that if the baby did need to be removed it had at least one more chance for a mom through adoption or something. At the very least it should be in an environment with peers (young kid chimps at least). If it’s the only baby with a bunch of adults that really sucks. Nursery-reared chimps are like really messed up institutionally housed humans. They never recover. The plus side is that the chimp will get a ton of human attention from the husbandry/care situation at the zoo which could minimize some of the issues but it’ll probably grow up being really confused about normal chimp behavior over a bunch of the human behavior it will learn. The end result is a lot of social incompatability issues like unwarranted aggression or neediness and a whole host of abnormal behaviors some of which can result in harm to the animal.

    • Meredith

      That makes me really sad :-( I do know that the NC Zoo has a well regarded chimp program (they were actually featured on the recent PBS series The Human Spark) – I’d hate to think they don’t know what they are doing. But it does seem like there should have been something done in advance of the birth to help prepare the mama – maybe they did do things and just didn’t advertise it? Hopefully, things will turn out ok in the end.

  • Thank you for writing this! My mom nursed all five of us (me being the oldest) and I was a teenager when the youngest two were born. On top of that most women in my family and the community I grew up in nursed their children so I saw it on a regular basis. When I fell pregnant I alredy knew I wanted to BF I read “So Thats What They’re For” as well as the segments in “The Baby Book” and “Attachement Parenting” by Dr. Sears I also attended a two hour course as part of my birthing class that was BF based. While I could tell you all about fore milk and hind milk and how big a baby’s stomach was at differnt ages the practical knowlege of BF has come hard to me and I have been lucky enough to have had help from a LC in hospital as well as attending a mum to mum BF suport group (I don’t have a LLL group near me I check while I was pregnant). All of this support I needed and I was a pretty straight forward case, my daughter latched on perfectly within and hour of birth and had a pretty good latch all the way through even with a tounge tie. I just needed support and how to do the differnt holds or someone to say if you move her an inch this way it is easier. I truely believe you need that female support around you.

  • Claire

    Great post, very interesting! This kind of story about the chimp is one of many reason’s why we don’t go to zoos though.

  • I am just seeing this post now, but I did want to comment.

    First, regarding the Ohio Zoo story. My grandmother works at the Cincinnati Zoo as a tour guide/educator. She has been there for 30 years. I was talking on the phone with her once, right before I was heading out to a LLL meeting, and told her I had to go because of the meeting. She said, “Oh, LLL! I have a story about them!” and proceeded to tell me about the above story happening at her zoo! I told her that it is funny, because I already knew that story, but I had no idea it was about her zoo! She said that the story might not have been specifically about the incident she told me, because she was aware of other zoos doing similar things around the same time – it was not an isolated incident.

    Second, regarding the NC Zoo. When baby Nori was born, my first thought was about this story, and whether her mom would know how to nurse. I even contacted the zoo, told them the story, offered to come there and nurse my baby and/or find other willing mothers to do the same. The zoo never responded.

    Now the NC Zoo has a new baby chimp, Ebi. From the NC Zoo newsletter:

    “The Zoo proudly announces the birth of Ebi, a female Chimpanzee, on January 16. Ebi’s mother, Tammy, a 41-year old female is doing fine and is caring for her new infant without help from the keeper staff. Ebi and her mother will NOT be on exhibit until the weather gets warmer and the youngster is old enough to be outside. Expect to see Ebi playing with the Zoo’s other youngster, Nori, sometime this summer.”

    There is also a new baby baboon, who is doing fine.

    • Meredith

      I saw that the NC zoo has welcomed some new babies…and I’m glad they are doing well! From what I found on the web when I wrote this, it does seem like something similar has been tried several times with success. I do think it’s unfortunate that the NC Zoo didn’t give it a go. Sadly, Maki, Nori’s mother passed away recently. But in positive news, I was at the zoo recently and got to see baby Nori – she was so cute and has several “aunts” in the troop who look after her.

  • Sisse

    I just came across this article, must be about the original story although it does not mention LLL: http://bit.ly/SVlbA6

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