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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! and The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding.  Read it before baby arrives and keep it on hand for reference in the early days. 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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Published in Breastfeeding