Thursday Tip: Breastfeeding and First Nations Families in Canada

Breastfeeding is the natural way of feeding babies for humans of every ethnic and cultural background. Canada’s First Nations peoples traditionally breastfed their babies. The period of breastfeeding usually lasted until the mother became pregnant with another child or the child was able to fill all of its nutritional needs by eating adult foods. Three to five years would have been the norm for breastfeeding duration. With the dramatic changes that have been experienced by Aboriginal peoples over the past 200 years, from living situations to the increased availability of non-traditional foods (including formula) and the cultural shifts away from the traditions of the past, breastfeeding went from being the norm to being less common. As families became disconnected from each other and their heritage, the wisdom and breastfeeding knowledge of the older women (the grandmothers and aunties) were often not available or discarded in favour of the lure of the modern and manufactured lifestyle seen in the non-aboriginal communities and in the media.

The 2009-2010 Canadian Community Health Survey looked at women across Canada who had given birth in the last 5 years and gathered information on birth and breastfeeding practices. The survey found that significantly fewer off-reserve Aboriginal mothers initiated breastfeeding (77.8%) than did non-Aboriginal mothers (88.0%) and significantly fewer off-reserve Aboriginal mothers breastfed their last child exclusively for six months (or more) (16.6%) than did non-Aboriginal mothers (26.7%). This survey did not include data for women who lived on reserves or in other Aboriginal settlements. Interestingly a comparison of breastfeeding initiation and duration rates of the First Nations communities in British Columbia using 2006 data found in the document STRONG WOMEN, STRONG NATIONS: Aboriginal Maternal Health in British Columbia showed higher rates than the Canadian average at that time.

The Canadian Community Health Survey included Inuit women living in the 10 largest communities in Nunavut but not those living in more remote communities. Their information was included in with the other off-reserve Aboriginal mothers. A 2006 Indigenous Children’s Heath Report showed a rate of breastfeeding initiation for all Inuit children of 66% compared to the Canadian average at that time of 80%.

The good news is, like many cultural and ethnic groups, Aboriginal communities are working to reclaim their traditional breastfeeding knowledge and heritage. In 2013 the Kanesatake Health Center in Quebec became the first Aboriginal health center in North America to receive an official BABY FRIENDLY Health Center designation. From 1995 to 2001, Jane Banks, CHN for the Kanesatake Health Center, developed and implemented a breastfeeding promotion program that saw breastfeeding initiation rates increase from 32 to 75 percent. This program called Ka’nisténhsera Teiakotihsnie`s (KT), “she who helps the clan mother” applied principles of cultural competency and capacity building, utilizing the strengths within the people. Building on this foundation, ten years later, the health center began working toward Baby Friendly accreditation. This involved the adoption of a Baby Friendly policy; the training of staff and a dynamic group of breastfeeding peer support women; intergenerational gatherings; and establishing partnerships at many levels. The community has seen breastfeeding initiation and duration rates increase substantially. Karen MacInnes, Maternal Child Health Nurse, reported, “At the time of our accreditation, not only did 90 percent of our mothers initiate breast feeding but 90 percent of those mothers breastfed six months and beyond!”

As part of the circle of support for breastfeeding families in Canada La Leche League Leaders provide breastfeeding information and support to all Canadian parents. The resources of La Leche League are available, without cost to the participants, in-person in many communities and by phone or e-mail to those in remote communities. To find support check LLLC’s "Get Help" webpage.

While the bodily processes of breastfeeding are more or less the same for everyone, the questions and concerns of Aboriginal breastfeeding mothers may differ depending on their life situations and support systems. Some people are more comfortable receiving information when the language and cultural references are familiar and when the people in the photos seem familiar. The Ontario Best Start Resource Centre has created a breastfeeding resource for Aboriginal women called “Breastfeeding for the Health and Future of Our Nation”. This booklet follows the medicine wheel and uses it to share key information and skills for breastfeeding. An Aboriginal mother from Yellowknife created a video sharing her own journey to gather information about breastfeeding during her first pregnancy. It can be seen HERE.

Check out The Creator's Gift to Mothers video from the Shibogama First Nations Council. 

As Canada celebrates National Aboriginal Day on June 21st La Leche League Canada joins with Aboriginal families in celebrating the traditional way of feeding our babies.

To encourage, promote and provide breastfeeding, chest feeding and human milk feeding support and educational opportunities as an important contribution to the health of children, families and society