I have written before about breastfeeding and dental woes for my daughter here. However, today I want to write about my exposure to breastfeeding in Tibetan culture through my husband’s family alongside my own breastfeeding experience.
DISCLAIMER: I am not Tibetan, I am married to a Tibetan man. These cultural practices are common where my husband is from, and may not be representative of all Tibetan people, as culture varies from region to region in a place as big as Tibet.
I always knew when I was pregnant I wanted to breastfeed my daughter, never thought about breastfeeding as a teen or in my twenties, as I never knew any women who actively breastfed, let alone breastfed in public. My own conversations with my mother were that I was the only child who was bottle-fed, because my mother had to work when she was raising me and was unable to breastfeed me, although she did with my two younger sisters.
My daughter was born prematurely at thirty-five weeks and four days and spent nine days in the NICU. I couldn’t touch her, hold her, or see her unless the doctor said we could come for a visit. During the three days, I spent in the hospital and for the following two weeks my mother-in-law and father-in-law came down immediately the night they heard I went into labor and my mom followed within forty-eight hours after approval by work to fly to China. My in-laws were the first to arrive and after that first night, from the second day onwards my mother-in-law cooked all three of my meals every day and had my husband deliver them to the hospital. (Chinese hospitals don’t offer food, you need to bring your own.) She cooked what Tibetans know as Tsamthuk a porridge made of droma (wild sweet potatoes), chura (a dried cheese made from the milk of a dri,female yak), tsampa (roasted barley flour), flour,salt, milk, and water. This is the only food I ate for at least four to five days, as my mother-in-law said it was good for producing breastmilk.
While consuming my meals, I was worried I wouldn’t produce enough milk to breastfeed her and I pumped around the clock and filled bags of breastmilk to be delivered to the hospital only to find out that my breastmilk was never used and they just gave our daughter the formula they told us she needed. I was very upset and felt like part of our connection was lost. Once we forced the doctors to discharge her at 9 days old she came home and it was time for me to try breastfeeding S on my own. My mother was on one side of me and my mother-in-law was on the other. I remember I was relieved and extremely anxious, and looking back in the throws of post-partum depression and anxiety. I had two women communicating with me in two different ways on what to do. My mom is a let you try on your own and encourage you type of person. My mother-in-law encourages you in her own way and tells you how to do something. When I tried to put S on she would know latch, because my nipples were so flat still after giving birth and had not been raised yet because she was born early.
I was emotionally distraught that she wasn’t latching, my mother-in-law took S and put her on her boob and she latched and began sucking. This one moment bothered my mother and me. My mother ended up getting up silently and going to the bedroom she and I were sharing. I stayed and my mother-in-law handed S back and said to try again, and this time she latched. I was too frozen in shock from seeing someone else succeed at a breastfeeding latch before me. I remember my mom did not think it was right for a grown woman to take a new mother’s baby and latch them on their breast. I was upset too, and later I told my husband when our mothers went to sleep and he said (I’m rephrasing here), ” Why do you have dirty minds? She was just trying to help you. To make sure that the baby was okay and could eat.” My husband was very mad, so I told him to direct his anger at me and not my mother. It was just a cultural difference that I had not expected and neither had my mother. I think she too has had more reflection since that time. What my husband said is how I feel today, at the time I could not see it, but after a few days of reflection I could see that it was just to help and nothing more and it was my own perception at the time that made me think of it in a negative way.
This breastfeeding knowledge continued with the presence of my mother-in-law as she told me how to hold S, how to feed my nipple into the baby’s mouth, how to place my fingers, and how to stop or slow the flow of the breastmilk. This knowledge was very helpful and made me feel more confident despite the fact my breasts had different flows. At one point a few months later, I know S choked a little on the speed of the letdown of my breastmilk and she said, “ནུ་མ་མི་བཟང་གི་ numa mi zang gi” which in Tibetan means ” Bad breasts.” I was hurt by this sentiment very easily as I was in post-partum depression due to my birth and NICU experience, but I replied back to her that they weren’t bad. She was just small and the flow was fast. S became much better with feeding around the time she was 3 or 4 months old and this choking didn’t happen as much. With this knowledge that my mother-in-law imparted to me, I was able to use it to help a friend of mine who was struggling with breastfeeding. I also told her just to feed on one side at a time instead of switching, which is eventually what did the trick. I am excited that one day I can hopefully pass this same knowledge on to my own daughter.
During this time there was one day we went out during the winter in his hometown without S, which was very hard for me to leave her for even an hour, I cried the whole time. We were in the same village, but I had separation anxiety. I asked who would feed her if she was hungry, we don’t have a bottle or a pump, and she only drinks breastmilk. My husband wasn’t worried at all and said his Ama is there. If she is hungry they will feed her warm milk, or they will give her tsampa water. I told him that she was too young for tsampa as children shouldn’t have food before they can sit up and they shouldn’t have water until they are older. He told me how when his mother was gone for a few hours at the time when he was twelve , he had to take care of his infant brother and would warm up dri (female yak) milk for his brother. Because his sister-in-law had a low breastmilk supply they always supplemented it with tsampa water, which is tsampa, water, and a little sugar, and fed it in a bottle to the kids when they were little. I said baby formula would be a better choice, his father later told me that baby formula is a good choice, but it is too expensive for many families to afford. And even if you buy it, you do not know if it is safe. China has had many recalls of tainted baby formula, so many people do not buy it. Instead they know what they gave the child, tsampa, is safe and will fill their belly.
It took me a while to accept that mindset, as in the West we say it is breastmilk or formula, it has mostly been formula until recently. Yet, if you stop and think about it at the end of the day, what you give a child is about filling their bellies and survival. You want your child to survive, so perhaps what science and the doctor says may be better, or have more nutrition, but not all families can afford or live in a place with access to this nutrition and do what they think is best. Therefore, although Tibetans breastfeed, they also offer bottles nowadays as a way to help working mothers who have to be away from their children whether in the grasslands, the fields, or the city. S took a bottle in the beginning, but because I was worried she would not take the breast well, we stopped giving it to her and we missed the window of opportunity where rejection occurs after three to four months of age. So my daughter was always popped on the boob at night, and during the day for feedings until she was two years old. When I was at work she drank water from a cup or a bottle with a straw, and when she was over six months old I gave her tsmapa water without the sugar as a supplement when I had to return to work.
Breastfeeding among Tibetans is really interesting as back home most people see breast exposure as indecent behavior, but for Tibetans it is normal. Breasts are not sexual, they serve a purpose. I try to be discreet, but most family members have seen my breasts at this point, they would come and kiss her cheek while she was feeding, or tickle her. I could feed or comfort her through nursing wherever we went, even in restaurants, or sitting outside. It was nice to know I did not need a stupid cover for her when she was nursing because it was accepted and normalized.
Tibetans do not have a specific age for weaning children from nursing and it is completely dependent on the child. They might nurse for six months, they might nurse for a year, two years or later, as they get older the family will make jokes and take their pointer finger and brush their cheek while saying, “Shoo Shoo Shoo” to a toddler who is nursing as a way to tease them, but they won’t stop the child from nursing. S experiences this quite a bit since she was two years old as her cousin who is six months younger stopped nursing at eighteen months old.
One aspect of breastfeeding that is different is the act of what I call, dry nursing.’ I do not know how widespread this practice is, but in many places in Amdo, a grandmother will allow a grandchild to ‘dry-nurse,’ for comfort. When I first met my husband’s family I witnessed this with his nephew who was dry-nursing his grandmother as his mother was in the summer pastures and was not nearby. When his mother returned he dry-nursed his mother for comfort when he was upset as well, and this behavior stopped when he was about four years old.
S was not willing to dry-nurse her grandmother until she was about one year old. After that, she would take her grandmother’s breast when I was not around if she was looking for comfort, or wanted to sleep. Due to the fact, I breastfed exclusively from the breast until S was two years old when she went with her grandmother up to the village her grandmother’s breast became her comfort during her separation from mom and dad. She lived with them for a year in the village and the only person she ever dry nursed was her grandmother. This leads me to believe that only a grandmother would offer dry nursing and not aunts of childbearing age. My mother-in-law told my husband that during this time she started to produce a little breastmilk which surprised her as she is fifty-five years old. But she was okay with it as she knew it comforted S while we were apart.
S has returned to live with us for the past three and a half months and at three years old and four months she still dry-nurses. I, myself, no longer produce much milk except for a drop here or there, most likely similar to my mother-in-law. S dry nurses for comfort pops off and rolls over to sleep. It is down to about once or twice a day always near sleep or first thing in the morning. At times I feel tapped out by the experience of nursing and the touching, but I’m amazed that my mother-in-law is able to do it so effortlessly. Maybe it is because she raised five children this way, and four grandkids, who knows? But her patience with the dry-nursing is quite amazing. In regards to this dry nursing, I know a Tibetan woman from Gyantse, who is married to an Amdo man, who said she also found the dry-nursing surprising when she first saw it. This is one reason why I know it is not a universal aspect of Tibetan culture but is a regional practice that is part of Tibetan culture.
While grandmothers may dry-nurse and women may breastfeed for extended periods of time, men will also jokingly offer their breasts to nurse children. This has nothing to do with being creepy or weird, but rather a way to tease the kids for their love of comfort from the breast. In fact, if mom or grandmother are both not available, sometimes grandpa might say come on over and use my breast for comfort. Most kids will laugh, kiss, or suck at this offer, and some might even fall asleep if they are young enough. From what I see Tibetan men don’t seem to find this to make them feminine, but rather a way of bonding and offering affection. Raising a child takes a community, and in some communities, the nipple, and the breast are not sexual, they are meant for nourishment and comfort.
This is based on my own experience and observations during the last five years that I have been with my husband and spent one to three months at a time in a Tibetan village.