The 81st Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2012)

The influence of grandmothers on sustained breastfeeding


1Anthropology, Humboldt State University, 2Windward Islands Research and Education Foundation, Grenada, West Indies

Saturday All day, Plaza Level Add to calendar

In humans, there are known health benefits to breastfeeding, such as improved immune function, dental health, vision, hearing, digestion, and intelligence, and reduced risk of diabetes, heart disease, and central nervous system disorders. Some benefits are specific to the sustained breastfeeding period (past one year of age) and have lifelong effects. In evolutionary terms, sustained breastfeeding may enhance survival and reproductive success.

In a recent study in Brazil, the close proximity of grandmothers increased the odds that mothers would cease breastfeeding during the first six months. Other research shows both positive and negative influences of grandmothers on infant feeding, offspring number and infant mortality. These findings are pertinent to the ‘grandmother hypothesis’, which explains increased postmenopausal longevity in humans as an adaptation allowing grandmothers to aid in the care and survival of her grandchildren, thereby increasing her reproductive success.

Here, we focus upon interrelationships between grandmothers and sustained breastfeeding in the northwestern United States. We held open-forum focus groups and interviewed mothers who had practiced various degrees and durations of breastfeeding. The results indicate that grandmothers influence initial feeding choices as well as the duration and level of sustained breastfeeding. The nature of this influence, however, depended upon the type of relationship and level of involvement of the grandmother. These results support the premise that reproductive success is linked to relationships between a grandmother and her descendants. Additional cross-cultural, longitudinal and historical data are needed to examine confounding factors, such as the grandmothers’ dietary choices for her own offspring.

comments powered by Disqus