Breastfeeding patterns in four cultures: A cross cultural analysis

Primary author: Courtney Love
Co-authors: Katherine Flores, Beatrice Caffe, Avery Lane, Courtney Helfrecht, Courtney L. Meehan
Faculty sponsor: Courtney Meehan

Primary college/unit: Arts and Sciences
Campus: Pullman


Breastfeeding, widely acknowledged to have significant benefits to infant growth and development, maternal-infant bonding, and infant immunity, is also one of the most intensive and energetically expensive forms of maternal investment. Despite these noteworthy benefits, we lack foundational data regarding the underlying daily structure (e.g., frequency and number of bouts, temporal and developmental variation) of breastfeeding, particularly in cross-cultural perspective. Here we present data on breastfeeding structure in four cultures and test the broad hypothesis that maternal and infant life history characteristics and allomaternal investment are related to infant nursing patterns. Data were analyzed on 226 infants and children via naturalistic focal follow behavioral observations, which recorded infant behavior every 30 seconds across daylight hours, among hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists in the Central African Republic, agro-pastoralists in Ethiopia, and Washington/Idaho women living in a semi-rural community in the US. Our results support the hypotheses that several life history characteristics (e.g., infant age, sex, and allomaternal network size) are associated with nursing frequency. Understanding the daily structure of breastfeeding across subsistence patterns can help us understand cross-cultural variation, in addition to illustrating how life history traits influence maternal investment strategies on a critical investment pattern with clear fitness consequences.