My daughter’s birth was traumatic. There was a terrifying period of 15 minutes when her body was completely stuck in my birth canal, until she was forcefully pulled from my womb by two surgeons through C-section.
But when she nursed for the first time, as she lay naked on my chest, skin-to-skin, the trauma dissolved and was replaced with this euphoric love. It was the bond that I knew needed to continue for as long as we both could manage.
My daughter is three now and she will often cuddle into my lap after her bath, or early in the morning, and she’ll lift up my shirt to nurse. She’ll even say “other side” when she is ready to switch sides. This is something that I have learned to accept, because I know it’s the comfort she needs. I do my best to support her journey, while also setting the boundaries needed to maintain a healthy nursing relationship with her.
Colonial systems and colonial ways of thinking often call this “extended” breastfeeding. But Indigenous kinship systems simply call it what it is—breastfeeding. The “extended breastfeeding” label implies judgment or criticism, like you’re doing something that is beyond the norm.
Prior to colonization, in some nations, communities, and families, the breast-feeding process—and eventual weaning—was strictly child-led. We believed that children knew when they no longer needed that form of attachment, comfort, and security.
“I nursed until I was six or seven, because I can remember it!” Some kokums (grandmothers) laugh about it, as they share stories of motherhood with me.
Today, this is almost unheard of.
Traditional Indigenous kinship systems are predominantly child-centred, meaning they’re built around the growth, development, and well-being of infants and children. We believe that the land will always provide for the people, as long as the people take care of the land. And what we have seen, and experienced, is that land-based practices and land-based diets go hand-in-hand with breastfeeding success rates. Eating a diet of wild meat, vegetables and berries, was, and still is, vital for the production of milk.
This is why I fuel my body with wild game and vegetables grown in the garden. Each time I eat food gifted from the land, I know that it will provide my daughter with what she needs to grow, develop, and keep her immune system strong.
In this way, breastfeeding is an infant’s introduction to building a relationship with the land. The land takes care of them during the most vulnerable times of their lives.
In some instances, mothers can’t nurse due to illness, ailments, or a variety of other reasons. Historically, when this happened, there was no judgment against the mother. Instead, we had support: One option was making a “milk” of animal fat and bone broth, sometimes placed in an animal hide or in the bladder of an animal, prepared and reshaped for babies to suck on. Option two was an auntie or relative who would nurse the infant instead, providing the nourishment and comfort the infant needed. In the past, this was socially acceptable and considered very normal. (Our aunties talk about it happening in their generation.)
As colonialism and genocidal practices swept across the lands, Indigenous mothers could not breastfeed due to the lack of access to traditional diets. This was caused by the withholding of rations and the slaughter of our main sources of wild meat. It led to the forced starvation of many Indigenous peoples.
Today, when my daughter nurses, the reminder of the suffering that our people went through is heavy in my mind. I think about how things used to be prior to colonization, and I think about the need for reclamation—for those ways to return. Each time I feed her, I pray for the babies who didn’t make it due to the limited choices their mothers had.
For generations, residential schools and the Sixties Scoop (which actually lasted from the 1950s to the 1980s) led to the separation of mothers and children. For many families, this also eliminated the support systems and the knowledge from older relatives who could share the practice of breastfeeding and help new moms learn how it works.
The schools also created trauma and shame around the human body, leading some mothers to choose formula instead.
The forced separation of mothers and children is still happening today through the child welfare system. More than 40,000 children in care are Indigenous, which is well over half the total number of kids in care. (To be exact, 52.5 percent of children in care are Indigenous.) This is shocking when you remember that Indigenous children only make up 7.7 percent of the child population in colonially-named “Canada.” It’s not hard to see the similarities between the number of Indigenous children in the child welfare system today and, historically, the number of Indigenous children that were kidnapped and taken to residential schools.
These “apprehensions”—removing a child from their parents—often occur shortly after birth, during the crucial hours when a newborn begins to create the breastfeeding bond with their mother. This is when a newborn has their first drink of colostrum, and a new mother is focusing on getting her milk to come in with skin-to-skin time and frequent nursing sessions. If her infant is taken from her, these precious first few days are taken from them both.
If and when she gets her baby back, the breastfeeding bond may be non-existent, as she has had no baby stimulating and building up her supply. She likely has had no support from lactation consultants, and no access to a breast pump. And she is in such a strong place of grief from being separated from her infant that producing milk is low on the list of things to focus on.
This is why breastfeeding for as long as I can—and for as long as my daughter wants to—is so important to me.
Don’t forget that the lack of clean drinking water in many Indigenous communities also creates huge challenges for mothers who cannot nurse. It’s difficult to make safe formula when the water supply is unclean and undrinkable. The sterilization of bottles becomes an arduous task. In some communities with no access to clean drinking water, mothers must trek to one end of their community, daily, in order to receive the water they need to drink, to bathe, to do their family’s laundry, and to clean. Often times, they are bringing their children along, too—a line of little ones. The time that it takes simply to get the clean drinking water they need could have been used in other ways: to create a nursing bond with their baby, to rest, to play, to care for others. They are working even harder to find ways to nourish their babies, which ultimately creates more stress. It’s become a way of living that is completely opposite to how things used to be.
But we are beginning to see the sacred bond and connection between mother and infant returning, as an act of Indigenous resurgence. Rates of Indigenous women breastfeeding are rising. Like me, many Indigenous mothers are nursing their babies and children for longer than a year, engaging in the Indigenous kinship practice of child-led weaning.
I believe “extended” breastfeeding is also becoming normalized again because my generation of Indigenous moms has the energy to focus on healing, rather than just surviving, within a life of colonially-created trauma. We have our mothers and our kokums to thank for this; for doing the beginning stages of the healing work, so that when we became mothers, we too would know what it looks like to heal.
Our mothers and kokums have also raised us with the deep knowledge that our bodies, as Indigenous women, are still powerful enough to grow, to birth and to feed our children: to grow and build nations in ways that colonialism has attempted to destroy for generations.
As I nurse my daughter, I know that the milk I produce is a blessing. Many babies before her never had the chance to experience comfort through their mother’s milk. It’s become an act of daily mindfulness and resistance for me—a form of gratitude. A deep, prayerful routine we share.
When it’s time to stop, I will do my best to let my child lead the way, just as the ones who walked before me did, generations ago.