Nursing During Pregnancy: Historical Insights and Modern Considerations

by | Jun 4, 2024 | historic_research, lactogenic, pregnancy

One frequent question that arises in lactation forums and consultations is whether it’s safe and appropriate to nurse during pregnancy. While there is limited formal research on this topic, there is plenty of historical basis and anecdotal evidence from mothers and lactation experts. They provide valuable insights and common-sense guidance for today’s mom.

Historical and Ethno-Anthropological Perspectives

Traditional African Societies: In many African cultures, extended breastfeeding is a common and natural practice. Nursing during pregnancy often extends from this tradition. In rural communities, mothers may nurse their children for several years, even if they become pregnant again. 

Indigenous Peoples of the Americas: Among some Indigenous groups in North and South America, nursing during pregnancy is not only accepted but encouraged to ensure the older child continues to receive essential nutrients. Certain Native American tribes, for instance, practiced extended breastfeeding, with pregnancy not necessarily interrupting this practice.

Historical European Practices: In historical European contexts, particularly in rural and agrarian societies, breastfeeding during pregnancy was not uncommon. Due to the lack of modern birth control and the necessity for high fertility rates, women might nurse through multiple pregnancies. This was a practical approach to child-rearing in times when extended breastfeeding was a natural part of life.

Asian Cultures: Various parts of Asia, especially in rural areas, have longstanding traditions of extended breastfeeding. In some Indian and Southeast Asian communities, it has been typical for women to nurse older children during subsequent pregnancies. These practices are rooted in cultural norms and economic considerations, ensuring the health and nutrition of the older child.

Considerations for Today’s Mom

Modern women often feel uncertain when attempting practices that are not widely accepted in our culture today. Such feelings of insecurity and vulnerability can be intense. Allowing yourself the freedom to try nursing during pregnancy, and also to stop if any complications arise, can be a reassuring approach. Trusting your instincts and remaining flexible with your plan can empower you to make the best decision for yourself and your family.

Safety: For most healthy pregnancies, continuing to nurse an older child is safe. However, it is essential to consult with a healthcare provider to ensure there are no specific risks or complications associated with your particular situation.

Nutritional Needs: Pregnant and nursing mothers need extra nutrients to support both the nursing child and the developing fetus. A well-balanced diet, rich in vitamins, minerals, and sufficient calories, is crucial. Indeed, this is the one area that must not be neglected if you plan to nurse during pregnancy.

Milk Supply and Changes: Hormonal changes during pregnancy can affect milk supply and composition. Some children may naturally wean themselves due to these changes in taste and quantity of the milk.

Comfort: Nursing during pregnancy can be uncomfortable due to tender breasts or uterine contractions. Adjusting nursing positions and timing can help manage discomfort.

Emotional Considerations: Fatigue and hormonal shifts during pregnancy can make nursing more challenging. It’s important to consider how this impacts you emotionally and seek support if needed.

Preparation for Tandem Nursing: If you plan to nurse both your newborn and older child, it helps to read up on tandem nursing and prepare for the logistics and demands it entails. 

Conclusion

Nursing during pregnancy is a practice with deep historical roots and significant cultural variations. While modern medical research on this topic may be limited, the experiences and observations of mothers and lactation experts across different cultures offer valuable guidance. Always consult with your healthcare provider to tailor advice to your specific needs and circumstances. Understanding these historical and anthropological contexts can provide reassurance and practical insights for mothers considering nursing during pregnancy today.

Recommended Reference:

López-Fernández, G., Barrios, M., Goberna-Tricas, J., & Gómez-Benito, J. (2017). Breastfeeding during pregnancy: A systematic review. Women and Birth30(6), e292-e300.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wombi.2017.05.008