A Peaceful Time in Brazil
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 17 No. 4, September-October 2000, p. 166
We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time.
My husband, Paul, had decided a long time ago that he wanted to spend the millennium in Canoa Quebrada (meaning Broken Canoe), a small fishing village in the northeast of Brazil. We had been there together before we had children and its magic had lingered with us for many years. Now with four children, it was quite an organizational nightmare getting there. We rented out our house in London, tied up all our responsibilities and just went for it. Traveling with children throws such a different light on things.
It was late afternoon and we had just wandered up from the beach to Jeova's house, a fisherman whom we have known for many years. It was nearly sunset. At that end of the village, the children ended each day by walking up the sand dunes with their wooden boards and then sliding down the steep slopes to the bottom.
We were sitting on the veranda talking with Jeova and his sister Jandira when she gently pulled her three-year-old son into the hammock where she was lying. She lifted her top and began breastfeeding him. Paul asked her about breastfeeding in Canoa and she casually replied that it was normal to feed children for six or even seven years. Up until this moment, I had felt unsure about the etiquette of how to feed my 14-month- old here in Brazil. I like to know what is normal and acceptable before I feed comfortably in public. What a glorious relief. A bit like the feeling when I arrived at my first LLL meeting to find myself surrounded by other mothers who were also nurturing their children through breastfeeding. I immediately relaxed and knew that I was going to find Brazil an easy place to be with my nursing toddler for the next five months.
Children seemed adored and valued by the people we met. Babies were viewed as angels. I don't think anything could have prepared me for the amount of attention that Sula-Mae was going to attract. I could barely walk a few feet without someone doting on her.
Although babies in the village are generally breastfed for many years, in the time I was there, I didn't often see any being breastfed. I rarely saw any bottles, but I also rarely saw any babies at the breast. What I did see were lots of dummies (pacifiers) so I came to the conclusion that babies were mainly fed in the home.
Because the village is built on the sand dunes, it's not a place for prams or strollers. The people in the community didn't seem to use slings or any type of baby carrier—they simply carried babies in arms. Since they didn't seem to carry babies for long distances, just from house to house or into the main street for a bit of shopping or socializing, it seemed as though they didn't need a baby carrier. I did see baby carriers commonly used in the cities though.
Breastfeeding proved itself to be obviously superior on this trip. Sula ate off our plates since there were no high chairs to contain her in. She tried all the new tastes but it was reassuring to know that she got most of her nutritional needs met by my milk so there was no stress or inconvenience. She was very healthy the whole time.
Our neighbor worked in the telephone exchange and a young girl looked after her baby during the day. When he needed to breastfeed she took him to the mother and then brought him home again. If only the workplace could be so breastfeeding-friendly in every country!
Everyone in Canoa seemed related in some way, so there was never any shortage of aunts or sisters to help out with the day-to-day care of babies. I saw many mothers of young babies having time out for a swim or a dance in the evenings, leaving the stresses of motherhood behind while at the same time the babies were close at hand.
In the evenings when we went out for a meal or a stroll we always had the option of having Sula with us or, if she was awake and not able to sit in a restaurant, one of the local girls would come and take her for a walk. Even better, once she dozed off I could leave her in a hammock, in a friend's house in the main street, just a few doors away from where we were eating.
In spite of the wonderful ease Brazilians have with breastfeeding, all is not necessarily so idyllic. When we were in Salvador, a woman sitting on the street begged us for money to buy her baby some milk. The increasing rate of cesarean births in both rich and poor communities is likely to affect breastfeeding, since cesarean births often mean mothers and babies are more likely to be separated at birth. There is also an increasing fashion not to breastfeed in the hope of avoiding drooping breasts. They don't seem to realize that breast changes are caused by pregnancy, not lactation. It's a shame Western cultures seem able to export undue emphasis on appearance all over the world.
One of my most treasured memories, which for me sums up the acceptance of breastfeeding in Canoa and also captures Paul's respect for it, happened one afternoon after a long swim in the warm lagoons. Sula needed to sleep, but she always refused to feed when I was in my bikini because she didn't like the taste of salt on my nipple. So Paul went up to the owner of a beach hut selling drinks and fish and asked if he could have some fresh water so that his wife could clean her breast in order that the baby could feed. Without a thought the man went to the kitchen and brought out a jug of cool clean water for me to pour over myself. I try to imagine a bar in England where I would be treated with the same understanding. Sula-Mae then fed and fell asleep in my arms, neither of us having a care in the world.