Cross-cultural weaning in a South African context - Part 1

Posted by Kath Megaw on 10/02/2015

In a country of over 51 million people, South Africans are blessed with countless cultures. Traditional African cultures range from the 9 predominant cultures, including the Zulu or Xhosa people, to the smaller groups such as the Nama and Khoisan. In large cities we find a primarily Western culture influenced by many European countries. Rich Indian culture abounds in Kwazulu Natal and Malay influences are obvious in the Cape. And with each culture, come unique foods and feeding practices!

Cultural influence on breastfeeding

As all moms know, one of the largest determinants of whether a mom breastfeeds successfully, and how a mom breastfeeds, is the support that she receives from those around her – something largely determined by culture. Western moms are discouraged from displaying their breasts during breastfeeding, whereas Basotho women will feel no shame breastfeeding in public without cover.  There is a Zulu belief that sexual intercourse will poison breastmilk, while an Indian mother may believe that eating ghee will increase milk supply. Regardless of these various cultural beliefs, one thing remains common – in traditional societies, breastfeeding is supported and encouraged. This is great news for our more traditional moms who draw support from family and friends!


Unfortunately, South African moms have had to cope with a huge breastfeeding challenge in the form of Westernization. A misinformed medical and scientific community; aggressive marketing by producers of formula milk; and workplace expectations, have made it less acceptable and more difficult for many moms to breastfeed. Indeed, in South Africa, we do see that breastfeeding tends to be more prevalent in rural (less Westernized) areas, compared to urban (more Westernized) areas.  Thankfully, new policies and regulations have been put into place in recent years, hopefully creating a breastfeeding supportive culture for all South Africans.


Cultural influence on weaning

As with breastfeeding, weaning is also largely influenced by the surrounding culture. One of the biggest breastfeeding problems, across almost all South African cultures, is how early introduction of solids is encouraged. Research shows us that in almost all cultural groups, it is common to introduce solids to baby when he is as young as one month old, even though breastfeeding itself may continue for 2-3 years. This stems largely from cultural beliefs of the moms, the families, and the community, that breastmilk is not enough for the baby until 6 months, and that additional foods and muthi (herbal medicine) are needed.  This is mostly prevalent in rural areas, although it is also seen in urban areas. It seems early introduction of solids is in fact a South African problem, and not specific to certain cultures.

Recipes that compliment this discussion:

Blended Carrot and Lentil Mash

Amazi milk and Banana smoothie

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