21 Infant Feeding Teachings from Indigenous Grandmothers: Generating Knowledge through Sharing Circles

Pertice Moffitt; Sabrina-Ayesha Lakhani; and Sheila Cruz

Traditional practices of mothering are important to the identities of Indigenous women, families, and their communities. Infant feeding is central to mothering.  Traditional knowledge shared by Indigenous Elders is deeply respected in Canada’s north and is alive in stories shared by grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Unfortunately, women’s acquisition of breastfeeding knowledge and cultural practices were interrupted by the impact of colonization, patriarchy, residential schooling, and the subsequent loss of knowledge transmission between Elders and youth. The grandmothers wish to restore historical aspects of mothering and share their knowledge and mothering expertise with future generations. The purpose of this chapter is to introduce and recognize traditional knowledge gathered through sharing circles and interviews with grandmothers and great-grandmothers who share their own infant feeding practices and those of their ancestors and their children.

Key Terms: Breastfeeding, infant feeding, Indigenous mothers, health


The Northwest Territories (NWT), Canada is home to a diverse ethnic population of mothers, including Indigenous (Dene, Métis, Inuvialuit) and non-Indigenous. This study comprises of three data collection methods: sharing circles with grandmothers, individual interviews with mothers of infants from birth to one year of age, and a retrospective chart audit of the 2016 cohort of NWT births. The stories and knowledge about infant feeding in this chapter are from mothers and grandmothers, who participated in Elder sharing circles conducted in four regions in the NWT from October to December, 2017. Their stories convey powerful messaging and wisdom related to the resiliency and resourcefulness of mothers, the need to survive hardships, and the desire to rekindle past practices. Preliminary findings from this work challenge the contemporary approach and perceptions of infant feeding practices to combine past and current understandings and values to better support mothers in breastfeeding.


Today, breastfeeding is heralded as the “best” in many campaigns or as “saving lives” as described by Watson and Mason (2014) in the critique they wrote called “the power of the first hour” (p. 573).  In their review, they describe the movement around colostrum in the first hour of an infant’s life as the answer to addressing infant mortality. These authors question the crisis, urgency and risk tone to messaging that suggests that global issues can be solved through these gendered universal and individualized actions. It would seem that this further disempowers mothers and their agency around feeding their babies. Thus, we are careful that we are honouring women’s choice of how they feed their babies and that we are cognizant of the literature that suggests that physical contact, interactions between mother and baby, and close relationship are interconnected and play an important role in mothering and infant feeding (Kramer et al., 2008).  In addition, we acknowledge that determinants of breastfeeding are contextual and complex (Moffitt, 2012; Moffitt & Dickinson, 2016).

Storytelling and oral tradition are entrenched in the lifeways of Indigenous northern peoples and are the format for talking and sharing about the past (Cruikshank, 1991). In this study, grandmothers, engaging in sharing circles with other local grandmothers, told stories about feeding and caring for their babies. The sharing circles were facilitated with semi-structured questions but heralded many impromptu stories. Traditional knowledge has been described as:

unifying theory and practice and cannot be separated from a way of being and a way of doing…it [traditional knowledge] seeks to make sense of diverse variables… purposely integrates subjective ways of knowing such as spirit, values and compassion…is fluid and generative, integrating the weave of pattern and variation into new ways of knowing (Arctic Institute of North America, 2014, p. 1).

There is not a great deal written about past infant feeding practices but there are some accounts in the anthropological literature (Hara, 1980; Helm, 1961, 1981; Petitot & Savoie, 1971; Ryan & Johnson, 1994). According to Hara (1980) in research conducted with “Hare Indians” of Fort Good Hope, babies were fed by mothers as soon as “the milk began to flow” (p. 267); and if they had plenty of milk, they would help with feeding other women’s babies. She also reported that a granny raising a baby fed the infant bacon, guts, and animal brains, and stated that the baby grew up strong “had hardly any milk but is a tough good hunter.” (p. 267) Hara cites Ross (1866) as recording that infants were not fed for “four days after birth…to render them capable of enduring starvation in the afterlife, an accomplishment which they are very likely to stand often in need of.” (p. 267) At that time, if a mother chose to bottle feed, she made formula with canned milk, water, and sugar.  Mothers, along with primarily being responsible for feeding their infants, undertook activities like visiting the trap line and collecting spruce brush. The community or family members’ formula fed the babies at times of the mothers’ absences for these activities.


Three key themes were identified through the Elder sharing circles that will be presented in this brief report of infant feeding. The themes to be addressed are resiliency and resourcefulness of mothers, surviving hardships and rekindling past practices.

Resiliency and Resourcefulness of Mothers

The climate, geography, and ecology played a strong role in shaping the feeding and mothering practices of Indigenous mothers. Women fed their babies by whatever means they could to keep them alive and healthy. This is an aspect of their mothering that we heard from all of the grandmothers. One woman described her experience like this “…they [new mothers] tried anything, any kind of broth. They tried to make milk, because you know there wasn’t milk there to buy.1” Sometimes, they would use fish broth, caribou broth, or boil rice and use the broth. One Elder described that she could not breastfeed because “her milk never came in.”

Some grandmothers described the role of Elders in advising pregnant women. By noticing an imminent pregnancy, offering advice, and sharing knowledge, Elders identified their support and encouragement. One Elder said:

First of all, I think when you are pregnant the Elders always talk to you and that was the way I was. I used to visit somebody across the river in [place] and then an Elder in [place] she said when are you going to have your baby? and I told her and she said when you have your baby you have to drink water and broth and soup, that nice broth eh, and that way so when the baby starts to take the breast its full eh your breasts are full so the baby has it easy to get on it.

The majority of women offered the baby the breast soon after birth even if they did not continue to breastfeed. Some women who had the support of Elders breastfed all of their children, while others shared that “they tried” sometimes as long as 3 to 4 months, but they had painful breasts and switched to the bottle stating that they had “suffered enough.”

Grandmothers described times in their pasts when they were in the bush and everyone in the camp pulled together to help mothers deliver their babies. One Elder told of a time when she was 16 and her sister-in-law went into premature labour and had twins. They collected all of the hot water bottles they could to keep the babies warm and she stated, “my father in law was scrounging around for eyedroppers. That’s what we fed them with every hour.”

Surviving Hardships 

Indigenous women shared stories in the past of weathering many hardships, in terms of mothering. Events of illness, such as tuberculosis and effects of colonization, whereby transmission of parenting knowledge from their families was lost, altered, and disrupted a continuity of past practices. Some new mothers felt isolated and on their own when they had difficulties with breastfeeding. They were reluctant to seek help because of their residential school experience. One grandmother shared:

You know those days I mean in the days of residential school. In those days, we never        did talk about our body parts because I think we were too ashamed to say [anything     about breastfeeding] to your kids. I never did hear it from my sisters or nobody in the          family. They were so private.

Rekindling Past Practices

In the near past (the time of the grandmothers in this study), community women were supporting each other in birthing their babies. Several mothers spoke about another local woman being present at the birth of their baby and providing support. As well, knowledge around breastfeeding was translated by observing other women feeding babies. To this day, the Elders still hold strong beliefs that breastfeeding creates an exclusive and inimitable bond between mother and child. Many of them share the perception that today’s world is very different from the one they grew up in. This gives rise to their strong desire to help future generations understand and bridge the connections between traditional practices and current ones.


Elders hold an important place in northern communities. The Elder sharing circles created an opportunity for grandmothers to come together to share their stories and reflect on their lives and influences on feeding their babies. The story telling was positively received and fostered strength and a sense of empowerment from each other’s recollections through laughter, good will, and fellowship. Three themes, resilience and resourcefulness of mothers, surviving hardships, and rekindling past practices of infant feeding, were briefly highlighted in the chapter. The mothering experiences of Indigenous women are salient to mothers today. Community grandmothers are well positioned to be role models in supporting women in feeding their babies and addressing current mothering issues that occur in their communities. They wish to reclaim their roles and share their wisdom, support, and advice to new mothers. Considering these traditional infant feeding practices and experiences of Elders, this chapter seeks to broaden the understanding of nursing students of the cultural and contextual factors that influence client decision-making. The process is a mechanism to bolster engagement and relationships between nurses, and new mothers and their families. Furthermore, it provokes thought on how services, programs, and healthcare providers can better incorporate Elders and their knowledge into maternal-child care. Thus, helping to promote and empower women with infant feeding and revive the lost aspects of mothering in Indigenous women.=


  1. To maintain anonymity in the small sample size dates and times of interviews are not included.


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