…Contemplating the Core Elements of a Modern Breastfeeding Lifestyle
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Breastfeeding Instruction: What Gets Lost in Translation?

I have taught thousands of hours of breastfeeding classes in the multicultural, urban environment of New York City. 

We live in a world that revolves around information; knowledge on any given subject appears to be just one google search or click away.  This may explain why an increasing number of students who come to my classes lately seem to be there merely to confirm what they think they already know versus wanting to actually learn something new.  

Adult learners, often find it difficult to be open to the richness of a learning experience when they fear judgement or criticism.  It is often more important to be right than to risk being wrong or feeling like a complete newbie.

I am reminded of my first day in Japanese class. 

The appearance of a diminutive teacher who immediately began speaking in a foreign tongue made me feel at loose ends.  I ultimately mastered enough spoken Japanese that I was able to spend several wondrous holidays travelling throughout Japan.  I immersed myself in the culture and made many new friends.  My language skills have gotten rusty, but rudimentary communication is still  possible for me with little effort. 

A love of learning has impacted my approach to teaching.  There are several learning styles auditory, visual, kinesthetic.  It is not uncommon for some of us to use more than one at any given time to learn and anchor an experience into our memory. 

When your brain is under the misimpression that it already knows something you tend to filter for new data or for things that do not fit your preconceived notions.  Often that filtering process impedes learning because the mind is only attentive to parts of the whole. 

When participants ask me questions using terms and words that I have not uttered and ascribe them to me, it becomes clear that they are at best only selectively listening during class.  When these queries come from their own internal dialogue and are not directly related to content delivered, I thank them and clarify what I had actually said.  Hopefully, this helps them to take in a piece of new information. 

It turns out that cultural differences, apart from language, can also have a bearing on how the students in my classroom may interpret and receive the information.  According to the article published in the Winter edition of Tufts Magazine, ‘The Brain in the World-A Burgeoning Science Explores the Deep Imprint of Culture’, the field of cultural neuroscience is only about two years old. 

Tufts psychology professor Nalini Ambady puts it this way: cultural neuroscience shows that “there is malleability in the neural structure depending on cultural exposure.” The brain, she says, is a “sponge that absorbs cultural information.” What she and other cultural neuroscientists have discovered is that although the brains of people from different cultures do not exhibit large structural differences, certain neural pathways do become more ingrained from immersion in a particular culture. They’ve also learned that those differences in brain function can influence our emotions, our behavior, and our attitudes toward people from cultures other than our own.

It goes on to describe a study done with American and Japanese subjects who were shown groups of photographs and asked to rate them according to the characteristics of dominance, maturity, likeability and trustworthiness.  The researcher, Rule, then broke those down into two sub-groups of power and warmth.  The Americans overwhelmingly favored the powerful faces and the Japanese the warm ones.  When fMRI scans were done it was noted that the Americans were using the analytical parts of their brains and the Japanese the emotional areas.

But what he discovered surprised him: both groups were using the same part of the brain—the amygdala. Sometimes called the “lizard brain,” the amygdala, which has been with us since the early days of our evolutionary journey, helps us detect threats, but it has a more general function as well, signifying increased attention to any object in the outside world. In this case, the amygdala was firing for both the American and the Japanese groups when they saw the picture of the leader they preferred.

It should be noted that the amygdala is also a prime area for the infant’s experience of breastfeeding.  

As a teacher, I am left to wonder how I might better engage these amygdalas, the cultural command central of the brains of these mothers-to-be? The answer may lie in the common thread of child-like wonder that is a constant in every culture while we are young. 

So it not just the words, visuals and the practice of positions, but a cultural sensitivity that may ensure breastfeeding instruction does not get lost in translation.

What do you think? What has worked for you?


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