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"Babies" Movie Depicts Differences in Breastfeeding Worldwide

I saw Babies, the new documentary, over the weekend with my husband and son* (and baby on board). I'd been counting the days until it was released after seeing this amazing trailer a few months ago. 

Babies is a portrait of the first year in the lives of four babies, who live in Mongolia, Namibia, Japan, and the U.S. (San Francisco). It cuts between the four babies over the course of that year, showing different activities, like feeding, play, bathing, interactions with animals, and learning to walk.  Parents play a secondary role in the movie, often off screen. There are no subtitles, and you don't need them.

There were a number of breastfeeding scenes in the film, primarily in the beginning. The Mongolian, Japanese, and Namibian moms are shown breastfeeding, and it's implied in the American family (the mother is shown lying in bed with her breast exposed, looking at her sleeping baby). But you soon see bottles in the American and Japanese families, whereas the Mongolian and Namibian families breastfeeding seems to play a larger and more sustained role. Breastmilk makes a surprise appearance in another theme (I won't spoil it). All of the breastfeeding occurs at home, not in public, with the exception of the Namibian family, where the public/private space distinction doesn't really make sense anyway.

It's clear that breastfeeding plays a very different role in the Namibian family, with the mother offering her breast for comfort, and for longer. This mother is also shown tandem nursing, with a third baby looking on with more than casual interest. According to UNICEF, nearly 30% of Namibian children are still nursing at age 20-23 months. 

The film largely skips over the first few months, which isn't too surprising since the later part of the first year, with all its exploring and movement, is more action-packed. Because of that, you don't see as much breastfeeding, I think. The film shows a lot of unsupervised, or loosely supervised time in both the Mongolian and Namibian families, so you don't get as much maternal interaction and feeding.

Breastfeeding aside, to my husband and me, the funniest moments (which also made me feel like sliding down in my seat just a bit) were some of the scenes of the American family. If you're a parent of a certain persuasion, prepare to cringe. For kids, the animal scenes steal the show.

As parents we tend to have a fairly parochial view of our role. We generally compare ourselves to our peers, and are unlikely to know how parenting can look different, even in our own communities.  So this represents a particularly welcome expansion of perspective. And boy is it cute. Go see it if you can.

*Should you take your child to see this movie? I couldn't find much online to answer that question, so here's my take: My son is seven and prone to nightmares from things he sees in the most benign of videos, and this was the second movie he's seen in a theater, so I'm pretty conservative about what he sees.  This film is rated PG for 'cultural and maternal nudity.'  There certainly are plenty of breasts shown in the course of breastfeeding in all countries and in the course of daily life in Namibia, but my guess is that if you're reading this blog it's unlikely to traumatize your children.  There is one very brief and calm birth scene in Mongolia in the hospital; the other three aren't shown.  One baby is shown hooked up to a number of machines after birth. There are no subtitles, which would be unnecessary and spare you having to whisper them to a child.

Overall, I think it was a great movie for a kid - particularly the many scenes of kids with animals, which have universal appeal. One caution: This film is geared toward adults, so we planned to whisk my son out during the previews, which indeed weren't appropriate for kids. Also, don't get a large popcorn if you expect your child to eat dinner afterward.


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