Allomaternal nursing in humans

Curr Anthropol. 2014 Apr;55(2):200-15, 226-9.


Few studies exist of allomaternal nursing in humans. It is relatively common among some cultures, such as the Aka and Efé hunter-gatherers of the Congo Basin, but it does not occur in other foragers such as the !Kung and Hadza of Southern and East Africa. This paper utilizes focal follow observations of Aka and Efé infants, interviews with Aka mothers, ethnographic reports from researchers working with hunter-gatherers, and a survey of the eHRAF cultures to try to answer the following questions: how often does allomaternal nursing occur, who provides it, and under what contexts does it take place? The study indicates that it occurs in many cultures (93% of cultures with data) but that it is normative in relatively few cultures; biological kin, especially grandmothers, frequently provide allomaternal nursing and that infant age, mother's condition, and culture (e.g., cultural models about if and when women other than the mother can nurse an infant or colostrum taboos) impact the nature and frequency of allomaternal nursing. The empirical results of this exploratory study are discussed in the context of existing hypotheses used to explain allomaternal nursing.

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Cultural*
  • Breast Feeding*
  • Crying
  • Family
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Behavior / physiology*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Women, Working