Dorothy A. Counts
Department of Anthropology
University of Waterloo

Counts, Dorothy Ayers. 1985 Infant Care and Feeding in West New Britain. Pp. 155-170. In Infant Care and Feeding in the South Pacific. Leslie B.Marshall. New York:Gordon and Breach.

Also published as

Counts, Dorothy Ayers. 1987. Infant Care and Feeding in West New Britain. Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology 3:155-170.

This manuscript is changed slightly from the published version. Please cite from the published version.


Modernization often changes infant feeding practices, nursing being abandoned for bottle feeding. This study focusses on the relationship between parenting and nurture in a rural Papua New Guinea community. It examines (1) whether introduced ideas have changed nursing practice and (2) how the idea that semen contaminates breast milk may affect infant feeding.

Observation of the interaction of fifty women and children suggests that despite changed ideas about sexuality and procreation, little change has occurred in nursing behavior. Ideologies linking nurture and parenthood, and the symbolism of breast milk as the stuff of maternal kinship, override introduced concepts and all infants are normally nursed until at least age two. Milk is considered to be potentially contaminated by semen during intercourse due to a supposed link between uterus and breast. Comparative studies suggest that this belief, which affects infant feeding practices, may be widespread.


The problem of providing infants in developing countries with adequate nutrition is receiving widespread attention. Government health services in Papua New Guinea are cognizant of the importance of proper infant nutrition and are actively discouraging the practice of bottle feeding. In West New Britain Province, posters describing the advantages of breast-feeding adorn the walls of local health clinics, and the paraphernalia required to bottle feed an infant is available only from the clinics or by prescription. Government promotion of breast-feeding is a response to the the vulnerability of modernizing nations, such as Papua New Guinea, to a host of factors that establish a context in which women in other parts of the world have replaced breast milk with other foods (Harrell 1981). These factors seem to accompany increased affluence, educational opportunities, urbanization, commercialization, availability of medical care Gonzales, 1963; Marshall and Marshall 1980), and especially the wage employment of women (Nardi 1983; Jimenez and Newton1979; Nerlove 1974; Van Esterik and Grenier 1981; Bradley and Peberdy 1981). They include the notion that the female breast is primarily an erotic appendage; a concern that human milk is inadequate in quality or quantity and should be supplemented with cow's milk or semi-solid foods; the idea that infant feeding should be spaced several hours apart and eliminated at night as soon as possible; and the belief that adults and children require separate space and time (Harrell 1981).

In 1971 the town of Kimbe was created as a marketing center for West New Britain. Since Kimbe's establishment, its presence has brought many of the appurtenances of modernization to the villages of the province. I will in this essay evaluate the effects of modernization on the social-cultural context of infant feeding among the people of an isolated rural community in northwest New Britain.


Since 1966, I have spent 27 months doing field research in West New Britain. Most of this research has been based in the Lusi-speaking village of Kandoka, the largest village in the Kaliai electorate and the second largest community on the northwest coast of the island of New Britain. Between June and September, 1981, at the request of Dr. Leslie Marshall who was conducting research at Papua New Guinea's Institute of Applied Social and Economic Research (IASER), I collected data specifically on infant feeding and nutrition. Most of the analysis in this paper is based on data collected in 1981 supplemented by data obtained during earlier field research which was not focussed on the subject of infant nutrition.

My research method has been participant-observation. During our four trips to West New Britain, my family - my husband and our children ranging in age from less than two years to sixteen years of age - and I have lived in the village, observing behavior and participating in community life. In 1981 we shared a compound, which was composed of a shared cook-house and fenced enclosure, with another family. The woman of that household is barren, but she and her husband have adopted a number of children; she consistently baby sat for the children, including the still nursing infants, of her brothers. Consequently we spent considerable time in the company of nursing mothers and their infants, and I was well situated to observe the interaction between women and their children and to discuss, in a relaxed and informal context, the subjects of human fertility and child care. I held these discussions with approximately fifty village women, nursing mothers and non-lactating women alike.

In 1981 there were 360 people living in Kandoka and its associated hamlet of Maiai. Twenty-five of these people were nursling infants who ranged in age from those born between June and September 1981 to toddlers aged three. I observed the interaction between all of these children and their mothers during the months that I lived in the village, and discussed infant feeding, wet-nursing, the introduction of solid foods, and other related topics with twelve of these nursing women and with other mothers as wel.

The Kaliai and Modernization

The people of Kaliai constituency of West New Britain Province are isolated. There are no roads or airfields in Kaliai. The only transportation is by foot travel along forest trails or by navigation of the rivers and coast. In 1966, when David Counts and I began our research in Kaliai, the only contact with the outside world, represented by the city of Rabaul some 300 miles to the east, was by commercial trading vessel, small mission launch, or an occasional government work boat. These links were infrequent and undependable, and months would pass when no ship visited the area. Consequently, the people of Kaliai were minimally influenced by the economy, technology, and values of modern industrialized society. This situation began to change rapidly in 1971 when Kimbe town was established at the eastern base of the Willaumez Peninsula. The town provides a readily accessible market for locally grown copra, is a source of supplies for local trade stores, and is the site of the provincial capital, high school and hospital. In 1966 Kaliai had only one locally owned and run trade store, there were no outboard motors or cooperative youth clubs, and few women had lived outside the village. The situation altered dramatically by 1981. In Kandoka, there were six outboard motors, three trade stores, and three young peoples' clubs, one of them a women's club. There were a number of village women who had attended or were attending high school, and one - the first woman from Kaliai - was a biology student at the University of Papua New Guinea. Although Kaliai is still far from being an industrialized or urbanized area, the influx of goods and ideas has increased from a trickle to a torrent, and villagers consider themselves to be citizens of a modernizing country.

To what extent has this modernization affected the lives of women and children, and particularly what effect has it had on child nutrition in Kandoka? New foods have been introduced into the diet of adults and older children, but few changes have been made in traditional infant feeding practices. For reasons I will discuss below, in 1981 there were no new social or economic activities competing with traditional domestic responsibilities for women's time, nor were there any social or economic pressures or incentives for earlier weaning or introduction of food supplements to breast milk. (Also see Conton 1983; Nardi 1983)

Breasts, Milk, and Kinship

It is difficult to know whether Kaliai men traditionally considered the female breast to be erotic. By 1981, thanks to the influence of the mission, movies seen in Lae and Rabaul, foreign magazines and other publications (one man had obtained a copy of the .us Kamasutra), younger men thought of women's breasts in terms of sexual play. The new eroticism is reflected in women's dress. In 1967 almost all village women wore .us meri\ blouses only on Sunday; in 1981 all women under the age of thirty consistently wore blouses, and more educated women wore brassieres even when they danced in ceremonies where they were supposed to dress in traditional costume. In spite of the introduction of foreign attitudes towards the female breast, Kaliai continue to think of it as .us the source of infant food. The importance of this function overrides any erotic symbolism associated with the breast. As evidence, lactating women continue to nurse children publicly, without self-consciousness, and men pay no attention. (For a similar case see Conton 1983).

The continuing emphasis on the female breast as the source of nourishment for infants is related to the fact that breast milk is the substance of maternal kinship. The Kaliai are normatively patrilineal and emphasize agnatic links. Older Lusi-speaking Kaliai maintain that a child is composed entirely of its father's paternal substance .us tanta aisuru, 'male substance' or 'essence' (for a detailed discussion of this point and of Lusi notions of conception see Counts and Counts 1983). .us Aisuru\ is a Lusi term used for those liquid substances which have the capacity to create social ties: semen or male substance, breast milk .us turuturu aisuru,\ and the fluid of the green coconut .us niu aisuru. According to older Kaliai, a woman is kin to her child because she nurtures it. This critical nurturing is a sharing of substance, that occurs, not when the fetus grows in its mother's body, but when she gives it her breast milk. .us Tutu,\ the baby-talk name for mother in Lusi, is an abbreviated form of the word for breast.

This theory of procreation is changing, for younger educated Kaliai who have learned the modern European model of reproduction argue that children are related equally to both parents. Nevertheless, the relationship between nurturing, shared substance, and parenthood is deeply ingrained in Kaliai kinship ideology. This ideology extends to kin other than immediate parents, for kin relations may be created by giving food as well as semen and breast milk, an important aspect of adoption, discussed below.

The nurturing role is a critical one for a Lusi woman, because the primary responsibility of a woman is to feed her children and others who are dependent on her. The ability to create and express ties of kinship by giving food is not limited to women. Mother's brothers and adopting parents also establish their relationship to children in this way. Mother's brothers share substance with sister's children by giving them coconuts from palms which those children eventually inherit and which are the source of .us niu aisuru, coconut liquid.

Adoption, which is widespread throughout the Pacific (Carroll 1970; Brady 1976), occurs frequently in Kaliai. It is common for an individual or a couple to raise the child of a relative who has several dependent children. Adopting parents who ask for a baby while it is a tiny infant begin shortly after its birth to fulfill the two necessary duties of parents: to name the child and to feed it. They do this by giving food, especially fish, meat, and drinking coconuts to its birth mother, for anything eaten by her is also consumed by her baby and these foods are considered to be especially strengthening. By providing for the nursing mother, the prospective adopting couple demonstrate their ability and intent to nurture the child and to meet their responsibilities as parents. Failure to meet either of these obligations - naming or feeding - causes the natural parents to terminate the arrangement.

The Contamination of Breast Milk

Mother's milk is considered to be the ideal food for infants. All village mothers breast feed their infants. The child is put to the breast soon after birth, as suckling is thought necessary to produce milk. Women do not worry about the production of adequate milk, for milk flow can be readily increased by drinking lots of fluids, especially fish soup and green coconut liquid. Breast milk is the only exclusively female effluvium that is not polluting. It can, however, be contaminated by male substance. The belief that sexual fluids, especially menstrual blood and the effluvia of afterbirth, may cause illness or death is reported widely throughout Papua New Guinea (Meggitt 1964; Meigs 1976 and 1983; Chowning 1980; Goodale 1980 and 1981; Kelly 1976; Lindenbaum 1972). Anthropologists have, however, seldom reported that semen may be considered to be potentially as dangerous as menstrual blood (Faithorn 1975). This belief has significance for Lusi infant feeding practices.

As I have already noted above, older Lusi maintain that a child is composed entirely of its father's semen. This point is debated by younger Lusi, but most agree that a successful pregnancy requires numerous acts of sexual intercourse, a notion that is widespread in Melanesia (Chowning 1983; Jorgensen 1983). Sexual activity between parents should continue until the fetus is "strong"; until it quickens. After that it is a matter of individual preference whether the parents continue having sexual relations. Semen does not seem to harm a child while it is in its mother's womb. After it is born, however, its parents should refrain from sexual activity lest the semen enter and contaminate the breast milk through cords that are thought to link the uterus and breast. This contaminated milk is spoiled and may make a child ill, especially if the semen is from a man other than the baby's father.

This notion, that semen is polluting to young children when they ingest it in breast milk, influences Lusi thought regarding postpartum sexual abstinence and the practice of wet-nursing. All the Lusi with whom I talked agree that the parents of a young child who is totally dependent on its mother's milk should refrain from sexual intercourse. This restraint should continue until the child has achieved a certain independence, variously expressed as when it is old enough to tell its parents of its dreams or when it is old enough to gather shell fish or try to spear small fish in the shallows: about three years of age. When a child has reached this stage, people anticipate no problems should a mother have another baby. In fact many women opined that this was the ideal spacing of children.

Wet-nursing is a long established practice in Kaliai. My older informants said that traditionally a child, whose mother had died or who was otherwise unable to suckle it, was either passed around among nursing women or adopted by a lactating mother whose child had recently died. Today such children can be fed by bottle with formula obtained from the medical centers, and they may be kept by their parents or adopted by close kin. Wet-nursing services are usually exchanged between women who are closely related: sisters, sisters-in-law, mothers and daughters. These women (and their husbands) already have a parental relationship with the child who will call them "mother" (or "grandmother") and go to them for food. Other women, especially those who do not have close relatives living in the village, would not consider wet-nursing because, they say, the milk of another woman might be "dirty" (contaminated with semen) and make their babies sick.

Semen is not the only substance that can contaminate mother's milk. Older Lusi say that when they were young there were many foods, particularly red- or yellow- fleshed fish, giant fruit bats, and wallaby, that pregnant or lactating women and their husbands might not eat because that the fetus or nursing infant might assume specific undesirable characteristics of these animals. (Also see Conton 1983 for discussion of similar Usino beliefs) For example, if either parent ate the flesh of the flying fox the child might be mentally defective or it might shake and tremble as the animal does, or it might be unable to sit at the normal time because the animal does not sit erect. A pregnant woman did not eat wallaby because the child might develop epilepsy and have seizures during the full moon, and the mother might have false labor. Neither parent ate the flesh of this animal lest the legs of the child be weak and underdeveloped in imitation of the front legs of the creature. I know of no one who follows these taboos today, but the fact that both parents were prohibited from eating certain kinds of food suggests that the Lusi tacitly recognize several things:

(1) A pregnant woman shares substance (including some part of the food she eats) with her developing child.

(2) Food eaten by a man enters his semen. This, in turn, contaminates a lactating mother's milk when the couple has sexual intercourse.

(3) Parents of infants were not expected to obey totally the postpartum taboo on sexual intercourse, otherwise there would have been no reason to place food restrictions on the father.

Children, Feeding, and Daily Activities

Infants are fed on demand and children of all ages snack frequently during the day instead of being limited to two or three large meals. Children nurse as often and for as long as they like and are offered the breast at the first sign of discomfort. The practice of using food to comfort continues throughout life. In later childhood a weeping child who is crying for no obvious reason is asked, "Are you hungry?" When a person is ill or dying, concerned relatives attempt to provide him with favorite foods. There is no notion that crying is good or healthy for infants or that picking up, feeding, or otherwise comforting a crying baby will somehow spoil it. Both women and men attend immediately to an infant's needs but, as children grow older and less dependent and their needs become more complex, parents and older siblings become hardened to their crying. Many children of three or four years of age throw temper tantrums which are, by and large, ignored. Indeed, to paraphrase Harrell's observation about a Taiwanese community, the howling of toddlers is so common in the village that one learns to tune them out as background noise, in a class with buzzing outboard motors and agitated pigs Harrell, 1981).

Kaliai villagers seem to have little compelling need for personal privacy, and there is no feeling that adults require their own space and time apart from children. Infants share their mother's sleeping mat, and young children sleep beside their parents. Residence in Lusi-speaking Kaliai villages is ideally virilocal, and married couples nowadays live in individual family households, but women are not isolated by this residence pattern. They spend much of their time outdoors: gardening, cooking in open cook houses, sitting on their verandas or on the ground beneath or beside their homes. Women, especially sisters and sisters-in-law, share tasks, often under the direction of a mother or mother-in-law. Children in this environment move freely among women whom they call mother or grandmother, and may go to any of them for food. Brown's characterization of women's labor accurately describes the Kaliai: women's tasks are by-and-large repetitive, interruptable, and nondangerous (Brown 1970). The pace of village life is relaxed, so that the demands of a hungry infant do not disrupt a woman's routine, and the value placed on the defining act of motherhood - giving food to a hungry child - is so important that there are few things that could compete successfully with it for mother's attention. A nursing mother is not idle, for there are many handiwork tasks, such as mat making, basket weaving, making shell money, that a woman can do while she suckles her baby. Other work will be taken over by sisters and friends if it is urgent. Otherwise it waits while a child is being fed. Village women do not engage in non-domestic labor that separates them from their children. There are no organized adult activities that exclude children other than those reserved to initiated males; these occur in a context of ritual ceremony and are not an everyday affair. Children ordinarily go almost everywhere with their parents: to church services, on trading voyages or on trips to the town of Kimbe, and to all-night festivals of singing and dancing where they may participate in the activities until they grow tired and fall asleep on the ground. Mothers do occasionally leave young children at home when they go to distant gardens, but not usually before a baby is at least six months old and its diet has been expanded to include solid foods. The decision of whether to leave a child or take it along, and the choice of caretakers, is idiosyncratic. Some women often leave their children while other women almost never do. Some men regularly baby-sit, but children are usually left in the care of a female relative: grandmother, aunt, or older sibling.

Pregnancy, Weaning, Alternative Foods

As noted above, breast-feeding usually continues for a minimum of two years, for it is thought that a child who is weaned earlier will be slow to develop. Sammy was pointed out to me as an example of the deleterious effects on a child of early weaning. His mother became pregnant and ceased nursing him when he was about a year old. By the time he was eighteen months old all of his age mates were walking, and many of them were sufficiently adept to run after their older siblings. Sammy could still not stand alone, and his slow development was attributed specifically to his early weaning.

A nursling should be weaned after his mother misses her second menses and she is certain she is pregnant. If a child continues nursing longer, women agree, he will likely become ill. Instead of the breast the child is given the liquid of green coconuts, water, and soup as the liquid component of his diet. Most children are weaned because their mothers become pregnant again, but if pregnancy does not occur the length of time a woman permits her child to nurse is a matter of individual preference. For example, one young woman tired of nursing her third child when he was two years old and weaned him by leaving him in the care of a relative while she went to the gardens for several days. The child screamed most of the first three nights, but by the end of a week the mother's milk had dried up and the child had adjusted to drinking coconuts and water. Another woman, middle aged, permitted her eighth child to nurse until she was about six years old and so preoccupied with her play and with other foods that she forgot about her mother's breast for a day or two at a time.

There is, except for bottles and formula provided by the medical center, no alternative to breast milk for very young infants. Powdered and canned milk are sold in the nearby plantation store, managed by whites, but not at village trade stores, and no village woman buys milk for her children. The plantation trade store manager reported that she sold milk to the plantation foremen who added it to their tea and coffee and, occasionally, to teachers from nearby local schools who gave it to their children. Village trade stores do carry Milo (a chocolate tonic drink powder) which women mix with water for their children, especially if they are ill. Sick children are also given hot sugar syrup to drink.

Infants are given their first solid food at about six months. The first foods are usually very ripe bananas or cooked sweet potato that mother offers her infant from a portion that she herself is eating. Other foods are then gradually added to the child's diet. The staple diet includes cooked foods such as sweet potatoes, taro, tapioc and plantains which are either roasted over coals or grated and baked with coconut cream; wing beans; a variety of greens; yams; recently introduced foods such as pumpkins, tomatoes, small green onions, green beans. Sea foods such as fish of many varieties and shell fish are readily available and are eaten two or three times a week. Game meats, chicken, and pork are available less often. Meals are ordinarily prepared once or twice daily, the main meal in the mid-afternoon or evening and a smaller breakfast if there are no cold foods left over. If there is no prepared food available, hungry children eat coconut, bananas, sugar cane, other available fruits such as pineapple, Malay apple, mango, or papaya, or biscuits purchased from the trade store. Children are not urged to "clean their plate." Instead, several children may eat from one dish, each child eating as much and as fast as it can in order to get its share. I have never seen a child of any age refuse food, even if it was not complaining of hunger. By the time they are four or five years old, children are allowed to consume almost everything that adults do, including areca-betel-lime mixture and tobacco. The exception is alcoholic beverages which are restricted to adult males.

The most important change in child nutrition that has occurred since I first began research in Kaliai in 1966 is due to the availability of European foods. In 1966 there were no successful village trade stores and, therefore, little access to European foods in Kaliai. Several times between 1966 and 1971 Kandokans attempted to organize a village store, but they were defeated by transport problems and closed in a few months. At that time the nearest supplier of wholesale goods for stock, and the closest copra marketing board where locally produced copra could be sold, was Rabaul, about 300 miles to the northeast. Copra often could not be sold before it rotted, and depleted trade good stocks could not be replenished due to infrequent and unreliable transportation. As a result, the stores soon failed. The establishment of Kimbe changed this, for there are numerous wholesale suppliers and a copra marketing board located there and Kimbe is only a few hours travel from Kaliai by motorized canoe. Village entrepreneurs who own outboard motors are, therefore, no longer dependent on commercial transportation. The presence of Kimbe has made it possible for village trade stores to stock a steady supply of sugar, white rice, soda pop, tinned meat and fish, Milo, candy, and biscuits. Ready access to Kimbe has also made it possible for villagers to sell their copra more easily, thereby increasing their cash income. As a result, in 1981 the diet of most children included at least one of these items three or four times a week. This was not true in 1966.

It is too early to assess the effect of introduced foods on the health of the Kaliai people, for there are costs as well as benefits. In 1981 purchased foods supplemented rather than supplanted garden foods in the local diet. In 1982 there was a serious drought in northwest New Britain. My correspondents in the village reported that during this difficult time, many people relied almost entirely on purchased rice because their gardens failed. If this food had not been readily available, villagers might have gone hungry. On the other hand, the dental caries attributed to sugar-rich processed foods may more than balance their convenience during famine. In 1981 the people of rural Kaliai did not have ready access to dental .endnote care. There were, however, 13,287 dental examinations conducted in West New Britain in 1981 when the province ranked fourth in the number of dental examinations conducted in Papua New Guinea (Townsend, unpublished personal communication, 1983). .endend Extensive dental care was available, however, in the Kimbe area and it is notable that dental health services statistics for 1981 indicate that there were significantly fewer fillings and extractions in West New Britain than in the more affluent provinces (Townsend, unpublished personal communication, 1983). These data suggest that, for people with the money to buy white rice, pop, and sweets with empty calories, the presence of these foods is a mixed blessing.


Northwest New Britain is in the process of rapid social and cultural change, due primarily to the establishment of Kimbe. Introduced concepts disseminating into rural communities have change peoples' ideas about sexuality and procreation. The female breast, for example, is now a focus of erotic attention, and educated young people challenge the traditional notion that children are composed primarily of paternal substance. In spite of these changes, there has been no significant change in infant feeding practices. The ideology of nurture and the value of breast milk as the essence of maternal kinship continues to be a basic principle of Kaliai social thought and organization that overrides other considerations, such as the eroticism of the female breast. Consequently, all infants are normally breast fed, preferably until they are at least two years old. The only worry that village women express about the quality of breast milk is the possibility that it might be contaminated by semen. The idea that male sexual substances may be dangerous to vulnerable people, including young children, has been reported elsewhere in Papua New Guinea (Hogbin 1943; Faithorn 1975). It appears that there is a constellation of assumptions, found in Kaliai, which is widespread in Oceania (Tietjen 1983; Conton 1983; Jenkins, Orr-Ewing and Heywood, 1983; Obrist 1983; Akin 1983; Gegeo and Watson-Gegeo 1983; Morse 1983). These assumptions include:

(1) There is a physiological connection between uterus and breast that allows semen to enter a lactating woman's breast from her uterus.

(2) Mother's milk is contaminated if it is mixed with semen. This "bad" milk will make an infant sick.

This cluster of ideas seems to form the conceptual foundation for a number of customs related to infant feeding, including expelling the colostrum because it is "dirty" or "poison" and will make the infant ill; restrictions on wet-nursing which may be practiced either only among close kin or not at all; and the postpartum sex taboo. Clearly the factors influencing a mother's decisions about the way in which she feeds her baby are complex and may include notions about kinship, conception, and sexual contamination as well as concerns about nutrition and the appropriate allocation of her time and energy. Because these concepts may have practical consequences, especially for wet-nursing and the wastage of colostrum, research on child feeding practice must include the broader cultural context. If it is grounded in cultural understanding, education designed to allay women's fears about the contamination of colostrum and breast milk by semen could result in the modification or elimination of behavior that denies valuable nutrients to infants.


The research on which this paper is based was funded by grants from the U. S. National Science Foundation in 1966; the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the University of Waterloo in 1971; the Canada Council and sabbatical leave from the University of Waterloo in 1975-1976; and by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and sabbatical leave from the University of Waterloo in 1981. This is a revision of a paper that was presented at a symposium on Infant Care and Feeding in Oceania held at the 1983 meetings of the Association for Social Anthropology in Oceania, organized by Dr. Leslie Marshall. My thanks to her and to other members of the symposium, and to Pat Townsend of the Papua New Guinea Institute of Applied Social and Economic Research for their helpful criticisms of earlier drafts of this paper. All personal names used in this paper are fictitious.


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