Introducing Babies to Their Culture Through Food

Imagine being fed fish eggs or having a spoon of bright green nettles come your way.

What makes certain foods yummy? Has a doting adult played a game of “open the tunnel for the train or “here comes the plane?

You may be surprised to learn about two Native American women who are changing the way their babies eat.

In Alaska dietician Desiree Jackson leads the efforts to eat locally – and traditionally. She harvests seaweed, picks berries, and cans salmon.

Determined that her baby will be comfortable with native foods, she followed a traditional diet when pregnant.   It made it easier to offer him those foods after he was born as the first foods.

Desiree went on to say,  I’ve learned that the flavor of the amniotic fluid while pregnant can influence a child’s taste preferences as they grow into an adult. And I’ve learned that traditional foods are important at every life span, every cycle of our life.

When we look at maternal child health, we want to be eating traditional foods before we even think about getting pregnant because those are really nutrient dense foods that are going to give our body the building blocks to create a healthy baby.

Desiree feeds her son the same foods a killer whale would eat.

My son is 7 months old. His middle name is Kit, which means killer whale in our language. We feed him a lot like the killer whales eat here in Alaska. We feed him salmon, and seal, and a lot of our traditional Alaskan native foods.

Food introduces babies to their culture.

After I started my first job and realized that our children were eating less and less native foods but experiencing more diabetes, more obesity, I realized ‘there’s a problem here’. More of our kids are eating junk food, processed foods and they’re seeing these horrible health outcomes.  

I went to an elder conference and asked, ‘what can we do to solve this problem where our kids aren’t eating traditional foods and they’re experiencing these (bad) health outcomes? How can we address this?’

They told a story about how when babies are young, they hear sounds and they hear songs and it comforts them.  And the same goes with food.

Those foods are what they get a taste for,  for life.

It’s what comforts them. And so they told me basically that I needed to really focus on getting kids a taste for traditional foods for life.

Tlingit babies are not the only new humans being fed the reclaimed foods of their ancestors.

It’s happening all over the country.

Valerie Segrest , Muckleshoot Tribe from Washington State, had experienced the healing power of wild nettles when she was studying to be a nutritionist.

Years later, nettles were her baby’s first food.

Gia’s first food was nettles, just pureed nettles. And she loved them. I just remember her squealing and having this green, scary green face afterward, just making a mess, and so excited to be eating food. And for me, it just brought me full circle.

And Valerie echoed Desiree’s talking about the fetus getting used to certain tastes from the amniotic fluid. “The earliest intervention would be while you’re pregnant to be eating your traditional foods so that your baby’s taste pallet could become more familiar with those things.”

Familiarization with traditional foods continues on for new mothers.

As Valerie explained, Breast milk is the first food. And how important it is to breastfeed your child. Native American women actually have a really high rate of breastfeeding – a really cool part of our heritage.

There are a couple or powwows that are supporting breastfeeding women – you can go and feed with you baby with other women who are also feeding.

From the very beginnings what we eat defines who we are and it makes all the difference.

It is thrilling that all over the country Native women are re-discovering the power of traditional foods.

Babies are key to the survival and flourishing of our cultures.

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