Crucial Contributions

Human Nature 30 (4):371-397 (2019)
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Maternal grandmothers play a key role in allomaternal care, directly caring for and provisioning their grandchildren as well as helping their daughters with household chores and productive labor. Previous studies have investigated these contributions across a broad time period, from infancy through toddlerhood. Here, we extend and refine the grandmothering literature to investigate the perinatal period as a critical window for grandmaternal contributions. We propose that mother-daughter co-residence during this period affords targeted grandmaternal effort during a period of heightened vulnerability and appreciable impact. We conducted two focus groups and 37 semi-structured interviews with Himba women. Interviews focused on experiences from their first and, if applicable, their most recent birth and included information on social support, domains of teaching and learning, and infant feeding practices. Our qualitative findings reveal three domains in which grandmothers contribute: learning to mother, breastfeeding support, and postnatal health and well-being. We show that informational, emotional, and instrumental support provided to new mothers and their neonates during the perinatal period can aid in the establishment of the mother-infant bond, buffer maternal energy balance, and improve nutritional outcomes for infants. These findings demonstrate that the role of grandmother can be crucial, even when alloparenting is common and breastfeeding is frequent and highly visible. Situated within the broader anthropological and clinical literature, these findings substantiate the claim that humans have evolved in an adaptive sociocultural perinatal complex in which grandmothers provide significant contributions to the health and well-being of their reproductive-age daughters and grandchildren.



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