With my new found Dominican friend and her little baby, it wasn’t long before we started commenting on the things we did differently. Mothers love to compare and give advice, people from different countries also love to do the same. There are always new fads and new fears in child raising. Here are some of my notes based on my observations and conversations with moms in the Dominican Republic about the differences in how babies are cared for between the US and the Dominican Republic:
1. Dominican babies are put on their stomach to sleep. American babies used to be too, doctors used to tell parents that is was safer because of the risk of babies choking on their spit-up. Now doctors in the US are adament about putting babies to sleep on their back because they say it reduces the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). The “Back to Sleep” campaign was launched in 1994, and, in my experience, was heavily pushed by our pediatrician in the US as the only safe way to put our baby to sleep — anything else would make you an irresponsible parent. So it was a little of a surprise to me to see my responsible mother friend put her baby to sleep on her tummy. This message apparently didn’t reach the Dominican Republic. When I asked her about it, she simply responded that her baby liked to sleep on her stomach (as many do). As a result of spending more time on their stomachs, Dominican babies seem to roll over and crawl earlier than their American counterparts.
2. Dominican mothers who breastfeed seem to supplement with formula more. Mothers were supportive when they saw me breastfeeding, telling me that it is best and helps keep a baby from getting sick. But when they found out I never gave Petra formula in a bottle they were a little surprised. All the breastfeeding mothers I observed supplemented breastfeeding with formula. When asked about this they confirmed that it was the most common way of feeding a baby in the Dominican Republic, or, if they did not supplement with formula, they at least pumped breast milk and fed through a bottle.
The reason they gave for this was simple enough: they weren’t with their babies all the time. This could have been a fault with my research, as we lived in the central area of town and pretty much all the mothers I talked with were working mothers. It might have been different in the countryside. But even the moms with older children who lived a little outside of town were surprised and a little worried to hear that Petra only got milk solely from my breast.
“But what would happen if you needed to go somewhere?” they asked me. I shrugged.
I am a traveler. I have nowhere to go.
3. In tandem with breastfeeding, Dominican mothers tend to start feeding their babies solid foods at five months old. We had just started giving Petra a little rice cereal at this point, but were a little weirded out by the boxed flakes of chemicals it seemed like we were giving her, so we did it a little irregularly. I admit what I did isn’t necessarily representative of the US, as lots of moms there start giving their babies solids at four months, but the food that is given at this age is still most commonly the boxed cereals. In the Dominican Republic, it was common for five month old babies to be eating bread, beans, fruits, crackers and cookies.
4. Babies didn’t go out doors much, they were kept inside almost all the time or at most in doorways. People were surprised to see me take Petra to the beach almost everyday. They were worried about too much sun. When it was cloudy they were worried it was too cold. If the weather was changing, they also worried, as this was yet another reason to keep babies inside as well. If babies were outside it seemed like they were in fast transit, going from home to the store or grandmother’s house, and they were usually always completely covered with a blanket so the sun’s rays could not touch them. The people in the Dominican Republic were hardly ever just paseando, going for a walk, with their babies.
5.When babies did go out they were almost always carried in arms, not baby carriers or strollers. Mothers were moderately concerned about the Ergo carrier we used with Petra. The primary concern seemed to be that it was bad for her hips.
6. When out of their homes with their babies, mothers in the Dominican Republic never seemed to be alone. When walking down the street, mothers almost always seemed to have another person (most commonly female) with them to help with their baby. Even if they were sitting outside their home or work with their baby there was almost always a friend or sister with them. It really struck me as different from the US, where you see women all the time pushing their strollers down the street alone.
Differences in Dominican and American child raising culture conclusion
Looking back at this, it strikes me as being amazing how big of a difference there is based on this final point: the mothers in the Dominican Republic are more use to sharing their child care taking responsibility with other people. This is the reason they want to supplement with formula, this is the reason they don’t need a baby carrier, this is how it’s possible to keep the baby at home most of the time.
The US is a very individualistic society, this is no different when it comes to child raising. We admire mothers who can do things for themselves, we don’t want to step on their toes or intrude on their care taking. Latin American societies are more communal, everyone helps or hinders in the child raising process, everyone is involved.