There are times when I forget how sheltered I am working at a birthing center where most moms choose to breastfeed. Then there are days like today.
My Facebook page has blown up with various threads of comments regarding the oh-so-controversial Time Magazine cover depicting a mom breastfeeding her 3 year old son. Now I looked at the cover first and I had some definite thoughts, which I will discuss in part 2 of this post. Then I started scrolling through the comments and really started to feel sick.
There was a mix of disgust, shock and derision. The picture was categorized as pornographic, and the mom as emotionally needy and selfish. Some comments equated extended breastfeeding with the sense of entitlement today’s kids seem to have and some comments equated extended breastfeeding with a right wing conspiracy to keep women at home and out of the workforce.
What all of those comments say to me is that the general public is still in serious need of education about breastfeeding, its benefits to children, and what it is and isn’t.
Before I get to my explanation, let me say once again, like I’ve said before, if you chose to bottle feed or breastfeed for a few days or a few weeks or a few months, I completely support your parenting decision. This is not about vilifying anyone who isn’t nursing their 3 or 4 year old. I “only” nursed my kids 13 months and 15 months, and that felt right for me; I don’t feel guilty about not nursing longer. That said, there is nothing “gross”, “disturbing” or “abusive” about nursing an older child. It’s unusual in our society, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Here are a few points everyone should know about breastfeeding. (I know its long but PLEASE, PLEASE take the time to read.)
1.) Breastfeeding isn’t sexual. At all. – I don’t understand why this is such a hard concept. Yes, breasts are sexy; they are also functional. Women who have nursed understand that their breasts have two separate uses, both important. Can nursing be pleasurable? Yes, of course. There is a whole cascade of hormones that are released when nursing which cause a sense of well-being in the mom, no doubt an evolutionary mechanism to ensure babies got fed long before there was such a thing as formula. However, and this is a big however, a baby or child suckling is very different than when done by a lover. Breastfeeding is not sexual for the mom and certainly not sexual for the child. Seriously people, how many of you are turned on by your mom’s breasts?….I’m guessing the answer is no one, yet to someone at sometime, your mom’s breasts were sexy. I can see some of you gagging out there, but you know it’s true. Different relationships, different functions.
2.)Breastfeeding past infancy while not the cultural norm in the United States is normal and how our bodies are designed. –And until we, as a society, stop and look at the scientific evidence for breastfeeding and realize that there is value in supporting moms who want to nurse for whatever period of time works for them and their children, new moms will continue to have a high failure rate and “fringe” moms who breastfeed beyond infancy will feel shame and keep the practice hidden. Yet according to most, if not all, health organizations, breastfeeding can and should be encouraged, even beyond 2 years.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that “Breastfeeding should be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child… Increased duration of breastfeeding confers significant health and developmental benefits for the child and the mother… There is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.”(AAP 2005)
- The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that breastfeeding continue throughout the first year of life and that “As recommended by the WHO, breastfeeding should ideally continue beyond infancy, but this is not the cultural norm in the United States and requires ongoing support and encouragement. It has been estimated that a natural weaning age for humans is between two and seven years. Family physicians should be knowledgeable regarding the ongoing benefits to the child of extended breastfeeding, including continued immune protection, better social adjustment, and having a sustainable food source in times of emergency. The longer women breastfeed, the greater the decrease in their risk of breast cancer.” They also note that “If the child is younger than two years of age, the child is at increased risk of illness if weaned.” (AAFP 2008)
3. Extended breastfeeding has a measurable impact on the mother’s health as well as the child’s health.- There hasn’t been a lot of research into breastfeeding past two years, however the research that has been done so far shows that the same immune system benefits that babies receive while nursing continue throughout the nursing relationship. In the US where we are lucky enough to have decent healthcare and infection prevention, this may not seem like a big deal, but in other parts of the world extended nursing can save lives. In fact, the World Health Organization estimates that 10% of the deaths of children 5 and under would be prevented by continued breastfeeding. As if that weren’t enough, the longer a mom breastfeeds in her lifetime the lower her risk of breast, ovarian and uterine cancers.
4. Women who breastfeed in public are not trying to make you uncomfortable or make a statement.-Women who breastfeed in public are simply feeding their babies. I would love for someone to tell me why it’s acceptable for young girls to run around the mall in skimpy tops, but if a mom wants to nurse she should cover up or go to a bathroom because “no one wants to see that”. Most moms I know who nurse in public are very discreet, and don’t want to attract stares and attention. I have never in my life seen someone in public whip out a breast and leave it exposed for any amount of time. For the most part, a baby covers up far more of the breast than today’s fashion does. When a baby needs to eat, it needs to eat, and any mom should be able to feed her baby in any place without fear of reprisal. Personally, when I see a mom nursing in public I try to give her an encouraging word or smile because every time a mom nurses in public, it makes breastfeeding less out-of-the-ordinary and begins to normalize it.
5.Extended breastfeeding is not some new age-y parenting concept.-Actually, it’s the idea of breastfeeding only during infancy that is relatively new in the course of human history. From the La Leche League website:
In a study done of 64 primitive cultures in 1945, it was found that only one culture weaned their children as young as six months. Mothers in China and Japan still nursed their children for four or five years well into the 20th century. During World War II, Burmese children nursed until age three or four. Up until 1950 in Kenya, mothers nursed until five, and in Mongolia mothers nursed until two or three and sometimes as old as six and seven. In New Guinea during the 1960s, children were nursing freely up until two, three, and sometimes four years of age (Bumgarner 2000).
As explained in A Nursing Mother’s Guide to Weaning, Margaret Mead and other anthropologists discovered that mothers wean in the way and at the time that their cultures prescribe and that peaceful, cooperative societies tend to wean later using gentler methods. Furthermore, it has been estimated the median age of weaning throughout the world is between ages three and five. That’s years, not months.
Here’s the thing, we know that in modern society we’ve figured out how to survive without extended breastfeeding, but what we don’t know is what the lasting effects are. We may have guesses or opinions but in the absence of research, it’s all just conjecture. So what gives anyone the right to speak authoritatively about the detrimental effects of extended breastfeeding, telling moms they need to stop what they’re doing, or that they are damaging their children, when really it looks like the opposite may be true, contrary to our social mores? The answer I guess is that anyone has the right to say anything….but that doesn’t make it right.
Whew…..that’s a lot of information, and if you’re still with me I appreciate you taking the time to perhaps get a new perspective. Please share this post so that as many people as possible can hopefully learn something new. On Monday, I have a lot more to say about the picture that Time used, and especially the title of the article. See you then!