Posts Tagged ‘Extended Breastfeeding’

My Personal View on Extended Breastfeeding

Welcome to Part 4, the last segment of my Time Magazine blog series. Thanks for following along! If you’ve missed any posts, you can go back to read my response to Time’s cover, article, and to attachment parenting. Today I’ll be talking about my view on extended breastfeeding.

For sake of definition, “extended breastfeeding” generally refers to nursing a baby past 12 months, though some may reserve the term for those who nurse well into toddler-hood and beyond.

Why this post? First, Time Magazine’s cover of a mom breastfeeding her 3-year old son roused a lot of attention nation-wide, and I want to contribute to the discussion. Second, I’ve found myself defending extended breastfeeding among friends who thought it was gross or weird, when I never thought I’d be one of “those moms!” This post is helpful for my own sake in clarifying how I got to this point- because I never used to think extended breastfeeding was cool. My mind was changed little by little, over time and exposure to research.

Growing up, I always thought it was bizarre to hear about a woman nursing her toddler (and particularly boorish if the child was school-aged!). I guess this view grew from assumptions of those around me, because I never heard it from my parents. Regardless, when I was pregnant, I planned to breastfeed- I myself was breastfed (though I self-weaned before a year), and it only seemed natural to me. My initial goal was to make it at least 6 months, but I knew I’d be happier if I could make it to a year.

When I had my son, our breastfeeding relationship got off to a great start, not by any merit of my own. Any struggles I had with nursing were minimal. I loved nursing him, but I still thought extended breastfeeding was a little weird, though less so than before-mostly due to my care providers’ influence.

Months went by. I was reading several books for my doula certification (such as The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, The Baby Book, The Complete Book of Breastfeeding) and they discussed weaning in terms such as “normal,” “timely,” and “child-led.” Then they proceeded to talk about nursing babies not just in terms of weeks or months… but in years! Either all of these books were written by quacks, or there was something to this long-term nursing thing.

Since then, I’ve looked into “extended” breastfeeding more. And here’s just a taste of the supporting information I’ve found for it:

  • The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least 6 months, and then continued breastfeeding along with “nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods”  for up to two years or beyond.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends “exclusive breastfeeding for about the first six months of a baby’s life, followed by breastfeeding in combination with the introduction of complementary foods until at least 12 months of age, and continuation of breastfeeding  for as long as mutually desired by mother and baby.” (Check out the whole article entitled Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk in the publication Pediatrics. This is a superb read if you are looking for more evidence-based information about breastfeeding as the “normative standard” for infant feeding and nutrition.)
  • UNICEF states that, “It is well recognized that the period from birth to two years of age is the “critical window” for the promotion of good growth, health, and behavioral and cognitive development. Therefore, optimal infant and young child feeding is crucial during this period.” What do they define as optimal feeding? You guessed it- “Optimal infant and young child feeding means that mothers are empowered to initiate breastfeeding within one hour of birth, breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and continue to breastfeed for two years or more, together with nutritionally adequate, safe, age appropriate, responsive complementary feeding starting at six months.”
  • The American Academy of Family Physicians states that it is estimated that a normal weaning age for humans is between two and seven years, despite the fact that this is not the cultural norm in the US. The academy also states that, “The longer women breastfeed, the greater the decrease in their risk of breast cancer.” What a bonus!
  • One informative post by Stephanie Hanes quoted these amazing breastfeeding statistics: “In the southern African country of Malawi – one of Save The Children’s top ranked developing countries for moms – 77 percent of children are still breastfed at age two. That number is even higher in Bangladesh, where 90 percent of children still nurse, and in Nepal, where the number is 93 percent. Moms in India nurse 77 percent of their two-year-olds, and mothers in Rwanda are still breastfeeding 84 percent of theirs.” Wow!
  • Save The Children states that “Optimal feeding from birth to age two [which includes breastfeeding] can prevent an estimated 19 percent of all under-five deaths, more than any other intervention.” The Center for Sustainable Development echoes similar statistics.
  • Did you know that the US currently ranks last among 36 industrialized nations for breastfeeding support?  Perhaps this is part of why we have such a hard time wrapping our minds around nursing a baby for a year, much less beyond that.
  • Breast milk is not just about food. It’s true that toddlers may not need it to survive in our developed nation, but its immunity properties continue for as long as it is consumed. Contrary to popular misconception, it does not lose its value at any point. In fact, the immune protection in the milk actually increases as suckling frequency decreases.
  • Many point out that breastfeeding’s comfort qualities are also not to be brushed off easily. Jaime Lynne Grumet, herself nursed until she was six, remembered breastfeeding this way: “It’s really warm. It’s like embracing your mother, like a hug. You feel comforted, nurtured and really, really loved.” La Leche League often stresses that breastfeeding is one of our simplest, most accessible, and most effective parenting tools. Why be so swift to do away with it?

(All emphases mine.)

Wow. Suddenly all my sentiments of grossness are fading. It seems that major health organizations, as well as organizations promoting and providing for optimal well-being of children around the world are all in agreement: breastfeeding should continue for 12 months at the very least, and most recommend at least 2 years. The health benefits are absolutely phenomenal, not to mention various other benefits (just click on a few of the above links to find out more!).

This is not to guilt formula feeding mothers, or to pressure women who don’t feel that they can continue that long, or to scold mothers whose children weaned before a year. Rather, it is to inform those who find “extended” breastfeeding strange- or worse, “wrong” or “abusive.” Believe me, I used to be in the same boat as you! I’m not saying that you have to do it yourself. But please, consider international context and broader health recommendations when forming opinions about breastfeeding longer than our country’s average.

As for me personally? I weaned my son from daytime nursing when he was 13-15 months. He is currently 19.5 months and nursing once or twice in the early morning. This works well for our family, and I know he’s still getting the health benefits of my milk. Plus, it’s nice to still share that close snugly time with him once a day.

A bit of anecdotal evidence for the health benefits of extended nursing: whenever my son’s playmates are sick, he either never catches the bug, or if he does he has a very mild and short case of it compared to his non-nursing friends. My son has only been markedly sick a total of four times in his life, only one of which was anything to write home about. Obviously, I cannot guarantee that every nursing toddler would have the same results.

None of this is meant to boost myself as “more of a mom” than anyone who weaned earlier- remember, I employed “mommy lead” daytime weaning at 13 months because I was just feeling ready to be done with it at that point (though I felt comfortable continuing with one or two night/morning feedings). If that’s where you are- tired of handing your breasts over all day- there is no judgment here.

While I would not try to talk anyone into nursing longer than they were comfortable doing so, I do want to share my experience in hopes to encourage those who are considering nursing longer, despite cultural pressures to the contrary. I also hope that some of the links and information above will help you find what is best for your child and your family in your own nursing  journey.

How long will I continue nursing my son? I’ll be honest- I think I would be (mostly) okay with it if he weaned now. But, knowing what advantages breastfeeding has, I’m happy to continue nursing him til age two. I think at that point I’d probably work on actively (and lovingly) weaning him. But, then again, that’s what I said about the 18 month mark too. And here I am, still nursing. And, as my midwife’s assistant once said, motherhood is full of surprises and changed minds, and sometimes you find yourself doing something you originally never thought you’d do.

What do you think, ladies? How long did you nurse your kids, and why? Please share!

Photo Credit

Response to Time Magazine’s Cover

This portion of the series does not address my personal response to attachment parenting, and does not represent my complete views on extended breastfeeding. Please stay tuned for future posts on these topics.

Welcome to Part 1 of my series on Time Magazine’s cover story on Attachment Parenting. Today, I will write my own personal response specifically to the cover of the magazine. I know I posted the picture in my last post, but let’s post it again here so we’re all on the same page.

Let’s start with the positive, then move on to the negative. Lastly, I’ll address some common reactions.

What’s Good About It?

One thing that could be considered good about this photo is that puts both extended breastfeeding and public nursing into mainstream media. I am all for normalizing both of these (so long as they are done appropriately and respectfully to those around you). Our culture as a whole is very unfamiliar with the idea of nursing longer than 12-18 months or so- and many United States residents are uncomfortable with actually seeing a woman nurse her baby- so this photograph could be a way to help some people make the mental transition to the idea that this is a normal occurrence in many places all over the world.

What’s Bad About It?

The Picture is Misleading.

The very nature of this photo- the pose of the mom, the boy standing on the chair, the facial expressions- all of it has sparked heated controversy among formula feeding moms and breastfeeding advocates alike. Why? Many say this pose isn’t really what regular breastfeeding is like- “extended” or not! On a chair? Hands on hips? No, this pose doesn’t display the typical nurturing, snuggling, intimate feel of breastfeeding that we are used to.

In fact, the photographer who did the shoot said in a report, “When you think of breast-feeding, you think of mothers holding their children, which was impossible with some of these older kids,” Schoeller says. “I liked the idea of having the kids standing up to underline the point that this was an uncommon situation.” However, the fact is that older kids can still be snuggled  by their mamas, nursing toddlers are less uncommon than one might think, and not all “extended nursers” are doing it provocatively on the front cover of a magazine.

I think this cover photo will probably turn many people off to extended nursing, rather displaying it as a normal part of life for many women all over the world. I believe the shocking nature of the cover will tend to mask any useful information on the subject. I liked some of the other photos from the cover shoot better because they weren’t as sensational, but none were nearly as natural as seeing a woman doing it on her own turf.

The Title is Offensive.

“Are you mom enough?” screams out at us from the front cover. Ouch. Especially around Mother’s Day. Double Ouch. To me, this is ridiculous. Most attachment parents that I know aren’t going around strutting their stuff, looking down on other moms for weaning at 9 months instead of 2 years. (And if they are, it’s an attitude problem- not a parenting style problem.) This title isn’t a billboard for attachment parenting and it’s not reflective of the attitude of many women who practice it- but it certainly attracts attention from many readers. This, I suppose, must have been the intended reaction. Selling is key, and unfortunately, stirring up controversy and misrepresentations is one way to make this happen. (Gag.)

The Caption Raises Misconceptions.

“Why attachment parenting drives some mothers to extremes- and how Dr. Bill Sears became their guru.”

This seems to suggest that the practices of attachment parenting are extreme- nursing beyond the “normal” 12 months, wearing your baby most of the day, and sleeping with your baby- when in fact, many of these practices are very common around the world. A friend of mine from Uganda asked me once, “Why do you put the babies in their crib here? In Africa, we sleep with them!” Look at pictures of women all over the world, and many of them are working while carrying their babies in slings or wraps on their back- in fact, one of my husband’s employers, who was from South Africa, mentioned this very thing to me once while I was wearing my son. A woman in Australia commented once, “[Here] we have much higher rates of breastfeeding & now I completely know why. If I am out to lunch & my child wants to be fed I feed him!! I DON’T COVER UP I DON’T GO TO ANOTHER ROOM OR WORSE THE TOILET, no I feed my child where I am because he is hungry & because he has every right to be fed straight away.” One conservative Christian man I knew from Portugal didn’t have a second thought about seeing a nursing mother. When I was in Austria, I think I recall a toddler running up to his mother for a drink at a public square. The examples go on and on…

I’m not saying that mothers have to employ these parenting practices by any means, or that they are superior to others. I simply want to convey the point that they are not extreme, and that the U.S. is probably in the minority in their employment of the practices Dr. Bill Sears suggests.

Secondly, I don’t like that Time poses Sears as a “guru” for “extreme” mothers. While I’m not out to defend the now-infamous doctor, I will say that Sears never claims that you have to employ every single attachment practice at all times. In fact, Sears said in his response to Time Magazine’s article, “Attachment parenting is not an all-or-nothing, extreme, or indulgent style of parenting.  I advise moms and dads that the seven Baby B’s (birth bonding, breastfeeding, babywearing, bedding close to baby, belief in baby’s cries, beware of baby trainers, and balance) are starter tools (remember, tools not rules) to help parents and infants get to know each other better.  And families can modify these tools to fit their individual family situation.” I can see how some women might take these tools a little too far, but I don’t think that Sears’ intention was to drive anyone over the edge. More on this to come in my personal response to attachment parenting.

Common Reactions

“It’s Porn” or “That’s Gross.”

Uhhh, no. Actually, it’s a breastfeeding mother. It’s definitely not porn, nor is it “disgusting.” This is a picture of a normal way to feed and comfort your child. Provocative? Sure, I could see that- but only really because of the pose they assumed. But honestly, the cover only turned my head because I was surprised to see something like that in such a major publication. Other than that, the scene of a mother nursing her child seems totally normal to me.

One probable reason for this viewpoint is the over-sexualization of the breast in our culture, as one fun-poking post addressed (Warning: the picture for this one may be more shocking than Time Magazine’s photo). We’ve lost the ability to see it as a nurturing part of our body, and many people are left awkward at the sight of a breastfeeding mother. I see this as an unfortunate predicament, and one that I struggle with frequently- how do I normalize public breastfeeding without causing offense by making onlookers uncomfortable? (I know this very topic is  debated- but that’s another post entirely…)

Stork Stories drew a striking contrast between risque photos (that most of us don’t take a second glance at) and public breastfeeding that offends many. Enjoy Birth defended the position that breasts are not for entertainment purposes alone. My point is not to try to convince all of you to start publicly breastfeeding, but rather to show that our culture accepts MANY sexual images as normal but has a difficult time accepting breastfeeding. This, to me, is backwards, and is a real cause for some of the unease many readers are finding in Time Magazine’s cover photo.

The Mother Should Have Protected Her Son

I can agree with this point of view, but I think this is also because of the oversexualiztion of the  breast in our culture. Regardless though, whether or not this should be the case, the fact of the matter is that it is the state of our culture. This is the reason that I don’t personally force public nursing- because I know it’s naive to think that no one will be looking at my son and me in a wrong, perverted way. Likewise, even though people shouldn’t look at this mother and her son in that way, there may be some who do. It hurts me deeply that this is the case, and yet, the truth of it restrains me from fully supporting the photo on the front of Time, well-intentioned as it may have been. It’s that catch-22 again- I want to work towards changing the culture to be more accepting of public nursing, and yet I don’t know how to do that without working through these serious obstacles. Arrg! Again, that’s another whole post…

It’s Great! More Power to Her!

I can understand this reaction too, and I am glad that this mother has kept nursing her son happily so long. I take absolutely no personal offense at the photo, but the misconceptions that have risen over the cover are disconcerting. This is not the model’s fault so much as Time Magazine’s for painting both extended and public nursing in such a controversial light.

As much as I would love to be overjoyed at the sight of public nursing going on in mainstream media, the reasons I have listed throughout this entire post keep me from being able to truly support Time’s new cover. I think I would support a cover photo of public nursing if it was more respectful, more “real life,” and perhaps a bit more subtle, because it would probably cause less offense, less uproar, and more transfer of helpful breastfeeding information. (But that probably wouldn’t sell as much, right?)

What are your thoughts on Time Magazine’s new cover? I love hearing differing viewpoints and lively (though kind) discussion. Ready, set, go!