The World Health Organisation, for example, recommends infants are breastfed exclusively until they are six months old, and that breastfeeding continues until the age of two, complemented with other foods. I agree with the former recommendation. Breast milk boosts the immune system and breastfed babies are less likely to suffer from chest and ear infections, eczema and obesity in later life. However, despite the WHO recommendation, there appears to be little evidence of any health benefits beyond the age of one.
Dr Sears, a chief advocate of attachment parenting believes the act of prolonged breastfeeding is a healthy extension of this style of parenting. He champions the approach that mothers should breastfeed until they want to stop. This will help ensure, he maintains, that mother and child bond properly, which will foster better emotional health and make them calmer and more secure.
Now I can see this up to a point. Perhaps parents have been doing it this way for millennia, but we find ourselves in an age when this is not the norm. And this point is key. We are living in different times. We are malleable creatures, animals of mind not just body. It is in some ways analogous to the moral relativist that tries to justify present immorality by looking to the past. I’m not suggesting any immorality of course, but rather that looking to the past for affirmation is not always the best place to look. Simply put I think breastfeeding a child to school age is unnecessary, if not detrimental. A child will happily detach, with a little encouragement before this time and as a mother one always has to have in mind that one’s actions speak to the welfare of the child and not the need of the parent. We have to ask ourselves whose interests are being pursued? We revolve around the gravity of children like a planet around the sun. This is our role, but we need to allow them the space to break away in small ways and strike out on their own.
It’s interesting, given the furore the Time image provoked, that research by the Department of Health suggests that less than 75% of women breastfeed their young. Worse still this number falls to less than 50% between the six and eighth week after birth. Perhaps the real issue, amongst all this controversy, are the poor breastfeeding rates.
But to return to the subject above, it is clear that healthy toddlers naturally seek independence, conquering the fear that comes with separation and developing healthy detachment in order to allow them to explore the world around them. It’s not that parents are suddenly dispensed with. Lord knows, the first cut knee or disagreement with a friend will result in a frantic race back to them, but they need only be close not umbilically attached. The natural worry of many developmental psychologists is that breastfeeding in the manner described above inhibits these natural instincts.
For many children three is an age in which they are contemplating the socialising world of nursery, one in which they must, for a few hours at least, cope without their parents. This precipitates a need to potty train, feed themselves and so on, so that they can best adapt to their new circumstances. We encourage them to articulate their needs and feelings so they can voice them independently when necessary. One wonders what effect such extreme breastfeeding would have on these healthy developmental goals? On a biological note, one must also wonder why children develop teeth, if not to move on to solid food? On a personal level I’ve seen my son gnaw on a bottle. Heaven help the boob that is on the end of that chewing action.