Forgive the vaguely amusing title, but perhaps it is necessary to counter the level of enmity and ire this issue seems to attract. It seems at a glance to be such a personal, small, mind your own business kind of thing and yet if there is one thing that is virtually guaranteed to divide any room of present or prospective mothers it is this.
When is it the right time for a mother to call last orders at the boob cafe?
It doesn’t take much to fan the flames of this debate. Take the Times cover piece, featuring a mother, Jamie Lynne Grumet, breastfeeding her then four year old child. She maintained in the accompanying article that it was likely she would continue to do so until the child was at least five. She defended her decision on the grounds of attachment parenting, which I’m sure anyone reading this blog or indeed parenting within its broad parameters are familiar with. She went further than this, suggesting adamantly, if all mothers lived on a deserted island (presumably she is referring to the lack of public opprobrium and the need for extra sustenance here) they would all do it.
Clearly this piece was obviously intended to provoke debate, which it did so in spades. In parenting terms the picture went nuclear, reactions ranging from merely vitriolic to alleging child abuse. My initial reaction of a child standing on a chair and latched to a boob was that it felt wrong in an ill defined way. The question is why does it stoke such controversy?
Of course women who breastfeed into a child’s early years would argue that the outrage exhibited is hysterical nonsense, a by-product of modern conditioning and that in actual fact there is nothing inherently wrong in this practice. They would no doubt expound the notion that each mother should be free to follow the dictates of her own heart and mind. And seems reasonable, which prompts me to wonder where do I really stand on the issue?
Firstly and perhaps more importantly, I would suggest to those women that do not breastfeed at all (those without psychological or physical impediments) are perhaps removing a natural source of immunity and health benefit for their child, not to mention the bonding and security that comes with the act. With that being said I would argue, based on the available literature, that there is little benefits continuing past a certain age and arguably has the potential for more harm.
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.
I would like to ask Jamie Lynne Grumet at what point she supplements the breastfeeding with food or how she manages the eventual weaning process? Does she initiate the breastfeeding by direct or subconscious prompts or is it entirely the will of her four year old? I fear that the child may look to please the mother in this way, which would be a peculiarly perverse dynamic. Indeed, there may be any number of unhealthy interactions playing out as the child gets older, involving elements of manipulation, calculation or control, which do not bode well for social development. If this is the case the act itself is not ‘natural’ or benign. It depends on intention and outcome and these are not always clear. Some have gone even further, equating the act of sustained breastfeeding with deliberately keeping a child in nappies or only allowing them outside in a stroller. I’m not necessarily agreeing with this , but there is a question to be answered. Is she, in some analogous way, unwittingly stunting her child’s natural development?
In truth, for all of this, the real issue here is why so many mothers are choosing not to breastfeed at all? I think front covers like Time perhaps overshadow the true concerns. They conflate the natural and positive act of breastfeeding with , what many see as, aberrant behaviour. This will only hamper positive discussion about such an important subject and will make those woman who breastfeed in the public eye discomfited and estranged.