People who think breastfeeding is weird or should only be done privately were disgusted. Even many who support breastfeeding lambasted Time for choosing a staged and provocative photo.
Some have criticized the mother, Jamie Lynne Grumet, for agreeing to the shoot. They ask whether she was taking advantage of an unwilling child, and what right did she have to embarrass her son’s future teenage self? Both questions relate to whether one sees breastfeeding as a normal part of parenting. Breastfeeding 4-year-olds is completely unremarkable in most parts of the world. If more preschoolers breastfed in our culture, and their mothers could talk about it, the child wouldn’t be any more embarrassed than he would be by a picture of him sucking on a pacifier. And you can’t force a child to nurse.
Some have pointed out that Time’s choice of cover image shows how much breastfeeding has become accepted. It took a huge child nursing in an awkward position to “shock” the public. Compare the 1997 controversy surrounding Keely Shaye Smith, Pierce Brosnan’s girlfriend, who nursed her tiny baby on the cover of the 1997 issue of Redbook. A non-breastfeeding version went to mail subscribers.
But I have been thinking most about this comment on my Facebook page from J. :
“I nursed till around 30 months and would always sit down and have a cuddle at the same time . . .”
While I admire mothers who ensure that breastfeeding is always an intimate and special time with a child, I prefer not to idealize it. Undivided attention is not a requirement for breastfeeding, which happens as a part of daily life, many times a day, in all kinds of positions and situations, often for only a few seconds.
The truth for many mothers who breastfeed preschoolers can be found somewhere in between the unnatural pose on Time’s cover, and gazing lovingly into a child’s eyes throughout the nursing session.
The discussion reminded me of an article by Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept. Liedloff’s book inspired a generation of “attached” parents. She explains why toddlers in some cultures, like that of the Yequana Indicans of South America, don’t have the separation issues and tantrums considered normal in our culture:
. . . the Yequana are not child-centered. They may occasionally nuzzle their babies affectionately, play peek-a-boo, or sing to them, yet the great majority of the caretaker’s time is spent paying attention to something else…not the baby! Children taking care of babies also regard baby care as a non-activity and, although they carry them everywhere, rarely give them direct attention. Thus, Yequana babies find themselves in the midst of activities they will later join as they proceed through the stages of creeping, crawling, walking, and talking. The panoramic view of their future life’s experiences, behavior, pace, and language provides a rich basis for their developing participation.
This idea—that children don’t need to be the center of attention—applies to children breastfeeding at all ages. Many years ago a mother called me after her second child was born. Her 5-year-old went wild every time she fed the newborn. I suggested that she read or talk to her older son while nursing the baby. But she wondered how she could do that: “I go into my bedroom with the baby, close the door, and turn on classical music.” She seemed surprised to learn that not everyone does it that way.
Sometimes breastfeeding involves special attention, but it is often a way for a child to make a quick connection or get a snack. No need to worry about the reasons. A 3-year-old’s desire to cuddle can wait some of the time, as can the desire to nurse. But they aren’t both always necessary at the same time.
I would not have nursed as long as I did had I felt obligated to drop whatever I was doing to go cuddle on the sofa.
And breastfeeding for any length of time doesn’t make you more or less “Mom.” Breastfeeding preschoolers is not special or sensational, and requires no more dedication than other parenting tasks. It’s actually a lazy way to parent—active weaning requires effort.
The greatest difficulty when breastfeeding an older child is dealing with real or perceived criticism from family, friends and strangers. I didn’t have relatives around to care, and anyone bothered could tell that this wasn’t up for discussion. I guess I can sympathize with the defiant look of the mom in the photo.
The only way that breastfeeding a preschooler makes you more “MOM” is that you develop a thick enough skin to continue doing what you think is right for your family, even when others thinks you are weird or extreme.
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