ControverSunday: Extended Breastfeeding

I’m a big fan of the ControverSunday blogging event that occurs every week, thanks to FFF Perpetua (and if you haven’t already, I encourage you to check out her blog – she links to everyone who participates, and it’s a great way to take part in some healthy debate and discover like-minded bloggers). This week’s topic is “extended breastfeeding”, which is obviously an appropriate topic for this blog – so here we go, joining in the fun…

Extended breastfeeding is such a hot topic, that even the terminology itself can inspire fiery debate. ” ‘Full term’  breastfeeding… is considered a less arbitrary term than “extended” breastfeeding because by the definition of ‘full term’, if the child is self-weaned or gently weaned past a year, as is the historical and biological norm, then he or she has nursed for the entire duration of one’s natural development,” explains blogger Melodie at BreastfeedingMomsUnite.com (her post is actually a really thoughtful piece on why this alternate term may do more harm than good; definitely worth reading). I’ve seen other articles stating that extended nursing is defined as breastfeeding past what is considered “the norm” in your area; using that logic, here in Los Angeles, I would say that anything past 2 years might raise a few eyebrows (but not as many as only nursing for what used to be a perfectly acceptable 3 months.) But I am well aware that in many parts of the United States, mothers are made to feel like circus freaks if they deign to breastfeed once their children cut teeth. It’s all relative.

Before FC was born, we were sitting at a local restaurant enjoying a pregnant brunch. I say “pregnant brunch” because I feel the need to justify the amount of food laid out on our table. French toast, eggs, orange juice, decaf coffee with several spoonfuls of sugar, a side of granola… and that was just for my husband. Kidding. The decaf was for me.

Anyway, at the table next to us sat a couple and their young son. He must’ve been about 4; he was sitting in a “real” chair (no booster or high chair), drinking a Coke. Since we were several months away from giving birth to a son ourselves, I was watching the kid carefully; all little boys had become either cautionary tales or hopeful inspiration since finding out FC’s gender.

He wasn’t the best behaved little dude; but then again, he was 4, and stuck in a restaurant, which I’m sure is boring as hell for kids of that age. Those waxy crayons and sub-par coloring sheets they give you at family establishments are poor substitutes for running around at a playground or playing cops and robbers or what have you. His mom was basically ignoring his whining, and she barely looked at him… until he got up out of the chair, drained his Coke, hopped into her lap, pulled up her shirt and began to nurse.

I’ll admit it: I nearly choked on my orange juice. (Serves me right. What pregnant woman in her right mind orders an OJ first thing in the morning? Can we say heartburn? Stupid pregnant FFF.) There was just something intrinsically wrong with the scene I was witnessing. I remember thinking that while I was excited to breastfeed my soon-to-be-born child, I would definitely be cutting him off by a year, tops. Or at least as soon as he could order a Coke.

Now, almost 2 years later, I think back to that judgmental version of myself and cringe. Because now I know how it feels to be judged. How a stranger’s eyes can burn into the back of your head; how you feel the need to look around and measure the vitriol in the room before continuing to feed your child. Yes, my shame might come from the polar opposite behavior, but whether it’s a bottle or a breast that is deemed inappropriate, the effect is the same.

We had dinner with another couple last night, and the husband was poking fun of the wife for her plans to “nurse until their child was in high school.” I got a bit snippy with him. I feel fiercely protective of this friend, who has been getting crap from her family about several of her parenting decisions – mostly her choice not to wean at a year despite being a working mom (the fact that her son won’t drink anything but water if my friend isn’t available to him – a situation which applies to much of the working week –  is provoking some i-told-you-so’s from her in-laws) and to co-sleep (much to her husband’s consternation). I am so in awe of this particular friend; she is an amazing mother and teacher and friend, and the type of person who never makes anyone feel bad about his/her choices; she is confident enough in her own decisions to shrug off the criticism and not demand that everyone follow her same philosophies. She’s the person I think about when it comes to breastfeeding policy and advocacy – if anyone ever made her feel bad about doing what is best for her and her amazing, independent, perfect little boy, I would scratch that individual’s eyes out.

I don’t think I would feel the least bit of discomfort if I saw her nursing her son at the age of 5. So why do I give extended breastfeeding strangers a second glance?

I expect it has more to do with what I assume about them from this behavior. If they are that committed to breastfeeding, then I assume they fit a certain profile. (FFF Brooke recently discussed this in her post on attachment parenting). I assume that they judge me for my decisions; that they are breastfeeding longer than most to prove a point; that we probably wouldn’t get along.

Then again, like my junior high English teacher used to say, when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.

I have a feeling that most extended breastfeeders are nothing like what I, in my weak moments, would expect. I bet most of them are like my friend. And they are probably also pretty sick of being judged, just like we formula feeders are. It seems that in this country, at least, you can only win the Good Breastfeeding Mom Award if you nurse for the standard year. Any less, or any more, and you’re made to feel like a selfish, negligent parent – for different reasons, of course, but the end result is the same. I’ve seen people comparing breastfeeding an older kid to child abuse; formula feeding moms have dealt with the same accusation. I’ve heard people call extended breastfeeding “selfish”, saying that the mother is trying to infantilize her growing toddler. And as we all know too well, formula feeding is synonymous with self-serving behavior in many people’s minds.

I’m not sure what my point is here, exactly… I guess it’s that being an FFF is not just about defending formula feeding. It’s about defending the right for ALL mothers to feed their babies (or toddlers) in the best way they see fit. Don’t get me wrong; it’s understandable to feel uncomfortable seeing something you’re not used to seeing. We don’t see many walking, talking, kids still nursing in this country; it’s just not the norm. I doubt it will ever be. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good choice for certain families, and hey, if it works for them, then that’s all that matters.

On the other hand – and I unfortunately think I must add this caveat – I don’t think it’s fair for extended nursers to insist that everyone embrace their choice, because it just doesn’t fit within the puritanical, buttoned-up constructs of our Western society.  But do you really need everyone to embrace that choice? I don’t expect everyone to agree with my feelings about bottle feeding, because that also doesn’t fit with a certain characteristic of our society – the tendency we have to romanticize motherhood, expect perfection out of women, and to want an easy fix for all of society’s ills.

And yet, as formula feeders well acquainted with the effects of judgment and derision, I would hope that we could all do our part to support extended breastfeeders. It is a parenting choice like any other, and it needs to be protected.

It’s our babies. Our bodies. Our lives.

That’s all. Go on with your regularly scheduled Sunday. I’m off to catch up on this season of Big Love… now that family’s got real problems…

Suzanne Barston is a blogger and author of BOTTLED UP. Fearless Formula Feeder is a blog – and community – dedicated to infant feeding choice, and committed to providing non-judgmental support for all new parents. It exists to protect women from misleading or misrepresented “facts”; essentialist ideals about what mothers should think, feel, or do; government and health authorities who form policy statements based on ambivalent research; and the insidious beast known as Internetus Trolliamus, Mommy Blog Varietal.

Suzanne Barston – who has written posts on Fearless Formula Feeder.


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19 thoughts on “ControverSunday: Extended Breastfeeding

  1. I'd be much more concerned about a 4 year old drinking Coke than I would about the BF.

    Last week, a friend witnessed a woman nursing her 3 year old in Ikea and posted something on Facebook about it being “so wrong.” And she's my friend, but I found it so sad that in this day and age of horror and violence and the incredibly despicable things that humans do to each other, that a woman feeding her child was “wrong.” I'm far more offended by butt cracks, loud cell phone talkers, and people who spit and/or curse than I am by breastfeeding.

  2. I really wish I could be as open-minded about nursing a five-year-old, but I just…can't. I'm constantly trying to figure out why that is, and I haven't had any luck.

    If there isn't anything sexual about breastfeeding (and there isn't) then why is it weird? I guess it would be just as weird as seeing a five-year-old drinking from a bottle. It just seems like a stifling of growth and independence. I wouldn't bat an eyelash at a two-year-old, though, so I don't really know what the cut off is for my own personal comfort level.

    Not that my comfort should matter to anyone. Like, you said, if it works for your family…

  3. I saw a three or four year old nursing at the science museum a few weeks ago, and it bothered me that it bothered me. The fact is, it still bothers me, and that still bothers me. I'm pretty sure it's just because I'm jealous that I didn't have that option. It seemed unfair to me, I guess that a three or four year old who arguably didn't NEED breastmilk was able to access it so readily while my newborn wasn't able to access mine with anything resembling ease, ever, and that I had to break my back pumping for nearly six months to get him the good stuff for as long as I could manage to. Honestly, just about all of it comes down to jealousy for me.

  4. I wish I knew what my issue is. I have been nursing for a full year now. Maybe it's because I never really fell in love with it, never really felt any additional bond because of it, that I have a hard time picturing doing it any longer than I “need” to.

    I guess if it's a bonding thing for other moms and babies, then why stop at a year? But, I still feel weird about it. Again, not that anyone need give a crap how I feel.

  5. Aw, thanks for the intro! You rock.

    Kathleen brings up an interesting point about jealousy. I experience that feeling too. The way I'm getting through it is by considering myself an active, public example of a “good mother” who formula feeds. Because, yes, in the past, I would see someone bfing at a restaurant and get pissed that it wasn't me. But now, I figure it's my job to be confident and competent, not just for other moms like me who feel bad about themselves sometimes, but for the more judgmental bfing folks who need to un-learn that attitude.

    Though it DOESN'T help when you have a friend who says your baby is “skinny” because you feed him formula, and her cousin's 3-month-old is bigger than your 10-month-old because he's breastfed. Grrrrrrrrr. 🙁

  6. I would like someone to address the sentiment that mothers who do extended breastfeeding (by extended I'm thinking 2 yrs plus) are doing it for their own benefits/needs and not the child's. I hear this often, and I'm not sure what to think about it.

  7. Interesting that you should post this now. My son is 22 months, and as I just emailed you, FFF, he is still nursing. But recently on the Booby Brigade listserv, a whole bunch of us were complaining about our almost two-year-olds nursing, and how could we make them stop??? I mean, it really gets to be quite draining (uh, no pun intended).

    And if you think strangers' looks are daunting, well, try disconsolate howling in public from your own child. It's tough. It's enough to make you let the kid crawl into your lap at a restaurant. (But no amount of howling would make me let him have a Coke, so maybe I need to just steel myself.)

    Actually I've closed the door on public nursing. So I finally did get that far, at least. But I've nursed my son in the doctor's office, and people look the other way. I think it does freak them out. Thing is, he's almost two, but he's enormous. So it looks like I'm nursing a three-year-old. Who talks like a 22-month old. Yeah, it makes me wonder what people must be thinking about us.

    Booby Brigade is such a hangout for attachment parenting types, so the last time I posted an, “OMG, how do I wean already???” post, I got a bunch of smug responses about how wonderful breast feeding toddlers is. I'm not sure what was different in tone about my friend who started this most recent thread, but it brought a bunch of us out of the closet, all desperate to quit and worried we'd still be BF-ing until our kids turn four or five.

    So not all of us “extended” BFers are smug. Some of us are just trapped. It's not my choice. It is absolutely my son's. I was ready to wean at one year, but he refused cow's milk and all other milk substitutes.

    One of my fellow Rational Moms weaned on purpose at 6 months onto formula. I think I might have been her negative example, as she saw what I went through at the year mark. It certainly would have been easier to get my son off the boob earlier in that year. I was determined to make the year, and then once we got there, I was dragged into the second year.

    I'm making it sound worse than it is. All this negative language doesn't do justice to those little cuddly moments when I'm nursing the kiddo, and those moments are delightfully sweet. I really don't mind it, when I'm doing it. I love nursing. But I'm ready to stop and really don't see an end, which you know, starts to bug a person!

  8. The irony in my case is that the some of the extended breastfeeding moms I know (I'll call extended 12 months+ child)were actually a lot more sympathetic to my breastfeeding problem and my switch to formula than many of my other bfing counterparts. They know they are judged and know I am judged too and that is where we find our middle ground. They have been some of the best mom friends I have. Quite frankly, after my experience with breastfeeding I can't say I am jealous of them at all and many of them will tell me “I just want my body back to myself someday” As a matter of fact I believe I told my husband the other day I'll be super surprised with myself if I make it to 6 months next time around.

    With that being said though there is also such a push to whip away the bottle from a baby once they are 12 months. Is there really hard proof that we need to stop at 12 months? I always sort of disagreed with this. My daughter was given the bottle until 14 months and then I brought it out again on our airplane flight when she was 18 months (what a lifesaver that was!)and surprisingly enough she went back to her cup again with no problem. I remember my little cousins having bottles until 18-24 months and they came out with good teeth, drink of cups, and got college degrees. It did seem like any ahrm was ever done. The studies seem more clear the babies that are left with the bottle in their mouth like bed or naptime are more likely to have the dental problems. So, I think it's very strange our modern culture have such clear cutoff ages on the bottle and breasts, but I do ponder one thing at what age is it really too old? That's the tough one for me.

  9. I'm definitely more disturbed by the four year old drinking soda than being breastfed. I have no problem with people breastfeeding as long as they wish to. I would just appreciate the same respect for my non-breastfeeding ways. We all do what is best for us 🙂

  10. Such a thoughtful comment Julie.

    The comment that gotten eaten apparently was about how I wrote about the social boundaries of nursing a 4 year old in public.

    I can only imagine how difficult it would be to have your toddler clamoring to nurse when you just want to be done.

  11. Thanks, Brooke. A friend of mine shook her head when I told her my son wakes up at 4 a.m. to nurse sometimes. He did stop that, by the way. But this friend said, “THAT's a choice.” And I was like, “Oh crap! This is like the sleep training thing! I'm totally a pushover!” But you know…this friend's son only ate strawberries and cheese until he was four. So…whatever.

  12. Although I believe people should mind their own business, especially with strangers, I think it's entirely legitimate to question whether extended breastfeeding is beneficial, whether it might interfere with healthy emotional development, or whether the mothers who do it do so to serve some emotional need of their own.

    (I can't be the only one thinking of the Little Britain sketch about “bitty.”)

  13. Michelle S.- I TOTALLY agree with you! I (sort of) hinted at that in my post, but I may have held back a little. Glad to hear someone say what I'm thinking. There is nothing wrong with questioning things like this. Sometimes we're so careful not to judge that we are afraid to speak up.

  14. Michelle and Megan,

    I hear where you are coming from and yes, I think it is totally reasonable to question. However, I think in the specific case of 'mothers who do it to serve some emotional need of their own' I would suggest the issue is not extended breastfeeding, but the emotional need. In that, even if they were not practicing extended breastfeeding, they would be doing something else to try and have their child meet their emotional needs. I also suspect this would be a very small minority of people, and I don't think that how a minority of people practices something makes the choice problematic by definition. Not that I am at all suggesting you are saying that. I am just sharing my thoughts.

    And yes, Megan, I totally agree that we are so careful not to judge that we are afraid to speak up. And that sucks.

  15. ” In that, even if they were not practicing extended breastfeeding, they would be doing something else to try and have their child meet their emotional needs. I also suspect this would be a very small minority of people, and I don't think that how a minority of people practices something makes the choice problematic by definition”

    Excellent points. You are so much smarter than me. Than I. Wait.

    See? 🙂

  16. Wonderful post!

    “I guess it's that being an FFF is not just about defending formula feeding. It's about defending the right for ALL mothers to feed their babies (or toddlers) in the best way they see fit.”

    YES! This is exactly my position, and I love love LOVE seeing others with this outlook. There is no one-size-fits-all parenting!

    Michelle, thanks for the “bitty” giggle. Been a while since I've seen that! 😀

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