Thursday, May 10, 2012

Extended Breastfeeding Controversy

By now, I'm sure most people have seen the "controversial" cover of Time Magazine featuring a woman breastfeeding her nearly four year old son.  In case you missed the cover photo or accompanying photos, here they are:

I admit to not reading the article since I am not a fan of Dr. Sears' (the focus of the article) "attachment parenting" philosophy.  I believe in his breastfeeding and baby wearing views but do not believe in co-sleeping (too dangerous) or alternative vaccination schedules.  I could write whole other blog posts regarding those topics so I'll just leave it there for now.

The "controversy" surrounding this photo center around "extended breastfeeding."  "Extended breastfeeding" is considered breastfeeding your child beyond a year of age.  I happily admit to exclusively breastfeeding (no solid foods or liquids other than breastmilk) my child until he was 6 months old and breastfeeding him until he was 22 months.  I was a big believer in "baby led weaning" and just let the baby nurse until he was ready to stop.  He stopped by himself at 22 months when I was 20 weeks pregnant.  Had I not been pregnant, I think I would have been comfortable nursing him until he turned two years old.

If my baby had not quit nursing, I would have been doing what the woman on the right is doing.  She is doing "tandem nursing."  "Tandem nursing" is nursing children of two different ages.  I was prepared to do that if my older child refused to quit nursing.  I was prepared to nurse him until he was 2 years old.  I had read a lot of information and guidelines from organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics (who recommended "breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant) and the World Health Organization which encouraged "breastfeeding until two years of age or beyond."  However, I personally used the two year old rule for myself since that was the age in which I could begin to remember things.  I wasn't comfortable with the idea of my son consciously remembering his breastfeeding experience.

With this in mind, does the cover photo make me uncomfortable?  I would have to say "yes."  As much of a proponent of breastfeeding as I am and as much as I tolerated comments from others saying my toddler was too old to breastfeed, I do find this a little unnerving and here's why.

Women are made to feel uncomfortable when they breastfeed in public.  Women are told to breastfeed in the bathroom or to hide in a corner.  Even facebook joined the controversy when they began removing photographs and freezing the accounts of women who posted pictures of themselves breastfeeding their children.  Mothers of "older" children are made to feel that this is "unnatural."  In other parts of the world, extended breastfeeding is considered the norm and even encouraged in areas where nutrition is poor.  However, in the US, extended breastfeeding is not considered the "norm" and such dramatic pictures only add to this "stereotype." Women are made to feel ashamed about a natural process that has been done for thousands of years.  I think if this photo shoot was done more "discreetly," it would lose it's shock value but lessen the vitriol the public has about public breastfeeding and extended breastfeeding.

I think pictures like the one on the cover of Time Magazine only help fuel the public's desire for women to be more discreet and to stop breastfeeding their "older" child.  I can understand as the mother of a little boy, the concern by some parents about their child witnessing public breastfeeding.  I can see myself being uncomfortable if he sees someone flagrantly nursing in public and asks me about it when he's a little older.  I can understand some people's concerns about someone doing it so openly.  I saw a woman openly breastfeeding her toddler (without a cover) in the middle of the grocery store while she continued grocery shopping.  I had come very close to asking the mother to cover up.  I think the "in your face" attitude of some breastfeeding mothers is what makes some people even downright hostile about a woman nursing an older child or nursing in public.

Public breastfeeding is also not even protected by law in some states.  I remember breastfeeding my baby in public (with a cover of course) in Nebraska.  I could have been arrested back then for indecency since a law protecting women nursing in public was not passed until 2011!  I'm all for "lactivism" in the sense of increasing a woman's ability to pump milk at work or increase time off for maternity leave to facilitate nursing.  However, I think images like the one above only add fuel to the fire to those that are adamantly opposed to it.  What do you think?  Do you agree or disagree?

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