Sunday, September 21, 2008

Let's take our perverted society to school

I am proud for this article to be a part of Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog's September Carnival of Breastfeeding!

A few nights ago I was holding Suzi as she squirmed uncomfortably and whined. Her daddy pointed out that she might want to breastfeed. "Tell her you want the boobie," he said to Suzi. She looked at me and smiled, then pointed her chubby little finger at my breast and said booh-bee. She got such a kick out of calling it by name, and her proud little smile just melted my heart. At the same time, though, a wave of panic came over me. Was she going to use this word for it everywhere? In front of friends and, worse, family? The glazed, irritated expressions of half my distant relatives flashed through my mind. They would surely be whispering "by the time a kid can ask for it, it's time to wean her, for gosh sakes!" Did I really want to subject myself to all that scrutiny?

It took about twenty minutes for me to decide to place my daughter's needs ahead of theirs.

Rewind twenty years or so. A mother whose daughter I went to school with was attending storytime at the library with a group of five-year-olds and their mothers. Her toddler son (about two and a half years old) was there as well. During the reading, the little boy walked up to his mother and requested tit. She obliged, and for the past two decades has served as anecdotal evidence of Mothers Who Breastfeed Too Long. Little did we know she was extending the benefits of breastfeeding for her son. I never even noticed their nursing session was taking place, but my mom seemed to think everyone else saw her "flop her boob out" and feed him. This toddler-nurser wasn't like the other mothers. My mom weaned me when I was five months old, and I'd wager most of the other moms in our group weaned by then as well, if they breastfed at all. The long-term breastfeeding mom ended up raising a high-school valedictorian. The other mothers did not. She must have been doing something right!

Because of this experience and the dialogue that followed, I spent two decades of my life thinking extended breastfeeding was gross and weird. Imagine my surprise when I turned into one of those mothers myself. It was never my intention; my original goal was to breastfeed for six months. Then a year. As Suzi's first birthday approached it became more and more obvious that her heart would be broken if I weaned her so abruptly. So here I am, breastfeeding a 15-month-old with no end in sight. I know in my heart it's best for her. How else can I ensure that if I get a stomach bug, she won't? (It's happened.) When she refuses to eat anything but Ritz crackers, how can I be sure she's getting any decent nourishment? I love my little girl and I will nurse her for as long as she needs.

And I am not alone. Amy at Crunchy Domestic Goddess wrote a brilliant post on nursing a preschooler. She prefaced it with this thought:

While I’m OK with the fact that I am [nursing my preschooler], it’s not something I try to draw attention to either... It’s not the most socially acceptable thing to do here in the USA... Maybe [this article] will keep another mom nursing a preschooler from feeling like she’s the only one in the world doing it. It’s just something so few people talk about.

This sentiment is common among mothers nursing older children, as they are faced with an impossible choice: Do I deny my child this irreplaceable nourishment and bonding, or do I go against the grain of society? If she chooses to continue breastfeeding she may become a pariah, but if she stops nursing before she and her child are ready she is not following her maternal instincts, which can be agonizing and harmful.

For example, I read about one nursing mother whose three-year-old son had leukemia. Breastfeeding became vitally important to them. Had she weaned him at the age society expects she would not have been able to offer him the comfort, nutrition, or protection of breastfeeding during the most painful and frightening time of his life. After chemotherapy treatments, breastmilk may be one of the few things a child can digest without vomiting!

In The Ultimate Breastfeeding Book of Answers, Dr. Jack Newman debunks the ridiculous theory that once a baby reaches six months, mother's breastmilk is devoid of any value and the mother is only continuing to nurse the baby because she is "getting something out of it." As he points out, the idea that a mother derives sexual pleasure from nursing a child is symptomatic of a perverted society (see Chapter 19, "Breastfeeding the Toddler”). People have grown accustomed to the idea that breasts are primarily for pleasing men, and are only on loan to babies for six-month stretches.

It is widely known that the AAP recommends breastfeeding for at least a year, and longer if it is mutually desired by mother and child. The World Health Organization recommends nursing for two years. The general public implores us to wean ASAP. Our society is in desperate need of remedial education on the purpose of women's breasts. I am so thankful that I live in a state where women can breastfeed anytime and anywhere, covered or not, no matter how old the child is, and I plan to continue exercising my right to do so. However, the law is no help at all for mothers who crave acceptance from their friends, families, and even strangers.

I am a member of our local breastfeeding coalition and will begin teaching a Breastfeeding Basics class for expectant parents in November. Last month I attended the class a friend was teaching to prepare myself. At the end of the class we showed a short video to reiterate the points covered, and it featured a number of nursing mother-baby pairs. When a nursing toddler came onto the screen there were audible snickers. I thought, what are they laughing about? Then I remembered they had probably never seen a baby nursing, let alone a toddler--and if they had it was probably not in the context of acceptance. Although their giggles made me feel like I was in ninth grade sex ed class again, I couldn't blame them. Most people have never heard of nursing an older child and have no idea why anyone would want to do it. Below are a few ideas nursing moms can put into practice to help these people learn.

1) Integrate dialogue about nursing into your children's daily lives. First impressions are hard to overcome, so it helps if children learn at an early age that breastfeeding is the norm. Instead of buying your child a baby doll with a bottle, buy one without. Then teach the child that babies are fed from mommy's breasts. If your child is a girl you can even let her pretend to nurse the baby. I have friends whose children do this and it's a refreshing change. Remembering the hundreds of times I fed my own dolls a bottle, it's no wonder I had to work to overcome my attitudes about breastfeeding! Society had set me up to think breastfeeding was the exception and bottlefeeding the rule. Breastfeeding dialogue will probably come naturally if there is a baby sibling involved, or if a child is breastfed long enough to discuss it. Children won't think breastfeeding at any age is unusual until someone tells them it is!

2) Breastfeed your toddler in public as you are comfortable. This doesn't mean "whipping out a boob" as some people like to phrase it; I am discreet and half the time no one but savvy fellow moms realize I am nursing. You never know when a nursing mom whose child is nearing the one-year mark is going to see you. Your actions may plant a seed of thought in her head and empower her to keep nursing if she was previously unsure of what to do. Furthermore, people need to witness real moms nursing toddlers. While reading Mothering Magazine I came across an article about breastfeeding as portrayed in movies ("Reel Milk" by Sarah Rubenstein-Gillis, Sept-Oct 2008). The most prominent depictions of nursing are comical; for example, a man might accidentally drink a little breastmilk and then spew it dramatically across the room when he realizes it is not cow's milk. If this is the only information routinely given to the public about breastfeeding, it should be no surprise that they are getting the impression breastfeeding is embarrassing and makes people uncomfortable. The more people realize how ordinary and pleasant an experience it can be for mother, child and onlookers alike, the closer it will come to being the norm. There are, of course, times when mothers are asked by an ignorant employee to discontinue a nursing session. At least it is preferable, though, when the mother being victimized is confident and familiar with her rights and can stand up for herself. It's hard to say how many inexperienced, timid moms must be humiliated and inconvenienced, perhaps even pressured to end their nursing relationships, before the first mom comes along and fights back. Most occurrences of this kind end with an apology to the mother and the news coverage they often attract serves to further educate the general public on the legal rights of breastfeeding moms.

3) Don't let anyone get away with publicly condemning mothers who choose to nurse their toddlers. Back when I was still the inexperienced mother of an infant, I read a Babytalk Magazine article in which nursing a toddler was portrayed in a negative way. The author said she saw a woman in a park breastfeeding her "sturdy toddler" and thought "Yuck! She really should wean that kid." At the time, I silently reassured myself that Suzi would be finished nursing by twelve months. Then, a couple of issues later, a reader wrote in to say she was angry about the article. Since Babytalk is usually so supportive of breastfeeding, she viewed the attitudes in the article as a step in the wrong direction. Her comment pointed me in the direction I needed to go. More importantly, if a mainstream magazine runs an unfavorable article and is subsequently flooded with emails from concerned readers, perhaps next time they will publish something more helpful. Since so many moms read these inexpensive or free magazines, getting them to commit their support to long-term breastfeeding is a major victory.

4) Debunk the myths whenever you get a chance. Many people discontinue their nursing relationships for what they think are good reasons. "He was getting teeth!" is a popular one. While some babies may bite their mothers, mine rarely has. I thought I'd have to wean once Suzi had opposing teeth growing in, but it turns out I was worried over nothing. The times I have been bitten were not as bad as I'd expected; some mothers expect blood and gore to be intrinsic to nursing a toddler, but it's just not so in the majority of cases.

5) Talk about it! In November when I start teaching our local Breastfeeding Basics class I will be proud to mention that my toddler is still nursing. When I was pregnant with Suzi, a mom in the breastfeeding coalition mentioned she nursed her daughter until she turned two, and she would have nursed longer had she not been planning to try for another baby and didn't want to wean during her pregnancy. Although I was a bit shocked at the time, her mention of nursing her toddler was highly instrumental in my decision to continue nursing Suzi. Now I can appreciate what an amazing role model she is.

If we breastfeed our toddlers and talk about it rather than keeping it hidden for the sake of our prudish society’s sensibilities, more and more people will realize how beneficial it is. I hope that one day children will grow up not batting an eye when they see a woman breastfeeding her two- or three-year-old. Until then, we have some work to do!

Want to read more about breastfeeding education? Check out the other articles in Motherwear's Carnival at these blogs:

Beautiful Letdown
Motherwear Blog
Hobo Mama
Breastfeeding 1-2-3
Breastfeeding Mums
Poked and Prodded
Stop Drop and Blog
Nurturing Notes


Kate Wicker said...

Oh boy can I relate to this post. I've often said I'm a card-carrying member of the Freak Mom Club (not that I think extended breastfeeders are freaks; I just feel like a lot of American society does). See, I nursed my first child until she was 22 months and would have kept right on nursing had I not been able to get pregnant.

A few months back my baby asked to nurse during story time. Not my "real" baby - who was 11 months at the time - but my 3-year-old. And you know what? Even though she was officially weaned at 22 months, I let her nurse. She needed to feel like a baby, so I let her and my husband looked on lovingly, which I suppose gets him Freak Dad Club membership. Now I'm nursing and pregnant. I'm going to still try and embrace child-led weaning, but we'll see how it goes.

I always thought nursing was a beautiful thing, but I've seen that so many Americans think otherwise. I wrote an article for InsideCatholic about why I nurse at the mall AND at Mass, and I was astonished by some of the malignant comments. I thought a pro-breastfeeding and pro-family religion would surely be more charitable (and to be fair, many, many people were). However, it seems breasts make a lot of people uncomfortable - even when they're being used for what God intended.

As for my own circle of friends, many are AP parents and extended breastfeeders, but a few are not, and I can tell they get a wee bit squeamish thinking about me nursing a toddler. I try to be respectful of their feelings but never at the expense of my child's needs.

I wasn't always so "brave," but I've gained confidence as a mom. There are so many decisions we have to make for our children that may not make others happy. But our job isn't to please others. It's to do the best for our kiddos. I don't always live up to that high standard, but at least I do breastfeed babies and older children with courage.

Sorry for the lengthy comment, but I enjoyed your post.

God bless!


Rissa said...

Jenny! This is a GREAT post. I love all the information you give and I really appreciate your honesty. There are not enough mothers standing up for extended breastfeeding, or even ANY breastfeeding, for that matter!
I can honestly say that this post has been immediately instrumental in my struggle over whether or not to wean Jack now that I am pregnant again. I've been mulling it over in my head ever since last week but I felt a bit lost. My instinct said I would continue to nurse him until he weaned himself, but other outside influences were telling me it would be painful, draining, and not worth it, and that I shouldn't feel guilted into it. Although it has been slightly painful at times, and I have been rather exhausted, I find myself treasuring our nursing sessions even more. Today, when I nursed Jack in the middle of our local Chipotle, I felt a surge of confidence and assuredness - I was doing the right thing. After reading this post, I feel even more confident and committed to the decision to continue to nurse Jack until he weans himself, even if that's after the new baby comes. :) So thanks.

Casey said...

Thanks for the great post! I agree with so much that you said. I think if I reiterated everything I agree with, I would probably just have to copy and past your post into the comment box!

I had to laugh when you said your first goal for nursing was 6 months. My first goal was 6 weeks, and now I'm tandem nursing. My older son is 34.5 months! Good thing I didn't stick to my original plan. I also agree that breastmilk is so important. The one time my older son was very sick, breastmilk was the only thing he would eat or drink, and I know it was what kept us from going to the hospital.

Jenny said...

Kate--I read that post you wrote a while back and loved it! I think I commented on it. At first I didn't think I could nurse in church, but my mom reassured me it was nothing to be ashamed of. It's God's plan, after all, and I certainly don't think he'd want a child and mother shunned because of it.

Rissa--I'm so glad my post helped! Nursing while pregnant is uncharted territory for me, but I'm hoping to nurse through pregnancy if I ever have to.

Hobo Mama said...

Jenny -- what a comprehensive and helpful post! I'm breastfeeding a 15-month-old, and I too was one of those people who had never considered nursing past the one-year mark. The first few times I heard of and saw it, I did a double take -- but that's ok. I like your positive attitude here that it is possible to educate society that nursing a toddler is normal, even if some people seem weirded out by it at first. I'm proof! Now I can't imagine having weaned my baby already -- he's just not ready. (That Babytalk article you linked to really broke my heart for that sad, sad boy, even though I commend the mother on nursing as long as she did. I'm so not ready to think of weaning yet, I guess!)

I like the suggestions of giving dolls without the bottles, because otherwise it really is a shock to many girls to find out there is such a thing as breastfeeding, when bottles are so much the norm. I was pleased to witness my five-year-old niece asking my cousin questions about breastfeeding her little baby (this was before I had mine). It was awkward for my cousin to answer the questions, because breastfeeding isn't talked about much, but I was glad that she was trying and that my little niece was taking in this new information. It's never too early to plant a seed!

And let me just say that I love meeting up (virtually is fine) with other moms who breastfeed or have breastfed toddlers. Makes me feel not so alone! Hooray for the Freak Mom Club (too funny, Kate)! :)

Anonymous said...

Great post, Jenny! I remember the first time Norah said "boobie" in church. I love to see Norah nursing her toy dinosaurs, socks, crayon...well, anything she thinks needs mommy's milk!

Vicky said...

Good one Jenny. Very Informative and truthful. Your writing skills are awesome....truely!!!!

Milissa E. said...

Nice post. My little boy weaned himself at about 14 months. I offered, but he decided to move on. It kind of made me sad. You definately have to do what is right for the individual child.

blissful_e said...

Having lived outside America for the past six years, whenever I come back and visit, I am reminded of how hostile, comparatively speaking, the US is to nursing mothers. It is sad, but based on what I have experienced elsewhere, I do think that public education programs and more vocal/discreetly visible mums can make a difference.

I especially want to thank you for the link to the summary of state laws on breastfeeding. It is helpful to know that nursing in public when visiting the US is not against the law. You wouldn't know it from some of the looks I have gotten nursing an infant, let alone my toddler - and I am very discreet!

I also want to say, in case it is an encouragement to others, that I am tandem nursing a 24-month-old and a 7-month-old. I breastfed all through pregnancy and beyond, despite dire warnings from the uninformed that the new baby was missing out on nutrients since the older one was nursing. My first-born is a healthy petite girl and my second-born is also healthy and quite tall. No missing nutrients there! I am so glad I went with my instincts and the information I found online at kellymom rather than cave in to scaremongers.

Be strong, get the facts, and swim upstream a little. It's worth it.

Heather @ Not a DIY Life said...

Great post! I have always been pro-breastfeeding, but I have to admit that breastfeeding a toddler was never in my game plan. Our daughter is now 15 months old. We both love nursing and I am GLAD that there is no end in sight!

Your points at the end are very helpful. I am hoping that just by continuing to share with people that we are still breastfeeding that we can help people overcome their perceived ickyness of extended breastfeeding!

lolasmom said...

A great post! I plan to breastfeed until my daughter is at least 1 year old but it's articles like yours that keep my mind open to extended breastfeeding.

I agree that American society needs to be more attuned to the benefits of breastfeeding and needs of nursing moms. In other words, "please don't talk behind my back about me doing the best thing for my child!" :)

Thanks again for your great post!

Lis said...

Hi Lis from over at Simple, I really enjoyed reading this post.

I grew up in a pro-nursing community, however extended nursing was considered a little strange. Little did I know at the time I would later be toppling some of those long-time nursers records by nursing my own daughter till she was 3 1/2 (by the time she was 3 we were mostly nighttime nursing). Every time I thought to wean her before that it just did not feel right.

I did not run into many looks or comments when I would drape my child across my lap for a little snack, but I think I was given more "grace" about my extended nursing from family, friends and acquaintances because my husband died when my daughter was 4 months.

Sara said...

yeah its really up to you and whats best for your baby. unfortunately at 6 weeks which my son is now, i just am not producing enough. its more formula then breastmilk and i hate it. i wish i could produce more, he's always very hungry

Jenny said...

This was a wonderful post. I love reading stuff about extended breastfeeding. Wouldn't it be great if that was the norm and not the exception?

I nursed my first daughter until she was three. I just never saw the need to force her to wean if she still wanted to. When she did wean, I was ready for her to be done but so glad that I let her set the time.

I nursed my son until he was 14 months old. I had some really mixed feelings when he weaned. I was pregnant with my third baby and I guess my milk changed or dried up and he just quit when I was about halfway through the pregnancy. I was actually looking forward to tandem nursing, but it didn't work out for us. He's asked to nurse a few times when I've been feeding the baby and I've let him try, but it's like he's forgotten how. He just puts his mouth there, but doesn't try to suck. Then he'll look at me and sort of giggle.

I'm planning to let my daughter self-wean and hoping for a couple years with her. She's only seven months old now, so we've still got a bit of time together. It just flies by way too fast.

Keep up the great work speaking up for nursing mothers and educating the masses!