Extended breastfeeding: perverted or praiseworthy?

Earlier this year, Time magazine put on its cover a young, attractive woman with a three-year-old boy sucking at her nipple. She is breastfeeding him, but the image is still a startling one.

Time magazine cover.jpgAlongside the photo of 26-year-old Jamie Lynne Grumet and her son, the cover line challenges: “Are you mom enough?” Inside the magazine, Kate Pickert writes about the attachment parenting that apparently “drives some mothers to extremes”.

Predictably, this created a giant media freak out. While many have been supportive of Grumet’s unconventional methods of child rearing, she has also been the target of an enormous amount of vitriol. The main objections seem to be either that the picture is sick, pornographic and paedophilic, or her son will be traumatised, bullied at school and grow up into a weirdo.

Fortunately, you don’t have to wait 20 years or depend on self-styled psychology experts to find out what attachment parenting does for you. As luck would have it, I am one of those freaks who were breastfed for years, not months. So far (aged 31) the results seem to be relatively normal. I am childfree, so many will instantly dismiss my arguments, but every child is a social experiment of sorts; I have the benefit of hindsight in saying that I respect the decisions my parents made regarding the way they raised me. I’m also extremely thankful that they had the courage to stick to their guns while all around them tutted and disapproved.

This sounds extreme to the UK’s adult-centred culture, but it’s just averagely boring in a large proportion of the rest of the world

The attachment parenting method is taught by Dr William Sears, a pediatrician who serves as associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, and often contributes to parenting magazines and talk shows. His approach encompasses feeding on demand, allowing the child to decide when to wean, co-sleeping and baby-wearing (carrying your child in a sling so that they are attached to you at all times).

This sounds extreme to the UK’s adult-centred culture, but it’s just averagely boring in a large proportion of the rest of the world. Women in many countries do this, although this may be out of necessity rather than choice. Babies are wrapped in slings and carried on the back for convenience, and breast milk is a necessity when formula costs money and requires clean water. Sending babies to sleep separately from their mothers is a practice largely limited to first world countries during the last 200 years.

So is public revulsion at nursing three-year-olds purely a result of culture? It seems so. Anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler studied non-human primates to find out the ‘natural’ age at which humans might expect to be weaned; the results ranged from two and a half to seven years. Mothers in many cultures routinely breastfeed toddlers, so why did so many Time readers still considered it abnormal?

The general consensus was still “ew” and “creepy” and “gross”

Most people can handle seeing a newborn feeding, although mothers may still be forced to do it sitting on a public toilet or while sporting a supersized poncho, just in case someone takes offence. Expressing milk to avoid embarrassment is often helpfully recommended, forgetting that pumping and then feeding will take twice as long. Presumably if it’s mothers and not random passersby who are inconvenienced, that’s just fine. But people who recoil in horror and reach for the smelling salts are in a vocal minority.

However, add several months to the picture and the public reaction goes from quiet embarrassment to full-blown disgust. Add a year or two and the reaction is overwhelming and negative, regardless of the fact that the World Health Organization famously recommends “infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life” and “infants should receive nutritionally adequate and safe complementary foods while breastfeeding continues for up to two years of age or beyond.”

Given the average attitude to non-infant suckling, the Time cover is deliberately emotive. “This isn’t how we breastfeed at home,” said Grumet unnecessarily, explaining to viewers of The Today Show that breastfeeding her son was usually “more of a cradling, nurturing situation”.

Photographer Martin Schoeller justified the unusual pose: “When you think of breast-feeding, you think of mothers holding their children, which was impossible with some of these older kids. I liked the idea of having the kids standing up to underline the point that this was an uncommon situation.”

But the mothers featured inside do indeed cuddle their small children close to them as they fed, sometimes two at a time.

Tihanyi_Gipsy_Woman_with_Child.jpgThe media response was swift and brutal. Some were irked by the confrontational question on the cover, “Are you mom enough?”, pointing out that parents are under enough pressure to raise half-decent children without worrying that they’re not dedicating every waking minute to them. Mostly though, people intimated that breastfeeding carried onto toddlerhood became a sexual act between mother and son.

Comments on the many news stories and blogs on the subject ranged from articulate to ridiculous, but the general consensus was still “ew” and “creepy” and “gross”. We cannot get it out of our heads that nipple sucking is an erotic act, so when children – not babies, but children who have teeth, wear shoes and could happily gnaw on a steak – pull mummy’s top down for a snack, we find it somehow suspect. This is unfortunate, because once you have realised that it isn’t sexual, all the problems with feeding a small child float merrily away.

The trouble with the media’s take on breastfeeding is that they tend to distort the reality or find particularly unusual cases to illustrate the point. The 2006 Channel 4 documentary Extraordinary Breastfeeding featured Veronika Robinson, a mother whose daughters both nursed until the age of seven. (This is the age at which children lose the ability to suckle, providing a natural cut off unlike the arbitrary “not past the first haircut” points suggested by commentators.)

How much can you remember of your sippy cup?

Robinson has written about her misrepresentation in the media, but what struck me as odd was that her daughters seemed unusually fixated on breast milk. One asked to feed as a ninth birthday present; they were both fascinated by their mother’s bras and the taste of her milk, and their drawings always featured large droopy “boobies”. I thought this atypical because in my experience, we don’t often become obsessed with anything to which we have unlimited access. At the many La Leche League meetings I attended as a child, it would have been more likely that a five-year-old might come to mummy for a quick feed before running off to play again – it was basically an extended version of a reassuring hug.

Does it feel weird to be breastfed well past the forgotten baby years? Although my memories are hazy (how much can you remember of your sippy cup?) to be honest, yes, it is kind of strange to think about. But then again, it’s also kind of strange to think about the fact that I started life by squeezing face first through my mother’s vagina. Life is bizarre and we all have to deal with it.

Thousands of hostile comments have centred on the possible future of Grumet’s son Aram. When internet wags weren’t making jokes about him being the luckiest kid in school, they insisted that he would be forever ridiculed at best, mentally damaged at worst.

But Dr Sears claimed on The Today Show, “I’ve never yet seen an attachment parented baby who’s become a school bully.” If all the children who were breastfed beyond toddler age developed severe psychological problems, wouldn’t we have heard of just one or two major criminals having been victims of attachment parenting? Yet if you’re on the search for children who weaned when they wanted to and grew up to be peacefully well-adjusted, there are plenty of us about. My peers from the La Leche League meetings of the early 1980s are now in their 20s and 30s, living perfectly functioning lives and in some cases raising happily attached babies of their own.

Clearly, the naysayers are comically misinformed. This is what happens when you base your objections on squeamishness rather than scientific reason, evidence or personal experience.

As for bullying or a stigma, you’d be astonished at how infrequently people ask: “So, how long were you breastfed?” It’s one of those things like toilet training and first steps, which seem monumentally important at the time, and have absolutely no significance six months later. Of course, my mother didn’t pose with me on the cover of a magazine, but there is no reason for other kids in Aram’s class to know about it unless parents gleefully point out who their classmate is. With any luck it will have been edged out of search results by the time his friends discover Google. If not, perhaps Aram can take comfort in being a small change in the world; as his mother pointed out, “The more people see it, the more it’ll become normal in our culture.”

People are enraged at a woman daring to use her body in a non-sexual way

But is Grumet merely the victim of a patriarchal society, doomed to slave selflessly for her children under the mistaken belief that it’s her own foolish idea? After all, making mothers feel guilty is like shooting fish in a barrel; if the dread of formula feeding doesn’t do it, perhaps convincing them that children need their constant, undivided attention will do the trick.

Grumet herself acknowledges that the attachment method isn’t for everyone, pointing out: “You need to do what’s best for your baby and for your own family.” Don’t we all know mothers who have balanced career with childcare and raised bottle-fed children who have turned out to be bright, healthy and secure? Certain elements of attachment parenting could be near-impossible to combine with work and some see it as a way to keep mothers encumbered by a never-ending round of breastfeeding and menial tasks.

However, we live in a society which values outside employment and sees childcare as something best left to the day nursery or teenage nanny. Mothers are encouraged to separate from their offspring early on, with the sale of baby beds and monitors, and advised that their own milk supply is inadequate and their children would be better off if they “topped up” and “moved on” with formula. Babies are a profitable business – who will gain and who will lose if everyone switches to Dr Sears’ methods?

There is another fascinating aspect to the backlash: the consternation caused by Grumet’s looks.

Slate’s Hanna Rosin summed it up with the headline “Why is this attractive woman breast-feeding this giant child?” and went on to describe the cover’s “genius”. She said: “The mom and son’s twin impassive expressions, with just the teeniest hint of So What? Fuck You. The mom’s blond highlights and skinny jeans, an urban packaging meant to prove once and for all that home schooling and breast-feeding a kid even though he’s old enough to make his own breakfast is not just for the yahoos who can’t afford milk.”

Milk Splash.jpgShannon Bradley-Colleary wrote in the Huffington Post to defend her friend. One reader commented: “Your BFF’s decision to take that photo was reckless. It hurts and distorts other moms who are breastfeeding in a normal way. Instead they got represented by some hot young sexy blond with a defiant stance.”

It seems that people are offended by the cover photo partly because Grumet is young, fashionably dressed and attractive. If nothing else, she has once and for all dispelled the myth that it’s breastfeeding which causes sagging. She doesn’t fit the stereotype of a sexless, shapeless earth mother in 1970s overalls, and this makes people angry.

If we take away the reasoning that it’s because she is adding to the celebrity culture of unattainably radiant motherhood ideals, we are left with this: people are enraged at a woman daring to use her body in a non-sexual way. It completely screws up the value system that’s been created for us. Pose topless by all means. Have sex on camera, talk about your empowering career as a lapdancer. But this? Nobody gave you permission to do this! Men who happily watch porn are aghast at the idea of breasts being used for something that doesn’t benefit them.

Keeping our hyper-sexualised culture in mind, it’s suddenly easy to see why the public can look at a picture of a nursing mother and refuse to believe that her breasts could serve any purpose other than sexual titillation.

I have sometimes idly wondered if my own years of being breastfed are the reason I don’t have the same raging insecurities as most of my peers. My first experience of the female body was that it was more than just decorative – it had a life-giving function. Growing up with this knowledge goes some way to putting the media’s image obsession into clear perspective.

In The Politics of Breastfeeding, Gabrielle Palmer writes: “In the 20th century, women were presented with an illusion of liberation through the artificial feeding of babies, only to find their breasts appropriated by men and popular culture.” Forget the night, Jamie Lynne Grumet is taking back the breasts.

Picture of the Time Magazine cover sourced from the Time Magazine website. Painting of a mother breastfeeding her child, painted by Lajos Tihanyi, obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Photograph of a milk splash uploaded by Flickr user Robbie’s Photo Art.

As a jobbing TV stylist, Rebecca Clough spends her days convincing actors that their ankles don’t look fat in that and occasionally creating emergency walls or furniture out of paper mache. She has been writing on and off for many years, spending her childhood plagiarising Enid Blyton, before moving on to Sweet Valley High books in her teens. She also spews out a blog which covers feminism, country music, embarrassing things she’s done in public, and why it’s fun to believe in the healing power of dolphins and crystals.

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