Do you care about whether a mother and older child are breastfeeding?
Or do you care about whether a mother and older child are breastfeeding in public?
The first question is the important one as the financial and societal cost of not breastfeeding and the personal benefits to mother and child are arguably well-established. Yet, it’s the second question that seems to be on the minds of most people when they see a mother breastfeeding older children in public. The complex issues over control of women’s bodies clouds the issue immensely and leads to some of the worst shaming I’ve ever seen hurled at breastfeeding mothers.
For the most part though, the questions that arises most often when people see public breastfeeding are politely asked, whether or not they come from a place of judgment or curiosity. Most often, I hear:
“Are they still breastfeeding?”
It’s a question I’ve been asked, perhaps surprisingly, when my kids were little-mostly when they were under a year old, and a few times around two years old. I haven’t been asked about how long they’ll be breastfeeding once my kids have gotten older, which is what I would have expected before I was a mom of an older nursling.
I suppose after the two year mark, people are either too shocked to ask or they assume the milk bar will accompany them to college. But I find the question interesting because it bears so little understanding of what the breastfeeding relationship entails, especially once babies become toddlers and then older.
Certainly, there are the logistics of latch, production, thrush, engorgement and so on can be important issues throughout breastfeeding. Finding knowledgeable support is vital, and sometimes challenging. It’s important to feel empowered even while doubts creep in so that listening to less than supportive questions and comments won’t shake the foundations too dramatically.
But, the question will come up no matter how breastfeeding-friendly the environment. To me, the question “are they still breastfeeding?” reminds me of the “what do you do?” question. Neither even scratches the surface of the multitude realities that encompass a life and a relationship.
The choices in responding, if with more than a polite smile and change of subject, must depend on whether the person is curious or has judgments. Most of the time, I think people are honestly curious and don’t understand the patience of answering this question multiple time without it turning into self-judgment for the mother.
For background, I’ve breastfed a five year old (who looked even older) while nursing a three year old and one year old (sometimes tandeming or solo.) Currently, I’m breastfeeding two year old twins, who almost always tandem. The twins are still avid nursers. I’ve written many times about how we balance breastfeeding as a relationship between the (two or) three of us, checking in to make sure that all of our needs are being honored.
I didn’t always think I would be nursing an older child. In fact, the first time I can recall seeing what I considered to be a huge child was at a La Leche League meeting when I was pregnant with my first child. It wasn’t that I had judgment about children breastfeeding. It was that I was so focused on birthing and having a newborn that it hadn’t occurred to me. I was shocked by this gigantic four year old sitting on his mom’s lap, with his feet dangling almost to the floor.
Once I swallowed my shock, I realized that it had nothing to do with whether a big kid should be nursing. Rather, it was the first time I had to confront that this motherhood thing was a bigger gig than I had signed up for, and I knew I wasn’t ready for it. My already greatly intuitive baby in my belly kicked me at that point and I was reminded that not only had that ship already sailed, but that I already loved this gig so much that I would worry about that part later.
I’m still grateful to that mother and child for being there that day. I think of them often as a reminder to be humble when I see a moment in someone’s life and judgments arise.
I’ve often answered the still question with “as long as we feel comfortable.” Then, if pushed further, I’ll site the World Health Organization’s position then try to ask a question of the person to show I’d like to change the subject. A simple:
- “Well, The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding exclusively for the first 6 months and then 2 years and beyond.”
- or “I read that American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding for at least 1 year and for as long as mutually desired by mother and infant.”
This often weeds out those who are curious from those who are asking so that they can criticize. Then, negative comments usually are expressed directly and can be responded to in kind or the person is quiet and moves on.
It’s interesting that the people who ask are aware that the older nursling can understand and respond to the question themselves. And the questioner doesn’t seem to take into account whether it’s okay to ask about breastfeeding as if the child wasn’t there at all. I have had my kids later ask me if there was something odd that people comment on this. I have to say that it’s my least favorite aspect about any questions and comments about parenting in general-this asking over the kids’ heads.
I think a big part of the questions and comments have to do with the snapshot effect. The person sees this one event like a still point in time and makes a judgment. They see an older child breastfeeding, which they may not have been accustomed to seeing, and react as if the baby was born and then, bam!, the kid is huge and latched on.
They don’t see that the child has been growing gradually over the years and the breastfeeding relationship is a natural progression. Mother and child have the perspective of slowly managing the changing needs over time. It’s more like being in a movie until someone snaps a photo and holds it up for examination when they comment.
The mother can still remember the tiny hands splaying open and closed as their newborn passed out, milk drunk, that became the baby copying the sign for milk and beginning to say their special word for mama milk, that became the early walker who would climb into mama’s lap after taking a tumble, that became the child who would grab a book and Lego in each hand before asking, “mommy, can I please have milk now?” To which mother and child can then discuss whether it’s a good time for them both. Ideally this discussion can happen without either one of them feeling outside pressure to wait until they are in a private place.
Stay tuned for the next post in a few hours: Part 2 of Breastfeeding Older Children in Public
- World Health Organization. Infant and young child feeding
- American Academy of Pediatrics
- Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine
- American Academy of Family Physicians
- La Leche League International
- Milk, Money, and Madness: The Culture and Politics of Breastfeeding
- The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding
- Adventures in Tandem Nursing: Breastfeeding During Pregnancy and Beyond
- Mothering Your Nursing Toddler
- How Weaning Happens
- Breastfeeding Older Children
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Post for NaBloPoMo(Since I’m writing most of these late at night, in bed, while tandem nursing twins, I’m choosing to concentrate on writing rather than proof-reading or editing. Please forgive the extra typos and non-nonsensical grammar. Thank you.)