Suzanne Harrington and Colette Keane debate when is the right time to stop breastfeeding a child.
IT’S UP TO THE MUM
Suzanne Harrington @soozysuze
Why do we think it’s weird to breastfeed beyond babyhood and into the toddler years? Why, as a society, does it freak us out so much? Fine for babies, nice small helpless babies, but the minute those babies have teeth and the ability to form sentences requesting some breastmilk, why do we collectively shudder and instead shove milk from an entirely different species – cows - at them? Surely that’s even weirder?
First of all, let’s see what the World Health Organisation says about breastfeeding. The WHO emphatically does not think it’s weird to breastfeed beyond the age of two. It recommends breastmilk exclusively for the first six months, continuing with complementary foods until the child is two - or older. Note those key words ‘or older’.
Anthropologist Kathy Dettwyler, in her study The Natural Age of Weaning, concludes that biologically and physiologically, human weaning can occur anytime between the ages of 2 and 7. In our closest primate relatives, weaning happens when the first molars appear. Globally, around 50% of children are still breastfed aged two. Breastmilk – and the act of breastfeeding – provides perfect nutrition and immunity for babies and small children, as well as emotional comfort and security. That’s why women have breasts.
So our eeek reaction to breastfeeding toddlers is learned behaviour. Weaning is culturally defined, and in our culture, breasts are used to sell cars. They belong to sex. To commodification, to consumerism, to narcissism. To bra manufacturers, plastic surgeons, adult entertainment. Think I’m exaggerating? It is now more culturally acceptable to pay a man to slash open your breasts and stuff them with chicken fillet shaped silicon bags to make them grow bigger than it is to breastfeed a child beyond infanthood to make them grow bigger. In mainstream culture, the declaration “I’m getting a boob job” is met with less horror and revulsion than “I’m breastfeeding my three year old.” We are that disassociated from our own bodies. Thanks, consumer capitalism.
Because yes, there is a link between consumerism and finding it weird to feed your toddler yourself. If you keep on feeding your kid past infanthood, who is going to buy all that ‘follow-on’ product? Despite this ‘follow-on’ stuff being dismissed back in 1986 by the World Health Assembly as “not necessary”, corporations feed on – sorry – maternal anxiety that somehow what we manufacture for free inside our own bodies is inferior to what they make from dried cow’s milk, originally designed, in case we have forgotten, for baby cows. And who will buy all those sippy-cups and weaning accouterments, if your kid is still latched on?
Apart from the sexualisation and commodification of breasts so that we can forget their primary purpose (resulting in outrage from the anti-breastfeeding police when women feed their kids in public spaces, even as we are blind to images of women’s breasts selling everything from beer to perfume), there is another aspect to our fear and distaste. Puritanism. Massive, unreconstructed puritanism.
As a society, we are still getting our heads – and our babies’ mouths – around breastfeeding. A recent report, Growing Up In Ireland, shows that we have the lowest rate of breastfeeding in the world. Yes, the whole world. On average, Irish babies are weaned at four months – no wonder we can’t handle the idea of long term breastfeeding if we can’t, as a society, handle it short term.
This is not about mothers. It’s about all of us. We are still, for all our recent social evolution, still squeamish as hell about bodies. Especially women’s bodies. We don’t know where to look. And women internalise this message, which is why we still don’t feel comfortable doing what is natural. And no, your kid won’t end up like the David Walliams Bitty character in Little Britain. Seriously.
IT'S TIME TO STOP WHEN THEY CAN ASK FOR IT
Don’t get me wrong, I was lucky enough to experience the joys — and agonies — of breastfeeding three times. I just think like all good things, it should come to an end — before they can start asking for it.
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