The Debate Over Extended Breastfeeding

With the release of TIME Magazine’s new provocative cover– depicting a 3-year-old standing on a stool, suckling casually from his mother’s breast— the public debate over breastfeeding has been reignited.

The argument over this particular editorial seems to have many facets, the most obvious of which being that the cover’s shock-and-awe approach puts the relatively private matter in clear public view. Every passerby at the newsstand will be met with a breast; and while it’s nothing we don’t see at every celebrity awards show, for many, the unease may be amplified by the fact that there is a small person attached to it.

That small person is another large part of the discussion. He is the son of featured mother Jamie Lynn Grumet, 26, a model and self-proclaimed spokeswoman for “attachment parenting.” Literal translation aside, this is a parenting philosophy (coined by pediatrician Bill Sears) that encourages parents to foster their child’s socio-emotional development through physical and emotional nurturing.

While the magazine is seemingly empathetic to the approach, the cover impugns this method for driving “some mothers to the extremes,” wherein one “extreme” is breastfeeding for an extended period of time. This terminology connotes that society maintains conflicting views over what is considered the norm when it comes to nursing and what still falls under the cultural taboo. Mothers and health professionals alike argue over what physical and emotional risks and benefits extended breastfeeding poses to mother and child.

According to Dr. Sears’ theory, the infant has a natural tendency to seek closeness to another person and feel secure when that person is present. Breastfeeding will enable the child to develop a secure attachment with the parent; and in doing so, Sears maintains, they will be less likely to experience feelings or conditions of depression, hostility, or insecurity.

Conversely, Freud would argue that such a mother-child attachment has more to do with the child satisfying innate, biological drives than seeking security. Psychiatrist Carole Lieberman concurs, “Instead of developing more secure children, [extended breastfeeding] is causing confusion and sexual tension to arise in them! It is especially bad for little boys. From age 3 to 9 is the Oedipal stage of development, when little boys want to marry their mommies and get rid of their daddies.”  Based on this Freudian psychology, the extended contact may do more harm than good.

So what do opponents consider to be a “healthy” cut-off? Family and child psychotherapist Dr. Fran Walfish weighs in, “Most pediatricians agree that breastfeeding is a wonderful thing for the first 12 months of life, on the outside up until age 2 years. [But] by age 2 years, breastfeeding is no longer about food. It is about comfort. All boy and girl children need to develop a way of comforting and soothing themselves without dependency on their mother’s skin contact. The breast and nipple continuation is emotionally crippling to a child by keeping them emotionally immature, stuck and dependent on Mommy’s skin, breast, and nipple for comfort.”

Elizabeth Parise would disagree, on the basis that “those who are against it have never done it and, therefore, have a lot of misconceptions.”  She is a mother of six who breastfed all of her children for between 1 ½ to 4 years, and was recently featured on the Discovery Health Channel’s show Radical Parenting for her practice of Attachment Parenting.

Clearly, I am a big supporter of extended breastfeeding,” she says. “I believe it is the biological norm to breastfeed until 2-7 years, but unfortunately it is no longer the cultural norm.” For that reason, she applauds TIME Magazine for sparking the dialogue, even if the cover was admittedly sensational.

For a mother like Parise, the ideal duration for nursing is not so cut-and-dry (pun intended). “Of course, any amount of breastfeeding is great and any amount of breast milk is great, but there are some mothers who breastfeed in a more ‘clinical’ way, or in ways that interrupt the continuum. These practices tend to derail breastfeeding and shorten the length of time a baby is breastfed, not to mention often cause the mother to feel resentment towards her baby.”

The continuum she speaks of is part of another parenting philosophy developed by the late Jean Liedloff called The Continuum Concept. It is based on the idea that to achieve optimal physical, mental and emotional development, babies should experience the same behavior as our species did over the course of their evolution. This may include being held constantly as the parent goes about their business; having caregivers immediately respond to the baby’s signals without judgment or invalidation of his needs, but also without excessive concern or attention; and nursing in response to his body signals, even if it prolongs the “standard” weaning process.  This approach puts the decision-making power into the hands of the baby and his/her natural inclinations, something our Western culture is not always comfortable with.

In her blog Modern Parenting BC, Parise quotes pediatrician Jack Newman, who said, “Mothers all over the world have breastfed babies successfully without being able to tell time. Breastfeeding problems are greatest in societies where everyone has a watch and least where no one has a watch.”

Parise points out that, “Timed feedings are not in line with the Continuum Concept, and are responsible for a while host of difficulties for both mother and baby. Often, when those problems occur, breastfeeding itself is blamed rather than the style of breastfeeding.”

And breastfeeding has certainly taken its share of blame, or at least criticism. Duration debate aside, the public perception seems to be that, while breast milk is regarded as a good thing, acceptance of breastfeeding is entirely situational. It becomes an issue when it’s done in a restaurant, on a bus, at work, walking down the street, on the cover of a magazine . . . just about anywhere that it’s not contained behind closed doors. Our common cultural squeamishness towards bodies and bodily fluids seems to extend to mothers nursing openly in public. This negative perception may discourage them from feeding their babies openly and, consequently, encourage them to wean early or use a bottle so they can more easily reintegrate into social settings.

While some mothers are willing to hit the bathroom or the pump to appease the public, others are quick to point out the discriminatory standard this sets. Mother Bethany Gonzales Moreno is one. For her, some responses to the TIME Magazine cover were unjust. “I have read comment after comment about people ‘not needing to see THAT’ or about how people ‘support breastfeeding, but how I should do THAT in private,’ and ‘I don’t want my children to see a toddler being breastfed or to see boobs. They will get confused about private parts and boundaries.’ It just absolutely boggles my mind.”

Moreno herself has a 17-month-old who she plans to breastfeed until the child is ready to wean. “The things they say are the equivalent of me telling them ‘I support your right to bottle feed, but please bottle feed your child in a private place so that my child doesn’t get the wrong idea and think that bottle feeding is the way babies are supposed to be fed,’” she says sarcastically. “‘Also, please refrain from wearing tight or low cut shirts. I don’t want my children getting the impression that breasts are something we display. They need to know they are for nutrition only.’”

This concept of breasts as objects of display is also something we culturally enforce. They are highly sexualized in entertainment and media, and this perception tends to undermine their biological function: to feed babies. Because we see breasts as sexual things, we assign sexual suggestiveness to breastfeeding; but why not the other way around? Wouldn’t it be something if women worried that the site of their cleavage might make a man reminisce about nostalgic moments with his mother? The paradox may never shift to this extreme, but supporters of breastfeeding and extended breastfeeding hope we can at least reach a space where the idea is comfortable enough for public discourse and perhaps even public display.

“I think it is important for our culture to actually see nursing,” Parise says. “Breastfeeding is a learned skill, as natural as it is. One of the primary reasons new mothers have difficulty breastfeeding is due to not seeing it enough in real life . . . If it is always done behind closed doors, it makes it seem like it is wrong.”

“Nursing is also something that should be viewed as completely normal, in just a matter-of-fact way,” she concludes. “Once it’s not a news story anymore, then we will have a truly breastfeeding-friendly culture.”

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Cited Sources

Lieberman, Dr. Carole. “New Pitch – Long-Term Breast-Feeding.” Message to Kim Walleston. 11 05 2012. E-mail Interview.

Walfish, Dr. Fran. “New Pitch – Long-Term Breast-Feeding.” Message to Kim Walleston. 11 05 2012. E-mail Interview.

Parise, Elizabeth. “New Pitch – Long-Term Breast-Feeding.” Message to Kim Walleston. 11 05 2012. E-mail Interview.

Leidloff, Jean. ” Understanding the Continuum Concept.The Leidloff Continuum Network. The Leidloff Society for the Continuum Concept, n.d. Web. 14 May 2012.

Parise, Elizabeth. “Why Attachment Parenting is Not Child-Centered, Helicopter Parenting.Modern Parenting BC: Tips and Tales from a Modern Stone-Age Family. N.p., 12 02 2010. Web. 14 May. 2012.!/2010/02/why-attached-parenting-is-not-child.html.

Moreno, Bethany Gonzales. “New Pitch – Long-Term Breast-Feeding.” Message to Kim Walleston. 11 05 2012. E-mail Interview.

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