The cover of Time, depicting a mother nursing her 3 year old son has caused a right stooshie across the US and Europe. It’s definitely frightened the horses down at the Daily Mail. I tend to agree with Victoria Bekiempis in the Guardian that there was never any intention on Time’s part to have an honest debate about breastfeeding toddlers. By using that photo, they’ve made people retreat to their instincts rather than actually listen to the arguments.
Being a mum is the best thing I’ve ever done, but for me, and most other mums I know, it’s Anxiety Central. From a panic attack over whether that night on the tiles we had the week before we found out we were pregnant, to the frantic decisions over whether and in what form we give Vitamin K to when to start solids to when to potty train to panic over the fact that at 13 months everyone else’s baby is walking except ours, the responsibility of making decisions for a child can sometimes be quite overwhelming. I always worried I wouldn’t panic soon enough. And round every corner, it seems, there are people whether in the media or your own family or circle of friends who are willing to put the boot in rather than be supportive, to undermine your instincts, to take away your confidence. If we had a bit more live and let live about our attitudes to parents and particularly mothers, maybe they would feel a bit less useless.
When you’re pregnant, everyone and their dog has advice for you, much of it contradictory. None of these people, though, knows your child. I’ve always been a great advocate of leaving mothers to trust their own instincts and go with what’s right for them. Back in the day when I was a La Leche League leader, I would give out a whole load of evidence based information and support and just hope that somewhere in there people would find something that worked for them. The dynamic of the monthly meetings was really good as mothers helped each other through problems. It’s a really positive environment to be in, respecting, rejoicing even, that every child is different.
As a new mother myself, I instinctively knew that anything that came with the label “sleep training” or “controlled crying” was not for me. I felt that babies cried for a reason and the least I could do was to respond and try to do something about it. It never occurred to me that something so tiny was there to be tamed. So, naturally, I looked for a source of information that matched up with my instincts. And I found the same source as Jamie-Lynne Grumet, whose photo is in Time magazine, Bill and Martha Sears. Their many books on all aspects of parenting, from pregnancy to teens, have been invaluable to me. Their website, Ask Dr Sears.com is one of my most visited. Have a look – they are heavily into responsive parenting and healthy eating. I know countless families who have been really helped by the ideas in “Nighttime Parenting”, or who have found useful techniques to comfort their screaming child in “The Fussy Baby”. Their advocacy of attachment parenting, of sleeping with your baby, wearing them close, letting them get used to the world and its smells and sights and sounds and textures in a relaxed way made sense to me.
I’ve always thought that kids reach their developmental stages when they’re good and ready and the range of what is normal is pretty wide. By the time you have a class of five year olds on their first day at school, unless there’s a medical reason otherwise, they all eat solid food, they all use the toilet they can all walk and talk. There may well have been a time when their mothers feared they’d be sending them to school in nappies and breastfeeding them through the railings but it never happens. And, just like some kids will easily toilet train at 18 months and others will just not get it until they’re 3, some (like my sister) will be practically walking at 9 months, others (like me) will be sat on the floor with their nose in a book until they’re nearer two. With breastfeeding, the range of normal is even bigger. Left alone, some will wean themselves off the breast at 1, some at 2 and most by 4.
When I say wean themselves, it’s not like their mums feed them on demand round the clock like they did when they were babies. It tails off gradually. There are very gentle or not so gentle techniques that you can use to encourage the process.
Few people expecting their first baby imagine nursing a toddler. Few people expecting their first baby can really visualise what it would be like to have a toddler anyway. You think about having a baby, not a little being that walks and has a mind of its own. I was quite shocked when I walked into a meeting when Anna was 3 months old and saw another mum feeding her 3 year old son and when I found out more, discovered that it was not only fine, but recommended by no less a body than the World Health Organisation who say:
Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.
I don’t think it’s right to talk about breastfeeding in “moral” terms. You have to remember that a small child hasn’t had access to the deeply pernicious attitudes our society has about breasts and women’s bodies for a start. The child is doing what he or she is hardwired to do and, left alone, will do so until he or she outgrows the need. It’s not rocket science.And when they do outgrow the need, they stop. Nursing is not something the mother does to the child, it involves the child’s active and willing participation. It takes some effort to milk a breast.
Breastfeeding has very many physiological and psychological benefits for both mother and child as you can see on the UNICEF Baby Friendly website or on La Leche League’s. And those benefits continue for as long as the child is breastfed. I’ve seen special care midwives advise mums, if they’ve produced too much milk for their premmie, to send it home to go on their older kids’ corn flakes. If a mum catches a bug, the antibodies to it go into her milk to give her baby extra protection. They may get the same bug, but not quite so badly.
I remember when Anna was a toddler, she caught a tummy bug. She, thankfully, has only ever caught two of these things in her whole life. She was being quite violently sick so I phoned the out of hours GP for advice, to find out when I should start to panic. I braced myself to get grief when I was asked if she was having anything to eat or drink. When I said she was having my milk, I was pleasantly surprised when the doctor said that this was absolutely fine, that it was the best thing for her and to continue. She knew that the milk would have antibodies, would be the most easily absorbed thing Anna could get and was less likely to end up dehydrated. Other mothers haven’t been so lucky and were told to stop and get some powdered supplement into their child instead.
What I’m trying to say is that attachment parenting and breastfeeding into toddlerhood may be a minority practice these days, but it shouldn’t scare any horses. It felt very right for Bob and I and Anna responded well to it. I would never dare to say that everyone should do it – but I’d like more people to know what it’s all about. The way it’s being presented in the Fail, as some self centred ego trip for mothers, is just wrong. The idea is about creating a harmonious environment for the baby to develop. If the child is emotionally secure, he or she has so much more energy to put into personal development rather than treading water. I’m not saying that attachment parenting is the only way to get there, but you might find its principles a useful part of your parenting toolkit.