By Jennifer Shaer, MD FAAP IBLC
Time Magazine has caused quite a stir this week with its cover featuring a three year old breastfeeding. The article is about a philosophy of parenting called attachment parenting and the controversy is two-fold.
The first issue surrounds the cover title “Are you mom enough?”. This provocative title implies that if you do not breastfeed your child until he is three and do not practice attachment parenting then you are less of a mother.
While attachment parenting works for many, to imply that it is the only way to raise a well-adjusted child is misleading and inflammatory.
The second issue surrounds the cover photo and the concept of nursing a toddler. As a pediatrician and a breastfeeding medicine specialist the photo of a three year old standing up while nursing and looking at the camera should be easy for me to look at, and yet it is not.
Why does this photograph evoke such emotion?
Medically speaking, there is every reason for a child to continue nursing until he self-weans. In most societies that embrace self-weaning, children routinely breastfeed until well over two years old.
However, it is so rare to see a toddler in our society nursing that the image is unsettling. I ask myself, “why am I uncomfortable looking at this picture when I am such a strong supporter of breastfeeding?”
There is truly a societal and social expectation that is ingrained in all of us, and it works to the detriment of breastfeeding as a whole. As I think about my patients, I recognize a pattern.
Upon initiating breastfeeding, most women are proud to give their baby the best start to life and are proud of themselves for being successful in the first big parenting challenge. However, as mothers continue to breastfeed, there comes a point when they turn from proud to embarrassed.
I see the look on their faces or the tone in their voices when they tell me that the 15 or 18 month old is STILL nursing. The mother who was once confident and proud begins to feel like an outcast and a social deviant.
Many women at this point either force the baby to wean, secretly nurse (the “closet nurser”) or stand up for themselves as Jamie Lynne Gumet has done in this article.
What can I say about this situation? This child is not being forced to breastfeed. He is not being abused and this is not pornography as some people suggest. Nobody can force a 3 year old child to do most of anything that he doesn’t want to do, let alone breastfeed.
The problem with this image is that it is so contrary to what we accept as normal. The problem with this image is that we as a society cannot accept breastfeeding a toddler.
I know in my heart that this is normal but my gut reaction can’t easily be changed. Just as I know in my heart that gay couples should have the right to marry, yet when faced with two men kissing in front of me, I am uncomfortable.
The unsettled feeling that I get when looking at this picture is my own weakness. I applaud Jamie Lynne Grumet and Time Magazine for helping me take one step closer to accepting what is biologically normal.
On mother’s day, we should be supporting ALL mothers. If we stop passing judgment on one another then we will truly be showing our children how to behave as adults.
Dr. Shaer is a pediatrician and a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC). She is director of the Breastfeeding Medicine Center of Allied Pediatrics of New York. Dr. Shaer is dedicated to helping nursing mothers achieve their breastfeeding goals.