Posts Tagged ‘Kathy Dettwyler’

I’ve been sitting on my hands, not wanting to open this can of worms. I find, however, that I really kinda need to vent and get it out. It’s such a polarizing issue, though, and I’ve stayed away from this topic as a means of avoiding the mommy wars.

You can, however, thank Time Magazine for this little jaunt into the fracas. It’s been all abuzz with my friends, many of whom I know from my work in years past as a breastfeeding counselor.

What did Time Magazine do?  Here’s what:

I don’t take exception to the theme of the picture at all (and I’ll explain why). I DO, however, take exception to the caption. What the crap is that? If a mother doesn’t participate in extended breastfeeding she is not “mother enough?”

I’ve been reading my friend’s posts, many of which link to their (yes, I mean that) replies in the media.

Let’s start with my friend, Nancy Mohrbacher. Nancy is a well-known expert in the lactation world. She’s the author of titles like Breastfeeding Answers Made Simple and The Breastfeeding Answer Book.

Nancy’s reply in a Chicago Tribune article states in part,

“Nancy Mohrbacher, an officer with the Chicago Area Breastfeeding Coalition, said the cover has sparked the wrong questions.

‘The question is not are you mom enough, but is our culture family friendly enough,” Mohrbacher said. “The question is not how should we parent, but how do we support and value parenting in our society.’ “

My friend in the great white north (Canada) Teresa Pitman, spent part of yesterday doing media interviews. She’s coauthored 14 books, mostly about breastfeeding and childbirth, like The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (8th edition), The Latch and Other Keys to Breastfeeding Success, and The Ultimate Book of Breastfeeding Answers (with Dr. Jay Gordon). She says,

“I initially didn’t have much reaction. Three-year-old nursing, ho hum, see it every day. But I really disliked the headline – only possible point of that is trying to stir up “Mommy wars.”

And when I look at …the photo, it’s awkward and unnatural looking – and has the effect of making breastfeeding an older child seem awkward and unnatural. The mother and little boy aren’t touching anywhere except at the breast.

I think many of the comments suggest that this is extreme or weird, but the fact is that the CPS, AAP and WHO all recommend breastfeeding for two years and beyond. They’re pretty mainstream.”

Part of my past-life’s work was counseling women on weaning, which seriously has become one of my more warm hot-buttons, so to speak. Why do people- particulary those not IN the actual relationship- feel they have the right to judge?

As an adopted breastfed baby who nursed into kindergarten {yes, you’re reading that right} and the daughter of another breastfeeding counselor with over 40 years experience, I have to confess that even I didn’t get this concept at first.

You can pretty firmly count me in the camp {and embarrassingly so, I was verbal about it, too} of one who thought it was weird and gross for a baby with teeth who was walking to also be nursing. Babies a year and younger (even if they were walking and had teeth) were fine.

But, I absolutely could not imagine nursing a child that was old enough to ask for it, with real words. And I was pretty solid with that perspective until I had a baby; who subsequently sprouted teeth, could walk and talk, eat solid food and yet still had a need to nurse.

That need wasn’t for nutrition, obviously.

What a lot of people don’t understand is that breastfeeding isn’t just food delivery. Nope. It’s not.

And yet, the argument against extended  biologically natural breastfeeding often revolves around that concept.

Or, the argument turns sexual. By the way- the breastfeeding of children {of any age} isn’t sexual, either. I’m making that distinction to shut down the argument that it’s not just children breastfeeding.

So let me put this in terms most people can understand:

Adults sexualize breasts; children do not.

Believe it or not, children don’t develop sexual awareness until they are school age (4-6). Before that, they just know there are body parts that are different and may “discover that touching certain body parts feels nice.” Around this age, they begin to notice that boys and girls have different parts. And, they may begin to ask more questions about things like where babies come from. But that curiosity isn’t sexual in the terms that adults view breasts and mouths on breasts.

So go ahead and throw that argument out the window, because it doesn’t wash. Society teaches; society judges; society HARMS. It’s not the mother and child in the extended normal breastfeeding relationship that have the problem- it’s those that are ignorant and actively seek to condemn.

When I saw the magazine cover, I thought, “Great. Here we go again.” For as long as I’ve been an adult, to breastfeed or not has been a hugely polarizing topic. I’ve seen friendships between women go south and get nasty because of breastfeeding. I’ve seen marriages have difficulty because of disagreement on this issue. I’ve seen a marriage end because a father tried to force weaning on a child (and mother) who wasn’t ready, and the mother was left to deal with the fall-out.

That Time Magazine cover doesn’t accurately depict any kind of extended breastfeeding relationship that I have ever encountered. I believe it was staged to be polarizing and to get a negative reaction from people.

It’s amazing to me how breastfeeding and weaning continues to be such a topic of hotly contested debate, even despite all scientific evidence. It always seems to me that we forget that babies have rights. Babies aren’t pets and don’t deserve to live off the scraps of what we parents are willing to give them. That’s just my two cents, and you are free to disagree. But I do think that babies deserve to have parents who are engaged and committed.

So, I’ve been reading along, sitting on my hands, seeing comments from people who have nasty opinions about this cover. The mommy wars continue, and we, as a species, continue to blast others and tear each other down for other people’s parenting decisions which we have no right to judge.

After all, we’re not talking about whether or not to use a car seat (although there are those that compare the formula campaign to those cigarette campaigns years ago, which I’m inclined personally to see the similarities in) or even nutritional content of infant nourishment; we’re talking about relationship. We are talking about parenting.

Back in my counseling days, weaning, as it is now, was a hot topic. New mothers were unsure of who to listen to; unsure of what the truth was.

I had one mother, no kidding, tell me her pediatrician told her she had to stop nursing when her baby turned a year old, if not before. She asked why, and was told “Because your milk will turn blue.”

Honestly. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

And through the years, one of the articles I routinely referred to was A Natural Age of Weaning, by anthropologist Dr. Katherine Dettwyler, PhD.  She wrote,

“In societies where children are allowed to nurse “as long as they want” they usually self-wean, with no arguments or emotional trauma, between 3 and 4 years of age. This interest also stemmed from the realization that other animals have “natural” ages of weaning, around 8 weeks for dogs, 8-12 months for horses, etc. Presumably these animals don’t have cultural beliefs about when it would be appropriate. “

More recently, she wrote a comment in response to Brian Palmer’s Slate.com’s article, titled Breast-feeding in Prehistoric Times:

“Brian — After all the time I spent talking to you on the phone trying to educate you and provide you with actual research data to help you understand the biology and physiology of modern humans, and this is what you come up with? I’m quite disappointed.

My research suggests 2.5 to 7.0 years as the range of a natural/normal/typical duration of breastfeeding for modern humans. Most human children around the world, if allowed to nurse as long as they want, wean themselves between the ages of 3 and 5 years (not 2-4 years). Obviously humans CAN wean their children at birth (jor nurse for only six weeks or six months or two years) and have most of them survive, but it’s estimated that more than 900 children in the United States die every year because they were not breastfed, and many many more die where alternative safe and appropriate nutrition is not available and where vaccinations and antibiotics are not available.

The fact that culturally we’ve been messing around with this life-history variable for thousands of years does not change the fact that the underlying biology and physiology of human children has not changed. They evolved to expect many years of breastfeeding and that’s what they need for optimal development. Under the best of circumstances — good alternative foods, low disease and parasite load, low stress — children who are allowed to nurse as long as they want do so, typically, for 3 to 5 years, and many are happy to nurse much longer.

There is enormous variation in all aspects of human growth and development. Just as the average height for adult women in the U.S. is around 5’4″, there are some women who are only 4’10” and some who are 6’5″ (shout out to Elena Dellle Donne). Likewise, some children will wean on their own before their first birthday, and others will nurse up to and beyond 7 years if they have willing mothers.

The point is — nursing a 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 or 7 year old is NORMAL for our species, regardless of what people think about it. Just like being pregnant for 9 months is normal, and getting your first permanent teeth at age 5.5-6 years is normal, and going through puberty in your teens is normal. Nurse your children for as short or as long as you like, or don’t nurse them at all, or simply don’t have any. The point is that nursing for several years is NORMAL….”

If you can stomach the replies to her comment, you’ll no doubt notice that some of the arguments I’ve shared above made it into the queue. And that just demonstrates my point that it’s ADULTS that are making the judgements and it’s the ADULTS that have the social hangups.

Kathy’s also quoted in this USA Today article.

My friend and IBCLC (Internaional Board Certified Lactation Consultant) Diana, wrote about her 4-year-old daughter’s surgery, and her concerns over nursing her in the hospital. She wrote,

“Being Old Enough to Ask for It doesn’t forbid a child from receiving comfort from his mother – however that mother chooses to comfort her child. ……………..Breastfeeding my 4-year old, postoperative child wasn’t disgusting, it was normal. Nursing her back to sleep a few nights ago when she woke up in the middle of the night wasn’t indulging her, it was loving her the way she has come to expect to feel love and comfort from me, her mother.”

I’m not judging and/or condemning anyone for their beliefs, but this is one topic my opinion won’t change on. The only thing I want to add is that you can’t force a child to nurse if they don’t want to. There’s a reason some babies/children nurse longer than others, and in a perfect world, society would be more attuned to normal child development and needs- and then respond appropriately; based on the needs of the child instead of their own neurosis.

Obviously, I could rant about this for a good long while. That’s basically why this is a newer topic for me, although if you’ve been reading along, you’ve most likely just had your suspicions confirmed.  😆

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