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The breastfeeding debate Part 2. Or how long is too long?

A former boss of mine told me she was breastfed until she was in kindergarten. She said she would come home from school and ask for breastmilk. I remember being surprised by this and then quickly developing my two rules for how long I thought women should breastfeed.

1) The “Talk Test” rule: If your baby can tell you he/she is hungry, using actual words in a    sentence like, “mom, I’m hungry”, then the kid is too old for breastmilk.

2) The 90 degrees rule: If while lying across your lap, his/her legs can bend at a 90 degree angle and dangle, then the kid is too old for breastmilk.

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But since I published the part 1 of this breastfeeding series, I was approached both off and online a lot about this subject. During my many discussions, I realised that our opinions on breastfeeding are mostly based on personal opinion and personal experience. We’re all coming to the table with a bias. Some of us have two.

I figured I should start with some science.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age and beyond”.1  Another study stated that  “Breastfeeding for less than 6 months compared with 6 months or longer was an independent predictor of mental health problems through childhood and into adolescence”.According to a study by Kramer and Kakuma, exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months has several advantages over only 3-4 months for the following reasons: lower risk for gastrointestinal infection for the infant, more rapid maternal weight loss after birth and delayed return of mentrual periods.3

Ok, so the WHO is behind breastfeeding, at least until the child is 2 years old. But what about beyond that? The studies I found mostly used 6 months as the mark. I was looking for more, what about the type of people who violate my 2 rules? Do they harm their children? Are their 4 year olds as strong as teenagers? Are they the “helicopter moms” who call professors to complain about their 20 year old’s grade?

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I decided to ask a few friends of mine.

Why does prolonged breastfeeding make some of us uncomfortable?

“I suspect that has more to do with arbitrary societal norms than the legitimacy of extended breastfeeding” stated my friend Heather. Why else did the TIME magazine cover cause such an uproar?  

“I have watched both of my nephews nurse well past their third birthday,” she added, “The first was weaned when my sister-in-law became pregnant again. Now nephew #2 is almost four, and he still breastfeeds occasionally. Having seen them grow up this way has seemed totally natural.”

My friend Shannon agreed. When she first found out she was expecting, she assumed she’d breastfeed for 6 months to a year. But her daughter’s first birthday arrived before she knew it. “I started to get asked when I was going to give her cow’s milk, or when I would cut back on our sessions. I started to feel pressure and it was starting to stress me out, and, in turn (stress) her. I didn’t feel either one of us were close to ending that part of our relationship, and I was feeling almost guilty for breastfeeding her around others. Her limbs were getting longer, and it’s not as graceful…. But how can something that clearly is so natural be so wrong?”

Shannon had a compelling point, if it was natural and healthy, what was the problem?

What about boundaries?

But I couldn’t shake the images I’d seen on TV. Look up the “Bitty” sketches from the show Little Britain- about an adult who continues to demand breastmilk from his elderly mother. I remembered an episode of  “Supernanny”  where a mother had to share her bed with her 4 year old daughter who would lift up her shirt frequently throughout the night to feed. The child would yell, “I HATE YOU” if her mother didn’t comply.

My friend Kristie (featured in my previous post) would see her step-brother, who was breastfed until he was a toddler, try to pull his mom’s shirt up in public. She saw no reason to nurse a toddler. Kristie brought up this point in her prenatal class and the teacher Deb, said something that changed Kristie’s tune.

“Actually, the shirt pulling thing has more to do with teaching your toddler manners and boundaries than breastfeeding,” Deb said, “It is known that breast milk adapts to the child’s needs as they age. Do what you are comfortable with, but breast milk has benefits as long as the child continues nursing.”

I have to admit, after talking to my friends, I’m not closer to having a firm opinion, or at least one that doesn’t just sprout from my awkwardness.

Breastmilk is good for babies, no arguments here. But the breast will naturally produce milk as long as there is suckling. So what guides us? Biology? Social norms? The fact that your child is starting kindergarten?

What do you all think? How long is too long?

 

References

  1. http://www.who.int/topics/breastfeeding/en/
  2. Oddy WH, Kendall GE, Li J, et al. The Long-Term Effects of Breastfeeding on Child and Adolescent Mental Health: A Pregnancy Cohort Study Followed for 14 Years. Journal of Pediatrics. 2010; 156: 568-74.
  3. Kramer MS, Kakuma R. Optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue
 
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Posted by on February 11, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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The bare necessities of breast feeding. Or why I don’t want to see your breasts at the mall.

Given that this post is about breast feeding, I thought it was appropriate to make it a two part series.

I have always thought of myself as an advocate of breastfeeding. If you can physically do it, I think you should. It’s economical, healthy for the baby and a special bonding time between mother and child.

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But one day at a public event, I was sitting beside a woman whose child was straddling her lap and facing her breast, which was completely exposed. His little head bobbled back and forth as he aimed to latch on while she was turned talking to her friend. I tried to tell myself I was ok with it, repeating the buzzwords I’d heard in grad school; Economical, healthy, bonding. Economical, healthy, bonding.

But it was then that I had to admit that while I was a lactivist, my lacitivism had limits.

But I don’t have kids so what do I know, right? I wrote to my friend Kristie B, a self-proclaimed lactivist. She’s smart, feisty, and a breastfeeding mama so I asked her for her thoughts.

“Babies need to eat. All the time,” Kristie said. “Being able to breastfeed means no lugging around bottles, special water, formula – then worrying where to heat it. All you need is you.” So far, I’m with her. The whole process is pretty impressive. “As you know, I’m a huge lactavist, I support women breastfeeding anywhere, anytime, any way that works for them.” She then went on to outline common things she’s heard.

Women should breastfeed in bathrooms
I remember being 13 and sitting across the table from my annoying, much younger brother. I’d yell at him for various things, and my parents would say, “if you can’t stand him then go eat your dinner in the bathroom.” That would always stop the complaining.

Kristie and I agree that nobody should have to eat in the bathroom.

Breasts are sexual. Children and men shouldn’t be looking at them
“Children and men should learn that breasts have a purpose other than sexual fun bags,” Kristie said. It’s true, breasts are multi-faceted. I think that when God made them, He was saying, “now here’s something you’ll all really like”. But where I don’t agree with Kristie, is that just because breasts have an alternative function, does not negate that they are also sexual. Take a man exposing himself in public. His member is both functional and sexual but goodness knows, I don’t want to see it, especially if I’m just at the mall getting some frozen yogurt.

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It makes me uncomfortable to see a woman’s breasts
Kristie states, “the world shouldn’t have to adjust to what makes you comfortable. If you don’t like it, don’t look”. I agree with her to some extent but doesn’t the same hold true for the extreme lactivists? Do the people not wanting to see exposed breasts just need to adjust? As for the “if you don’t like it don’t look” philosophy, I agree that I shouldn’t continue  looking at an exposed breast, but there aren’t any flashing lights that say, “warning, don’t look, exposed breasts in 20 meters”. Once I look, I saw.

Women should pump and give in a bottle instead
Kristie raises a great point here, “Pumping is very time consuming, expensive and uncomfortable. Have you tried to heat a bottle with a hungry baby? Lifting your shirt and feeding your child takes seconds. No crying!” I don’t think women should have to do this if it doesn’t work for them.

But then here is where my friend and I differ.

Women should cover up
“Try something for me”, Kristie says, “pour yourself a glass of milk, lay down, cover your head with a blanket and try to drink. Is it comfortable?”

It’s true, we don’t eat like that but only because we can’t. Trust me, if I could, I probably wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning. Kristie goes on to say, “this comment is usually said by someone who has never tried feeding a squirmy baby under a cover. I’ll be honest, I tried multiple times to feed [my daughter] under a cover. Every time she would unlatch, pull the blanket away, cry…all while I was spraying milk everywhere soaking my shirt. It was a disaster.”

She’s right about that. I haven’t been in that situation with a screaming hungry baby who needs eye contact to eat. But is it necessary to have experienced something to have an opinion about it? If that was true how would we be able to discuss issues or concepts such as poverty or the future?

But then Kristie explained how she breastfeeds. Wearing a tank top under her shirt, she doesn’t lift her shirt until her daughter is in position. Onlookers can apparently only see the back of her daughter’s head. Kristie has tried to think of a compromise.

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But the lady beside me at that event and others I’ve seen like her, I can’t help but think they’re using their baby to prove a point. I know that breastfeeding is an amazing thing. You feed another human being with your own BODY. I get it, it’s cool. But I still don’t need to see actual breasts in the process. When women act like it is necessary, I feel like they’re essentially giving us an F you. Or “the nipple”.

But what do you all think? Should Western society rethink how we look at breasts? Are we trumping individual freedoms by expecting women to cover up? Are lactating women disrespecting others when they don’t? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Subscribe to this blog (also check out my contest page) and stay tuned for part 2 where I explore how long women breastfeed.

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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