Doing what I do
A hot topic out there in the blogosophere lately is one of my favorites: Breastfeeding. I’d be writing more in support of the awesome mommy bloggers out there who are beating me to it, on topics ranging from busting nursing myths, to how to respond to critics of public breastfeeding, to kicking ABC News in the soft parts for their slant on money and breastfeeding in the US, but I’ve been too busy being constantly gnawed on by my growing enormous-er 16 month old.
Still, here I am. And you know I’ve got something to say about extended breastfeeding. And as that picture up there suggests, I’m not afraid to expose… my own opinions on the subject! [Also, Dear Facebook: Pics of nursing mommies are inappropriate? Bite me.]
Breast milk. It still does a body good.
I want to talk about why Americans aren’t nursing their older children. And by “older” I mean toddlers and beyond. Specifically, the age a baby is when he is old enough to make his way independently to his mother and using words, sign language, or physical prowess is able to get into her shirt to facilitate getting the breast into his starving, gaping maw.
Everyone is certainly free to express his or her opinions on how long women should breastfeed. And I think such comments, be they positive or negative about extended breastfeeding, are effectively raising the level of dialogue on a damn important topic. After all, extended breastfeeding is something that can make for healthier adults. If more women could breastfeed their babies to 12 months and beyond, there would be, overall, a lower incidence of a whole host of health concerns for mothers and their children that you can read about on Wikipedia or Kellymom, or the CDC website, or about 50 other websites out there. But I’m not going to focus on why you should breastfeed your baby for as long as possible. Yet. I want to talk about why the majority of U.S. women are, statistically speaking, NOT breastfeeding for longer than 3 months.
A Healthy Start, Followed by a Plummeting Disappointment!
According to a 2010 CDC report, significantly more women are breastfeeding their newborns. More than 75% of newborns in 2010 started out nursing, whereas in 2001 the number was closer to 65%. Yay! But after the first three months, that number drops drastically. Only 33% were exclusively breastfed at 3 months. Now, bear in mind that the World Health Organization advises ONLY breast milk for the first 6 months of life, and a weaning age no earlier than 2. Most babies in the U.S. are weaned at or before the age of 12 months. A study by the CDC posited that those low rates can be attributed to a lack of support: “Low breastfeeding rates at 3, 6, and 12 months illustrate that mothers continue to face multiple barriers to breastfeeding.”
The CDC targets ways to support breastfeeding mothers, through birth facility support, professional support, legislation, infrastructure, and support in child care settings. And whereas I see these as positive ways to effect change, I think that this effort needs some support from the ground. American women don’t breastfeed their babies beyond 12 months for a number of reasons, which I will now enumerate using the MotherMirth Patented [un]Scientific Method™:
Why American Women Aren’t Doing the Extended Breastfeeding Thing
1. Nursing babies past the first few months is weird. That’s what your MOM said.
Why, oh why, do we listen to the naysayers? Because they are our mothers. Our aunts. Our freakin’ grandmothers. “Well, YOU were fed formula from birth, and look how well YOU turned out!” Oh. My. God. Shut UP! The previous few generations will keep saying this to validate their choices because they want forgiveness when you end up with adult onset diabetes or celiac disease or one of the other afflictions headed your way if you were given formula at the beginning of your life. The fact that more women are breaking the mold, doing something different than their own mothers did, is notable. And this trend needs to continue. You can love your moms. That doesn’t mean you need to heed her antiquated breastfeeding advice.
2. For the same reason you don’t see “Sunday” in Days of the Week Panties. Because of God.
We live in a country where there are some sanctimonious mofos. Not all of them are Republican, even, but still, for some reason, the moral compass too often in America points to the crazies, and the more conservative beliefs about women and breasts make us look positively Victorian in ideology. And not in the fun lace-and-silk way! When it comes down to it, if you are contemplating breastfeeding and your value set is Judeo-Christian in flavor, or is informed by the Old Testament of the Bible, you should picture Eve in the Garden, dressed in her fig leaves. I didn’t read anything in Genesis about a deity providing Enfamil, so it’s my assumption that Eve nursed her dozens of babies with her breasts until they were of an age where they could chew up some of that nummy forbidden fruit using their own choppers. The bottom line is that no matter your faith or lack thereof, women are biologically equipped to nurse babies for an extended period of time. And yet, peek-of-breast-aphobia is enough reason for some women and their partners to opt out.
3. Boobies are for hot sex! And our sexual partners have dibs on our nibs.
Ah, the voracious sexual appetite of our partners. We should wean early so that we can give our bodies back to our lovers. Because those boobies aren’t multi-functional. You can’t nurse a baby with those things and then offer them up to your lover for nibbling and hot booty rocking. That’s perverted. </sarcasm>
4. Extended nursing goes well with co-sleeping, and we all know that THAT is just wrong.
We’ve been told to put our babies far away from us for sleep by the very medical professionals who should know better. More and more American women are advised to sleep train their young babies earlier and earlier. The reasons given include more sleep for mom, and training a baby to self-placate. And, yes, it must be nice to have a baby sleep through the night at 3 months. If you’re a working mother, it’s a whole lot easier to get some sleep if a baby isn’t attached to your nipple. I get that. But it’s biologically ill advised to be separated from him or her for 6-8 hours per night in those early months if you want to continue with an extended breastfeeding relationship. If you are the type of mom who can get up a few times per night to pump milk for your slumbering baby, you are a saint. I wish you all the best in the world, and please remember me in your prayers. Co-sleeping parents are more likely to continue with extended breastfeeding because it’s just… easy. Extended breastfeeding and co-sleeping are childrearing practices that have been written off in our more modern culture so much so that they are both, basically, taboo behaviors. In my experience, and in a lot of families I have had the privilege of knowing, co-sleeping is a way of life that helps support the mother for extended breastfeeding.
5. Saggy baggy used-up fun bags. “I mean, c’mon. Ewwww.”
Chewed up nipples. Breasts that hang down to your waist line. Let’s face it: your breasts will not return to their perky, pre-lactation state after you breastfeed a baby for an extended period of time. The perception that I need to wear a torture device called “underwire” or else duct tape my mammary glands in an upward position for the rest of my life so that my USED breasts maintain that youthful sprite and bounce is completely driven by marketing dollars. If your lover/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend really has any sense, he/she/they would love you and your breasts because they nurtured and nourished a baby. Or three. If my husband really ever said “ewww” to me regarding my breasts, he would find the locks changed when he came home from work and all his stuff on the front lawn.
6. Money, baby.
Most of the reasons for not continuing to breastfeed have to do with money. You had to return to work after a short maternity leave. Your household requires two incomes to make ends meet. Your employer doesn’t support pumping milk. You have a health concern that makes it impossible to continue to provide breast milk for your baby. Rock on, Momma. You are da bomb. Extended breastfeeding in our culture is hard because it’s based on the assumption that you either have the economic means, basically, to stay home with your babies, or you have the money/patience/willingness/biological ability to pump enough milk for your baby to sustain him/her while you are away. Two-income families are more the norm these days as more Americans struggle to make ends meet. And in low-income households, extended breastfeeding is almost impossible. Diane Pagen writes here that assistance programs make it impossible for women of low economic means to continue their breastfeeding relationship. Money is a huge reason why women in the United States don’t nurse long-term.
7. Illness and Bad Medicine
There are very valid medical reasons for discontinuing a nursing relationship, ones that don’t need further discussion from me. You are the expert on your health. Unfortunately, there are also those occasions when medical professionals don’t find ways to support women in continuing to nurse their babies. Mastitis is not a reason to wean. Painful nursing also is not. There are classes of drugs that are safe to take while nursing. There are lactation consultants who can help you perfect your latch in those first months. One of my physicians advised I wean because I had a lung infection, and he was afraid that the drugs he wanted to give me would pass to my baby. I assured him that I could find alternate breast milk sources, and I could pump and dump if need be during the course of any drug I needed to take. In short, there are valid reasons. And then there are misinformed medical professionals that advise weaning when they shouldn’t. It’s up to the mothers to have the confidence and information from breastfeeding professionals to speak up and advocate for their babies’ best interests.
8. In a word: Teeth. The Horror.
Friends and family seem to think I’m a martyr because I nurse my be-toothed little guy every 3 or 4 hours, 24 hours per day. His little mouth is infested with teeth! How do I do it? I very seldom get bitten, because I don’t allow it. Just as your dog shouldn’t bite the hand that feeds him, my son shouldn’t bite the nipple that sustains him, or he doesn’t get it. Human babies are really quite smart. I hope to help debunk the myth that nursing babies with teeth is so fraught with peril and pain.
9. My dentist is a pain in my lower right quadrant
So, my baby should suffer more childhood illnesses because nursing past a certain age might make his teeth come in crooked? Let’s get our priorities straight here. Health before vanity, IMHO. I’m done with this reason.
10. Our role models are nursing ninjas
Women who don’t have family support–a relative or friend who nursed her baby–have no role models for breastfeeding unless they seek them out. And although she may have support in the hospital or birthing center, statistics show that she will give up on breastfeeding earlier than is best for her child. Why? Because we don’t see women nursing their babies in public very often. And we never see women doing extended breastfeeding, because they are stealthy, closet nursers. Because they are tired of trying to cover up nursing their frantic, upside-down hyper two-year-olds on the park benches at the playground. They time feedings for when they get home. So where do we turn? What media gets more of our attention in the United States than any other? Uh, that would be television. Why don’t you see women nursing on TV? Or women expressing milk using a pump? Because it’s hard to fake. Giving a baby a bottle is much easier to film and is more “realistic.” Plus, showing boobies on TV is one of those rated R things. So you won’t really get a good peek of actual breastfeeding of older babies or children on your television unless you rent a documentary.
11. Enough is enough, girlfriend!
I love my friends. And I know that they want the best for me. But sometimes, it gets a little tiring when you hear “When are you going to get that baby off your boob, woman!” You don’t want to get on your lectern. And you know they mean well. But this goes back to a lack of support. Women who lack support give up earlier on breastfeeding.
To sum up
I wish I had a quarter for every time I read or heard comments such as “I think you should stop breastfeeding when the child is old enough to ask for breastmilk in his tea/coffee/cereal/oatmeal (etc)” or “breastfeeding is OK for babies, but I don’t want to see a woman nursing a 4 or 6 year old in public.” I assure you, our culture will continue to see extended breastfeeding as abnormal and wrong, something you should turn your eyes away from, if all comments were like these. And the funny thing is that you DON’T see 4 or 6 year olds nursing. You are more apt to see a unicorn trotting through the local park. But, hey, at least someone is commenting on nursing and older children, right? So, bring on the comments. Negative or positive. At least there is the beginnings of constructive discussion regarding this taboo practice. The idea of nursing older children needs to be dragged into the cultural dialectic, to the land of being OK to discuss. To see. And, finally, to accept as normal.
Stay Tuned for Thursday’s Part II: Tips to Extend Your Breastfeeding Relationship. With a timely, seasonally appropriate Mardi Gras plea: Show Us Your Boobies!