Breastfeeding Controversy: What’s Normal? What’s Accepted?

Posted on May 18, 2012


It would be hard to miss all the ado over Time magazine’s cover showing Jamie Lynn Grumet breastfeeding her nearly four-year-old son as both look directly into the camera.  I’m in the camp that sees something wrong with this, and my opinion admittedly has a lot to do with 21st-century American culture, because that’s where we live.

As far as Nature goes, it’s all well and good for anthropologists to argue that breastfeeding even up to age six or so has health benefits.  I can see their point, but I also think that the reason we evolved teeth was to eat solid food, and we have a full set of those teeth by age three.  Even the anthropologists point out that the mean weaning age in “traditional societies” is about three years,  which dovetails nicely with that full set of teeth.  It’s not like breastfeeding stops overnight; weaning is a process, but certainly once a child has all of his teeth (and I don’t mean the wisdom teeth!), Nature has equipped him to deal with solids.

But then there is our culture.  We are not a “traditional society.”  Not only is breastfeeding inconvenient for busy, working, 21st-century American mothers, but the act of breastfeeding is not universally accepted as an appropriate public activity.  We can argue that it should be more accepted, and work to make it so, but nursing older children will always be controversial, and doing it in public makes it a topic for noisy public discourse.  Obviously, nursing a two-month-old infant should be okay.  Nursing a 13-year-old teen is not okay.  So where is the line?  Ms. Grumet herself says she was nursed to age six.  If that’s okay, then what about eight?  If it’s not okay, what about four?

I have had occasion to dwell on this subject before.  A couple who I knew slightly had a five-year-old son.  His health in infancy had been touch-and-go, and the parents were still fiercely protective and doted on their only child.  And that led to an embarrassing moment.  The family was out to dinner with co-workers in a public restaurant.  The boy was pestering his mother repeatedly about something; she kept putting him off.  Suddenly, in loud, clear, correct English, the boy announced:  “I want the breast.  Give me the breast.  You know I’m going to get it later anyway, so you might as well give it to me now.”  The other diners were momentarily frozen with their mouths open and food dangling from their forks.  Then conversation resumed as if no one had heard anything, although everyone in the entire restaurant obviously had.  The parents were mortified.  Children will occasionally make loud, impatient, and  ill-mannered demands, but the content of this one was a shock to everyone within earshot.  A shock, because breastfeeding a five-year-old is not generally seen as normal in our culture.  When I related the story to my aged father, his response was:  “When they’re old enough to ask for it, they should have already been weaned.”

The unhinged Lysa and her still-nursing son

Or, check out this fictional example:  in Game of Thrones, the mentally unstable character Lysa is still breastfeeding her son even as he edges toward adolescence, and the boy is depicted as mentally under-developed.  Okay, not factual, but these details were written in to emphasize Lysa’s unhinged nature.  The storyline is a product of our culture, and reflects a common cultural attitude:  that breastfeeding is for babies, not prepubescent children.

And then there is the effect that this will have on the child himself.  Not the fact of the breastfeeding, but the fact that his mother chose to make it so. very. public.  I think Dr. Keith Ablow has it right when he asks, “Forget the Breast, What About the Boy?”  The boy, Dr. Ablow points out, is completely recognizable.  What will happen when he starts school?  Or… what will happen in junior high school?  “He may never be better-known for anything than for being a breastfeeding 3-year-old on the cover of a national magazine,” Ablow writes, and presciently, as it turns out.  The boy has been repeatedly featured in parodies of the cover photo.  Here is a collection of some of the more memorable ones.

And therein lies the problem.  Even as we press to make public breastfeeding more acceptable, some mothers are pushing the envelope of acceptable weaning ages.  Four years? Five? Six?  These are much longer-than-average timeframes, even compared with “traditional societies.”  And mothers must balance the diminishing physical and psychological returns of longer breastfeeding against the possible psychological damage incurred by colliding with culturally accepted norms.  I don’t think Jamie Lynn Grumet’s son will have any ill effects at all from nursing at age four, but I do worry – as Dr. Ablow does – that he will suffer the effects of that cultural collision.