Booby Traps Series: “If we lived on an island where nobody else cared what we did…” How stigma hinders nursing past infancy.

Breastfeeding in The Park.In Mothering Your Nursing Toddler, author Norma Jane Bumgarner describes the reasons why mothers feel they can’t breastfeed past infancy,* even though they (and presumably their children) would like to:

“What other people think bothers me too much.”

“Nursing is not the problem, but what other people think of it.”

And the one that stuck with me:

“If we lived on an island where nobody cared what we did, I would let her nurse as long as she wanted.”

This book was last updated over ten years ago, but the pressures these mothers felt are still present in our culture, though perhaps fading slightly.  One older study found that mothers cited increasing social stigma the longer they breastfed, with “29 percent cited social stigma for breastfeeding past six months, 44 percent for breastfeeding past 12 months, and 61 percent for breastfeeding past 24 months.”  While the numbers might not be as high today, they undoubtedly would follow the same pattern.

The result of this pressure varies, but it clearly has an effect on some mothers.

Some mothers – surely many of you – continue to nurse in spite of this pressure, oftentimes finding ways to insulate themselves from it.  I’ll explain some of the factors which seem to sustain mothers in spite of these pressures at the end of this post.

But some mothers cut short their nursing experiences.  One Canadian study found: “Participants perceived less approval for breastfeeding the longer they breastfed. Perceived approval strongly explained intended duration at 9 months postpartum.”

And other mothers continue to nurse but keep it hidden.  Researchers have been writing about “closeted nursing” and a “secret bond” for some time.

Why do mothers feel constrained in nursing beyond infancy?  It will come as little surprise to many of you that our culture tends to view nursing beyond infancy to be inappropriate, obscene, and sometimes even abusive.

It stems in part from our culture’s view of the breast as predominantly, even exclusively, a sexual object.  It’s not that hard to follow this line of thinking to the point of view that as a child grows, attachment to breastfeeding is inappropriate.  The more a child looks and acts like a child and not a baby, the more the discomfort grows (i.e. “If he’s old enough to ask for it…”)

Another factor is the idea that breastfeeding is solely about food.  As a child eats more complementary foods, the relationship appears more and more to be about connection, and this is sometimes viewed as cultivating an unhealthy dependency on the breast for comfort.  This is the logic behind comments I sometimes see suggesting that mothers pump and put their milk in a cup instead of sustaining breastfeeding.

And some mothers fear that they will even be accused of abusing their children – a fear widespread enough that La Leche League offers tips on “coping with reports of abuse or neglect.”

Many of you know that these views fly in the face of current health recommendations and of history.  The World Health Organization and Health Canada recommend breastfeeding to “two years of age and beyond.”  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AA)) recommends breastfeeding for “1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.”  (The AAP policy used to contain even more supportive comments, but they were not included in the 2012 version.)

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) states in their breastfeeding policy, “Breastfeeding beyond the first year offers considerable benefits to both mother and child, and should continue as long as mutually desired.”  The AAFP also states, “breastfeeding should ideally continue beyond infancy, but this is not the cultural norm in the United States and requires ongoing support and encouragement.  It has been estimated that a natural weaning age for humans is between two and seven years.”

Most importantly, the stigma against nursing past infancy runs contrary to what mothers say about their own experiences.  Mothers say sustained breastfeeding provides a strong emotional connection to their children.  And a recent Kellogg Foundation poll illustrates this:  when mothers were asked to name the most positive thing they experienced about (any) breastfeeding, “bonding” ranked the highest, ahead of nutrition and immune protection.

So what gets mothers through this morass of pressure?  Confidence, a sense of control, and support, says the research.  One study found: “Mother-to-mother support, spousal support, and a woman’s own sense of confidence were important buffers against the criticism of others.”  Another found that the amount of control mothers perceived, the longer their breastfeeding intentions were.

*In the absence of a perfect phrase, we refer to breastfeeding past infancy as “sustained breastfeeding” (as used in Breastfeeding Older Children) in this post.  It’s our wish that someday it will be known simply as “breastfeeding.”

Did you feel judged for breastfeeding past infancy?  Did you receive supportive or discouraging feedback?  Did you feel pressure to “closet” your nursing?  Did you have good support?  What got you through?

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