Extended Breastfeeding


You know you’re an attachment parent when your toddler takes her baby doll to town not in a stroller, but a baby carrier.

You also know you’re an attachment parent when you spend way more time than necessary thinking about the portrayal of extended nursing on last night’s television show.

Chris was excited to discover that HBO is making a television series based on his favorite book series, A Song of Ice & Fire, so we’ve been watching every week as the first book, A Game of Thrones, is brought to life.  Having read the book, I was aware of the fact that one of the characters, Lysa Arryn, is still breastfeeding her six year old son and that this is used to paint an image for the reader of Lysa as an obsessive and crazed mother.  As I watched the scene unfold in this week’s episode, I couldn’t help but wonder what such a negative and public portrayal of breastfeeding will mean for those of us nursing children who are clearly not “babies”.

Yes, Nora is still nursing with the best of them, and is showing no signs of stopping.  She nurses frequently through out the day if she’s tired, frustrated, hurt, or just needs to check in; she can’t function without nursing first thing after waking up in the morning or after nap.    Thankfully, she’s still happily sleeping though the night with the side back up on her crib, which give me a break again at night, but it’s so clear that nursing is still a very important part of her day.

I’ve been enjoying some of the aspects of nursing that only come with a toddler.  Nora still signs a bit, but now she also verbally asks for “mop”.  She understands the concept of waiting, and while it’s sometimes hard, she is able to do it.  There’s rarely marathon nursing sessions like with a newborn, and she’s willing to stop when I want her to stop if I don’t have time or the inclination to sit and let her nurse.  She’s just starting to get interested in sharing her “mop” with her dolls, and it’s amazing to watch her mind try to figure things out.  Best of all, nursing gives us pause and time to connect, just the two of us, in the midst of our very busy days.

Watching Lysa Arryn and her son Robert (who is supposed to be 6 or 7), I was taken aback by the intimacy and oddity of a boy that age nursing — just as Martin intended.  The scene was perfectly played to portray Lysa negatively and to make the viewer’s skin crawl.  But reflecting upon it, I couldn’t help but remember something one of the LLL leaders in New York used to say about toddler and preschooler nursing: It seems weird to think of a child that age nursing, because you think of someone else’s child or a child you don’t know.  It’s different when it’s your own child because they don’t just wake up one day as a toddler, the metamorphosis happens gradually overtime.

For the mother, it is much less strange to nurse an older baby. I never thought I would be nursing an almost two year old, and yet here we are (and from the looks of things, she’ll still be nursing well after her second birthday, too).  While I can’t see myself nursing a school-aged Nora, I do have an inkling of understanding for Lysa’s character and a lot less judgement than I might have felt reading the book in my pre-baby days.

While the scene was true to the book and perhaps a very effective way of building Lysa’s character, I do wish they would have left it out.  Because not 24 hours after extended breastfeeding was portrayed as disgusting and weird on television screens across America, a metro-Atlanta city passed a new law which would limit public breastfeeding:

According to the law, no woman can breast feed anyone older than 2 years old in public. City manager John Parker called the law a proactive step.“It sets up a process whereby we can try to control nudity throughout the entire city,” Parker said.

I couldn’t be more sad to see this news story.  Not only is it ridiculous (how would they even enforce the two-year age limit; do nursing mother’s need to carry their child’s birth certificate at all times?), it also fails to recognize the non-nutritive benefits of nursing.  It’s not as simple as saying that toddlers and babies who can eat solid foods should be only eating solids in public.  Infants and many toddlers have a physical need to suck – it promotes the production of stress-relieving horomones.  Many studies have shown that normally developed infants have an inherent, biological drive for sucking, and that drive does not just end at a year.

A study which looked at non-nutritive sucking behaviors in preschool children found that children around the world continue to derive comfort from sucking (fingers, pacifiers, bottles, etc.) in some cases up through the age of 5.On our little island, I often see children walking about with bottles hanging out of their mouths or pacifiers that they remove only to speak (and sometimes not even then).  I can’t imagine that people would find that sort of comfort acceptable, but not the biological norm that is is breastfeeding.

Yes, 6 or 7 may seem extreme in our culture, but in terms of human mammals that may not be the case: an anthropological study of the natural age of weaning finds that weaning is always talking in terms of years, not months.  And even if we might agree that 6 or 7 is extreme, it is cruel and unusual to legislate that a child 2 years and 1 day old is no longer legally able to find comfort at her mother’s breast after falling at the playground.

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2 responses

  1. Shelah Avatar

    I just wanted to thank you for calling attention to the un-natural social aversion to extended breastfeeding. My daughter is almost three and a half, and getting ready for preschool in the fall. I have committed to allowing her to self wean as long as it is convenient for me. She nurses every night, at nap time, and sometimes in the morning. The only reason I don’t let her nurse in the afternoon is that she will end up taking a late nap and wont sleep at bedtime. I generally don’t nurse in public, and she rarely asks anymore, but I support the rights of mother and child to nurse where ever they feel comfortable. I’d probably nurse in public more, but my husband doesn’t like to share. He’s sure that to all men a boob is a boob no matter what it’s being used for, and I can’t argue with that. So their’s two sides right there, I’m not modest but my husband is. I think, in Oregon it is legal to go completely topless in public for anyone for any reason, and it is illegal to ask a women breastfeeding to cover up. It’s nice to know that the law is on our side here, but I’m sorry for those still fighting in other states. I’m suddenly reminded of the no shoes no shirt no service signs on public transit….I wonder how specific those laws are. Anyway I’m rambling…..thanks again for being a positive voice of extended breastfeeding!

  2. Sarah Meyers Avatar
    Sarah Meyers

    that is a stupid law.

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