Breastfeeding Six Year Olds

 

 

Two weeks ago I posted a blog about breastfeeding. I thought I had said it all.

 

I hadn’t.

 

In Bringing Cultural Differences Home, I wanted to introduce my readers to some bizarre cultural differences right here in the U.S., in our own backyard.

 

The first one I chose sent my eyebrows up into the top of my forehead. I can’t make this stuff up.

 

 

That blog was about mothers committed to breast-feeding their offspring until they go off to college, or high school, or some place.

I know.  I may be exaggerating.

 

From Cosmopolitan.com January 6, 2015
From Cosmopolitan.com January 6, 2015

 

Now, when I first came across this story I gasped. I may even have let out an under-my-breath “OMG!”

 

But did I put any of that in the blog post?   No.  Too focused on maintaining my reputation as the open-minded, culturally relative explorer of all things different and new, I diligently soft-pedaled my reaction. I try to be open-minded.

 

For all I knew, I had some of these super-human milk machines reading my post. I didn’t want to offend.

 

I still don’t.

 

Pat Roque/AP in Cosmo & Culture January 15, 2015 NPR.org
Pat Roque/AP in Cosmo & Culture January 15, 2015 NPR.org

 

 

But, there’s a social movement out there advocating breastfeeding until the child lets go. Some say until the child’s permanent teeth come in (yes; that would certainly clinch it for me, though in my experience, whether it’s baby teeth or dentures, a bite is a bite).

 

 

Obviously, this touched a nerve in me.

 

At the same time, aren’t these just the kinds of differences I have set my antennae to find?
So, back I went to the very links I had posted to learn more.

 

University of Delaware anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, whose very impressive resume is here, weighed in on the NPR article by saying,

nursing large-bodied mammalian offspring for many years, until their first permanent teeth erupt (5.5-6.0 years in humans), is “natural” for humans in the sense of being what the underlying evolutionary, biological/physiological norm is for us as a species.

 

My first “large-bodied mammalian offspring” gave up the breast at six-months, weary of having to work so hard when nourishment could be had more easily from a plastic tit.

My second-born “large-bodied mammalian offspring” (Don’t you just love the way academics talk?) was nearly two when he gave it up. Finally!  On his own. I had been complaining to my neighbors that I was afraid I’d be giving him a final slurp as he ran off to catch his school bus to kindergarten.  Little did I realize then that this might not have been so far fetched.

But let’s go back to Dr. Dettwyler. She also had this to say in the NPR article.

Long-term breast-feeding allows for normal development of the child’s brain, facial structure, immune system, and emotional resilience to life’s slings and arrows.

Theoretically, I find this lovely.  What mother doesn’t want “normal development of her child’s brain, facial structure, and immune system?” To what lengths didn’t we all go to assure the “emotional resilience to life’s slings and arrows?” I mean, really. We want the best for our children.

Of course we do. More from Dr. Dettwyler:

As far as I know, there are no ‘costs’ to the child. If the mother doesn’t want to continue breast-feeding, then of course, she shouldn’t feel obliged to — regardless of the age of the child. But people should be informed that nursing a 6-7+year-old is a perfectly normal and natural and healthy thing to be doing for the child, and that their fears of emotional harm are baseless.

(The section in bold face shows my emphasis.)

OK. Maybe fears of emotional harm are baseless.  Maybe there are no “costs” to the child.  But nursing a six-year old is NOT a “perfectly normal … thing to be doing for the child.”   Maybe it’s natural (though that’s a stretch) and maybe it’s healthy. But it is not “normal,” simply because breastfeeding one’s six year old is not (yet) standard practice.  Maybe it should be. I really don’t know.

I turned to a website called The Leaky Boob, to see what else I could learn.  Honest. That’s the name of it. The Leaky Boob.  It offers support of all kinds for breastfeeding mothers. But I found this blog post from last December entitled, “How to Wean Your Teenager.”  I’m sincerely hoping this was in jest.

 

I checked out The American Academy of Pediatrics. They recommend “exclusive breast-feeding for about 6 months, with continuation of breast-feeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.”

 

That “… or longer as mutually desired …” part was kind of vague.

 

I’m actually not advocating anything here. Though I’m not going to encourage any new mother to hang in there for the next seven years, I don’t feel the need to put a stop to this practice, either.  Who am I to set the standard?

 

All I’m trying to do is get comfortable with accept appreciate understand the notion that there are mothers out there who don’t mind whipping out a bare breast at the whim of their six (or seven) year old. I’m trying to stay curious to this behavior that has clearly got my eyes rolling and my eyebrows stuck in a permanent arc. This is not always easy.

 

So, I’ve done what I can.  As lactation specialist Kathleen Kendall-Tackett said in her editorial from the journal Clinical Lactation, “extended breast-feeding is officially out of the closet.”

Indeed.

I’m happy to have helped.

 

Now I’m going to go have a cup of tea and be very grateful that my mothering days are over.

 

How about you?  Will you weigh in?

46 Responses

  1. Frank V. Moore
    | Reply

    Speechless!! (for once)

  2. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    I love this new Janet “Unleashed.” As for what I think about idea, I’m open to whatever new mommies want to do. It’s their life, their kid. But I must say that as a grandmother and in my 70’s it’s all quite challenging to take in. 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      HI Joan, I know. After reworking this post, I find I’d really love to talk to one of these mothers. Still, it does stir something in me that just wants to gasp.

  3. Shirley Hershey Showalter
    | Reply

    You have clearly found Janet Unleashed. She’s irreverent and bold, and kind. Love that combo. Keep on whippin”em out, Janet. Posts, that is. 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Shirley, you make me laugh. Thanks. And thanks too for the nudge. Your part of the nudge anyway.

  4. Nancy Buck
    | Reply

    Well, I breast fed 3 kids and each one was different from the others. And the reasons for terminating the lactation relationships also varied with each child.
    But it is my last child that had potential for lots of arc shaped eyebrows- none the least were those of my eldest child who felt that it was undignified( ok,
    disgusting) that her nearly 3 year old baby brother could stop by for a milk hit on the way to his next Play Doh project.
    Now my son and I were quite happy with the way things were going – and, if some unrelated health issues hadn’t popped up, we could well have continued our breast feeding relationship for, well, a long(er?) time. I can’t be exact, but I think for sure we would have had to can it by his wedding day.

    I never dreamed I’d be one of “those” moms. But I try real hard to watch my eyebrows, but sometimes they get ahead of my better self:)

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Nancy, Hi. And welcome. Your comment about your three-year old reminded me of an incident I’d totally forgotten. Not sure my own “large-bodied mammallian” first-born will like this, but when he was three (he’d stopped nursing at 6 months, btw) he showed serious curiosity about what I was doing with his brother. Or, more precisly, what his baby brother was doing with me. Concerned he’d start feeling jealous, I offered him a “sip.” He took one quick “hit” and said something to the effect of “Yuk” and never again showed the slightest interest. Fortunately, we happened to be home, behind closed doors at the time. Well, that was a surprising memory. Thanks for the push into it.

      • Nancy Buck
        | Reply

        Your welcome, Janet.
        And in the interest of providing data on possible maternal profiles and motivations, my son may or may not have been in his crib till age 5.
        And he is the most independent of the bunch:)

      • David
        | Reply

        I actually clearly remember that moment and I never in a million years would have admitted to it for any number of reasons. Though I’m sure they were/are mostly related to cultural norms and the “ick” factor associated with such behavior. Well something new to talk to the therapist about next week, thanks for the walk down memory lane.

        • Janet Givens
          | Reply

          Oh my! That’s a surprise. So, is this where I say “thanks for sharing?”

  5. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — I suppose the time to be done breastfeeding is different for each child, but HOLY TOLEDO! Until they can dress themselves, tie their own shoelaces, and recite the alphabet?!

    I understand that “there’s a social movement out there advocating breastfeeding until the child lets go.” But what if they’re “late bloomers” or “hanger on-ers?” We’re supposed to give them another “sip” before their name’s called to cross the dais to pick up their high school diploma?

    Lawdy, Lawdy…I’m so glad my child raising days are in the rearview mirror!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I hear you, Laurie. I love the vivid images you gave us. Very funny. So glad you stopped by.

  6. Darlene Lancer, LMFT
    | Reply

    I love your humor. Yet, I can’t help but wonder what Daddy feels, and though on the surface these mothers claim it’s for the child, I’m guessing that it’s often for the mom. And herein lies the problem that breed emotional dependence, enmeshment and codependency. Of course, in other cultures there are different norms concerning independence and family ties.
    Darlene Lancer, LMFT
    Author of “Codependency for Dummies”
    http://www.whatiscodependency.com

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Darlene,
      Your comment about the Dads is a good one. A suggested focus on the moms (rather than the kids) came up on the FB thread on this, but no one has wondered about the Dads. I would too.

      Thanks for adding your voice. I’m so glad to see you here. Thanks for dropping by.

  7. Louise
    | Reply

    Hi Janet,
    I’ve read the article and all of the comments and the OMG thought sprang to mind pretty quickly! I fed all three of mine, all until varying times but never after about one year old. That was the last and an emotional thing thinking I’d never Breast feed again. The second child got a tooth at five months and boy did that hurt!!! Hard as I tried though I couldn’t wean him onto the plastic tit for a long while!
    In the UK there is a programme called Little Britain and there’s a character on it who as an adult still feeds from his mummy! It’s pretty gruesome really and he calls it ‘Bitty!’ Maybe you should google it so you can have a laugh in between grimaces!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I Googled Little Britain and here’s what caught my eye: “These sketches were presented to the viewer together with narration in a manner which suggested that the programme is a guide—aimed at non-British people—to the ways of life of various classes of British society.” Sounds delightful and just what this may turn into here. Cultural differences CAN be funny. As long as we can take as well as give. Thanks for stopping by Louise.

  8. Ronny Herman de Jong
    | Reply

    Janet, that is the most unusual thing I have heard. And I was surprised to see my daughters nurse their babies for at least a year!

    This was my experience:

    Turn back the clock to summer 1963: we were living in the Netherlands when our first daughter was born. Of course I followed the doctor’s advice: at 6 months, when her first teeth came in, I weened her.

    February 1966: still in the Netherlands, same doctor, second daughter. Doctor’s advice: “This baby girl is so healthy and big, you can start her on solid food at 4 months, go ahead and ween her. And you can let her sleep in her pram outside in the shade under the trees in the back yard when the weather is nice.” So I did. Over the summer, the baby got the most beautiful tan and skin and she thrived on solid food (no sun tan lotion of course because she was sleeping in the shade).

    June 1972: still in the Netherlands, but preparing for emigration to California, a son was born. The same doctor advised: “You can’t count on your milk production to be steady and sufficient during the stress of packing and flying and moving to a new country. Better start weening your son at 8 weeks so you can fly at 10 weeks, but start him on bottles in the mean time. 🙁 🙁

    HOW TIMES HAVE CHANGED! DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOUR DOCTOR SAYS!

    • Ronny
      | Reply

      This is a PS:
      Correction! I meant WEAN of course

      • Janet Givens
        | Reply

        No problem, Ronnie. I saw what I was expecting to see, so hadn’t even noticed.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Ronnie. Yes, We’ve come a long way since the days when doctors pretended to be gods. Thank God. Then, I set your story against the many cases where mothers refuse to vaccinate and wonder just how far we’ve really come. Easy answers escape me.

  9. Kelly Boyer Sagert
    | Reply

    I nursed my first baby until his first birthday. At that point, I dehydrated, so I stopped. My second baby never seemed too into breastfeeding and, by the time he was three months old, I gave up the fight.

    I had a friend who decided to breastfeed until the child wanted to stop and she talked about awkward moments when her daughter was old enough to talk and would request “milk” when company was there.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Kelly, Yes, there is something about the kid being old enough to ask for it that sends a quiver up my spine. It’s interesting to me that this mother acknowledged feeling awkward. I wonder how the father felt. It’s a topic that touches us in different ways — and certainly brought back surprising memories! Thanks for weighing in.

  10. L. E. Carmichael
    | Reply

    I’m not a mom, and I’d never presume to tell women what they should do with their kids, but as a biologist, it seems to me that young mammals grow teeth when they’re ready to chew. If it were me, that’s when I would stop breastfeeding. Of course, my opinion might be biased by the increased potential for ouchiness at that point!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Lindsey. I didn’t realize you weren’t a mom. Knowing you write for kids — and on that fascinating topic of foxes — I find myself in that uncomfortable spot of realizing I’ve been assuming … Oh well.

      My only memory of breastfeeding the one with teeth was that I yelped so loud when he bit down, it scared both of us and it never happened again (that I recall, anyway).

      Keep teaching us about foxes. Your books are great. and I just discovered this YouTube video of an interview with you and your Fuzzy Forensics for kids. I do believe you’re my only Commenter with her own YouTube video.

      I’m ordering your books for my grandkids right now. Sorry it took me so long.

  11. […] As a result, “eyes high on my forehead” and “eyebrows in a permanent arc” shall live forever in my blog of February 11, Breastfeeding Six Year Olds. […]

  12. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    Great post! I’ve done some research on breasts and breastfeeding for my work. I know that in some cultures it definitely made sense to keep breastfeeding going, not only to feed children when food was scarce, but also as a birth control method to space out births, since women are less likely to become pregnant while breastfeeding (although this is certainly not foolproof). I would also have had my eyebrows, such as they are, pushed way up to my hairline if I saw a mother nursing a 6 year old.

    I breastfed both of my girls for over a year. Neither one would take a bottle, but I started them on cups at 6 months. My younger daughter started talking well before she was a year old and called breastfeeding “Oww,” because I must have said that once when she latched on. She would politely say to me, “Ow, peese.” Enough embarrassing stories now. 🙂

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Merril, So glad you weighed in here. Those practical reasons in other cultures that are not at issue here notwithstanding, I’m fascinated at the moment by the “ick factor” my firstborn large-bodied mammalian referred to in his comment (out of the blue) above. 🙂 There’s that “it’s just wrong” attitude. It’s where THAT comes from that’s got me hooked. You know?

      Might you weigh in here with information from your Cultural Encyclopedia of Breastfeeding? (Did I get that title right? Sorry; doing this from memory).

      • Merril Smith
        | Reply

        Sorry, I never saw your reply! My book is Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast–not breastfeeding. 🙂 There are some articles though on breastfeeding.

  13. […] differences in our own backyard?  I enjoyed writing those posts on different parenting styles: breast feeding six year olds and free-range […]

  14. […] month I wrote about the breastfeeding revolution, first on January 28 and again on February 11. I urge you to take a look, if you missed either of them. They were fun  posts to write. Well, the […]

  15. […] of my favorite blog posts was the one last February on the breastfeeding moms and their school aged breastfeeding kids.  Yup, you can read it again by […]

  16. […] a few get a whole blog post about them (see Breastfeeding six year olds (from February, 2015) or the Free-Range Kids movement (from May, […]

  17. Tolerance – Janet Givens
    | Reply

    […] there were plenty of them right here in front of me. I started, if you recall with the one about Breastfeeding Six Year Olds. That one certainly had me gasping, “Oh […]

  18. Lise
    | Reply

    Now, I’m not a mom, nor do I plan on being one (maybe adopting a child but not having one naturally) so I don’t really have too much experience with breastfeeding.. But nursing them for so long just doesn’t sound right to me. What I do have experience with is kittens, and they just nurse for a few months before they’re eating solid food. I don’t think any mammal necessarily needs to be nursed for six years, and definitely not 15. Great post though, it can really make people think about this.
    Lise recently posted…Skinwalkers – What are they?My Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks, Lise. You’ve paid me the highest compliment, for this is exactly what I strive for on this blog — just to get us thinking about things we might not have given much thought to before. It’s not for everyone, but those who stop in regularly I think like the challenge. And, of course, some posts succeed more than others. Did you see the comment above from my own “large-bodied mammalian?” I like using “the ick factor” in making this decision. But it is soooo cultural.
      Janet Givens recently posted…FINDING MY TOPICMy Profile

  19. Cherie
    | Reply

    First daughter was very fussy, and difficult to nurse. That lasted a few months. Second child nursed well, I weaned her at 2ish. If I had not weaned her, I think she would have nursed forever. Each child is very different. It does give me a big ick factor when a child is old enough to go to school.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Your experience follows my own: first was impatient and stopped at six months (except for that forgotten moment spoken of in the comments above 🙂 ) while my second kept at it till he was nearly two. And he still has more patience than the first. I love how they are so different. Thanks for stopping by.
      Janet Givens recently posted…FINDING MY TOPICMy Profile

  20. Shannon
    | Reply

    I’m shaking my head but I can see how there may be mom/children who carry on into the older years because it works for them. Culturally, I don’t think many of us would get support for that and it would take some serious fortitude or social support. I’m thankful my son was done by around 9 months! On another note, my son slept in our bed until he was 5 (kindergarten) and that is what worked for us. I know many a mom who would think that was too long.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Kids in Kazakhstan sleep with their parents until quite late — at least 5, I think later. I’ve long thought it a lovely idea. More than the binding, it seems a fairly cheap birth control. 🙂
      Thanks for stopping by, Shannon.
      Janet Givens recently posted…FINDING MY TOPICMy Profile

  21. Debbie
    | Reply

    I found this very interesting. My daughter has just had her first child and is breastfeeding and I bought her a membership to the Australian Breastfeeding association, so if she needs help she has support available. I was, in my day, a breastfeeding counsellor and enjoyed the close bond of breastfeeding with my three daughters and helping other new mothers continue (or not) when things got . a bit tough. In my new role as Grandma I find many things have changed since my days as a young mother and I’m trying to be supportive. It’s all very interesting and I must say I’m enjoying being a grandmother in these times rather than a new mother! Very thought provoking post thanks – visiting from #seniorsalon
    Debbie recently posted…Bucket list images of New ZealandMy Profile

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Deb, Thanks for coming by today. I congratulate you on your new Grandma status — a revered state to be sure. As open minded as I pride myself on being, and as a successful and fully involved breastfeeding mother in my day, I must say reading of those who are still nursing after six and seven years, made me gasp. How long did your girls nurse? I had one 6-monther and one 18-monther. And I was getting a bit nervous when the last one hit 18 months.
      Janet Givens recently posted…How National Is Our Thanksgiving Meal?My Profile

  22. Taylor
    | Reply

    This post is incredibly thought provoking. What is the “right” time to stop breast feeding? When I become a mother, I will probably just offer until it is no longer sought out from me.
    Taylor recently posted…Spring Cleaning Your Self-CareMy Profile

  23. Silvia
    | Reply

    I don’t know what should be considered “natural”. I am absolutely an advocate of breastfeeding, but that far… well… no judgement but… what do the husbands of those mothers think? Lol

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