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‘Too old to breastfeed’ is just more unfair judgment of mothers

Public stares and unwanted advice are just byproducts of our obsession with judging moms on how they raise their kids

A woman feeds her child during a public demonstration in support of public breastfeeding in Bogota, Colombia. GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Image

A woman feeds her child during a public demonstration in support of public breastfeeding in Bogota, Colombia. GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Image

Original article published for Metro on Aug. 12, 2016. Read online here

So, it turns out there’s a large faction of people out there who are pretty grossed out by the idea of breastfeeding children. Not babies, and not eight year olds, but toddlers and preschoolers.

Opinions range from: “It’s weird and makes me uncomfortable” to “it’s tantamount to pedophilia.” The latter opinion veers well into the realm of crazy. The former, well, I used to see the point there. If they are getting most of their nutrients from solid food, I thought, there’s zero benefit to breastfeeding, too. I now know better.

Extended breastfeeding, as it’s known, is defined as nursing past one year. I haven’t done it myself, exactly. My first daughter stopped at about 14 months, and my second is aiming to beat that record. I might have kept nursing a little longer if either of them seemed interested, but probably not into the preschool years. Breastfeeding is great (and free and easy), but I also like the freedom of having weaned kids.

But I’m reconsidering my previously judgmental stance on the idea of nursing past two years old, after reading Sophie Gregoire Trudeau’s take on the issue.

Her husband recently Tweeted a pic of her nursing their little boy for World Breastfeeding Week, and while most people gave the pic a huge thumbs up, there were some Internet grumblings reminding everyone that the little guy is in fact a toddler.

Ever cool and confident, Trudeau has shrugged off those grumblings, explaining that Hadrien is her last baby, and breastfeeding is hard to give up.

In an interview with Katie Couric, Gregoire Trudeau cited all the “scientific proof that breast milk is amazing.” She added: “If I can continue to feed my child even if he’s two, I’m not going to stop if he wants it. I think it’s a beautiful bond. I encourage it.”

She’s right. I’d blow my word count if I were to list the physical and emotional health benefits of breastfeeding. It boosts the immune system and brain development, reduces the risk of certain cancers for moms, and is incredibly nutritious. And its value doesn’t cease to exist the day a child reaches their first birthday or moves on to solid food.

In fact, most health organizations, including the World Health Organization, encourage extended breastfeeding.

And yet many of us have arrived at an arbitrary cutoff date for when it’s no longer acceptable to nurse: somewhere around 12-15 months. This, of course, is based not on science, but on our own discomfort at seeing an older child on a boob. Many believe that once a child can walk and talk, we should shield them from our private parts. And we still see breasts as private.

Because of the taboo, most people I know who breastfed past 18 months did so in the privacy of their own home. One friend was told she was sexually assaulting her three year old for breastfeeding him. Another received similar criticisms for breastfeeding her three MONTH old.

“I didn’t get a lot of comments, except from my mother-in-law, who thought she was too old to nurse,” one friend told me of her experience nursing her daughter past two.

“I truly feel that in a life span of 75 years or more, three is not too old (to nurse),” said another friend, whose husband had trouble understanding her decision to extend breastfeeding. “In many countries … it’s the norm. The bond from nursing is pretty extraordinary and the comfort it brought her is something I still miss.”

Of course, there’s more to this conversation than just whether we think a walking talking child should be lifting their mom’s shirt and helping themselves to a snack. It’s a broader conversation about our right to push our values and beliefs on others.

With breastfeeding, for example, most people agree that it’s good in a general sense, and that we should be doing more to encourage it. Yet there’s a very fine line between doing it “right” and doing it “wrong.” And that line, as far as I can tell, is mostly irrational, and a byproduct of our obsession with judging how moms raise their kids. And that’s something we need to rein in.

From extended breastfeeding and public nursing, to pumping and bottle feeding, formula feeding, nursing on demand or nursing on a schedule, most moms say they feel judged for making decisions that someone probably thinks is wrong.

My own paranoia revolved around giving my babies formula, which I’ve had to do because of a low milk supply that nothing – not pumping, tubes, medication, herbal supplements or special teas – could boost.

Because it was so drilled into me that breast milk is the ideal, I was ashamed at having to turn to formula to keep my kids’ bellies full. I waited until the baby food aisle was empty before snatching a container of formula at the grocery store, and covered it with other items so no one would see. If I was out and my kids needed a bottle, I would hide in my car or in dark corners of coffee shops to feed them.

Friends who bottle fed their babies pumped breast milk have told me stories of strangers stopping them to remind them that “breast is best” without knowing why their babies needed a bottle, or even what was in it.

This doesn’t all end as soon as babies start eating solid food. Because then there’s a whole other prickly world to navigate, with purees and baby led weaning, dairy, sugar and high-allergy foods, picky eaters and gluttonous eaters, peanut butter at parks and high fructose corn syrup. Just don’t even get me started on the stress of feeding my preschooler under the scrutiny of friends, family and strangers alike.

One truth I’ve arrived at again and again is that, to someone, I’m doing it all wrong and my kids are going to need therapy. This is because we live in a world where everyone seems to be an expert, and where mothers in particular are held to unreasonable standards for how we raise our children.

But when it comes to feeding our babies, as long as we have made well-informed choices supported by our doctors or nutritionists, and as long as they go to bed with tummies full of healthy food, feeling loved and safe, we are doing it right.

So mamas who breastfeed, bottle feed, extended feed, who pump and supplement and buy cartons of formula at the grocery store: big breath. You’re doing great. 

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