Extended Breastfeeding Creates “An Unhealthy Relationship” Between Mother and Child, Really?

You know when you’re watching a scary movie and you cover your eyes, but then peek through your fingers?  That’s how I’m feeling about this whole “extended breastfeeding” controversy (I’ve already posted my opinion about the Time Magazine cover).  I don’t want to look, but I just can’t help myself.

The worst thing to read are the comment sections on websites.  I love the NPR show On Point with Tom Ashbrook, and mistakenly thought the comment section there might be a little less inflammatory than some others I’ve read.  But here is a comment in reply to woman who posted about her experience with extended breastfeeding:

I’m sorry, but most mother’s children, like yours, are destined to be burger flippers and ditch diggers.  Not many can receive a scholarship from a top 5 University like I did and earn the money I can and do.  Breastfeeding after the age of 2 is ludicrous and insures that your raising losers and children who will not be independent. This is MUCH more about you than it is about them. I see no mention of their father(s) anywhere. How curious. Lol.

Ridiculous, right?  But the claims this commenter is making about independence and the idea that extended breastfeeding is evidence of the mother’s own needs are actually similar to the claims made by a pediatrician on the show.

Dr. Kelly Ross (Director of Pediatric Hospitalist Medicine at Missouri Baptist Medical Center, Medical Director at MOST (Mothers of Supertwins), Pediatrician, Pediatric Hospitalist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Assistant Professor in Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine) says in the program:

Everybody says one-hundred-percent breastfeeding until one year of age is best for mom and baby.  There is nobody that argues that fact.  Some people say up until age two is best, especially in areas of the world where there is not a safe water supply, there is not a safe food supply[…] I think where many of us have an issue, and many child psychologists have an issue is, once they get to the age, you know, three, four, five, six, somewhere along that line, at what point is it no longer a healthy relationship, but an unhealthy relationship between the mom and the child.  And so, you know, if you look at healthy development in a child, what they’re supposed to do as they become more mobile is, mom is close and they venture further away and they go away and they come back, they go away and they come back, if they are never allowed to go away, if mom never leaves them, she’s breastfeeding them until age six, then they don’t learn that gradual transition away from the mom.

Seriously?  My jaw dropped when I heard this.

I’m guessing that Dr. Ross knows that the current AAP breastfeeding guidlines state, “Academy of Pediatrics reaffirms its recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced, with continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.”

Let’s look at Dr. Ross’ claim a little more closely.

She seems to be asserting that extended breastfeeding can create a situation in which the child is “never allowed to go away” and subsequently doesn’t “learn that gradual transition away from the mom” that is key to “healthy development in a child.”  This then creates “an unhealthy relationship between the mom and the child.”  Right?  That is what she is claiming.

So much is wrong with this, I don’t even know where is best to begin!

Underlying this claim seems to be the idea that breastfeeding a six year old is like breastfeeding a newborn.  Just because you breastfeed your six year old doesn’t mean you need to be with them twenty-four hours a day, which again, seems to be a misconception Dr. Ross has.

I agree with Dr. Ross when she states that for “healthy development in a child, what they’re supposed to do as they become more mobile is, mom is close and they venture further away and they go away and they come back, they go away and they come back.”  But she then seems to make a leap to the idea that extended breastfeeding inhibits this development.  In my experience, extended breastfeeding fits right into this developmental change.  Children go away, and come back, occasionally coming back to nurse.  But, I know, my experience is anecdotal, so instead I offer this quote from an article entitled “Parental Concerns About Extended Breastfeeding in a Toddler,” from Pediatrics the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics:

I suspect that 1 major source for concern among many professionals and parents about extended breastfeeding is that it challenges our ideas about the importance of “autonomy,” an important developmental task in the 2nd and 3rd year of life. However, autonomy has many facets and forms during the toddler years. [...] Extended nursing should not be seen as a hindrance to developmental progress.

In fact, the article recognizes how the extended breastfeeding can enhance the child’s normal developmental process.

For many mothers and toddlers, the major advantage of extended breastfeeding may be found in their emotional well-being. A toddler is often competing for his or her  other’s attention in a very busy and harried life. A mother in my practice who breastfed 2 children until 2 years of age explained that she would slow down and give her  undivided attention to her child several times each day when breastfeeding. Her children knew that she always had time for those moments each day. This time was also  important to the mother for relaxing and unwinding.

I could go on, and on, but unfortunately I have to go pick up my two independent children (one from Grandpa’s house, one from preschool), both of whom nursed well into the second year.  I’ll close with this, also from the article mentioned above:

Surveys among physicians have documented that obstacles to the continuation of breastfeeding include physician apathy and misinformation.

Comments

  1. Love this! Thank you so much for writing it and for the resources linked. My girls have both nursed past two (my youngest will be 3 in Nov and is still going strong) and though I know it’s right for us, it does draw a lot of raised eyebrows. Having resources such as these to draw on is very helpful for me, as is the support of other “extended” breastfeeding mamas.

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