I appreciate the parenting advice I get from grandparents and great-grandparents, even when unsolicited. It is usually excellent, common-sense information, hard-earned through years of parenting their own.
Not always, though. Last week, I got an earful from an older stranger after I mentioned I continue to breastfeed my three-year-old son, Eddie.
At first, I laughed it off. A lot of people who brought up their children between 1950 and 1980, and even beyond, were never exposed to a breastfeeding toddler. Even much of my own extended family was a little disconcerted when I continued to nurse my children past their first birthdays, although they are very supportive now.
But the scolding tone of this unsolicited advice has stuck with me for the better part of two weeks.
I don’t care what this stranger thinks about Eddie continuing to breastfeed past his third birthday. But I do worry about the women out there with relatives who foist these ignorant opinions on them.
It is uneducated to think that a human child nursing past age one is “ridiculous” or “disgusting.” It is normal, natural, ideal and healthy for a mother and child to breastfeed for as long as the two of them are comfortable with it.
Science and history are firmly on the side of extended breastfeeding. Every medical and scientific body that deals with the health and well-being of children acknowledges this fact.
Both the World Health Organization and the Canadian Pediatric Society state breastfeeding can continue “until your child is two years of age and beyond.”
Different societies weaned at different ages throughout history, but almost none before 18 months. Many did not wean until well past the age of four, including the Inuit.
The Isrealites are generally acknowledged by experts to have weaned children between the ages of two and four. Christians, pay attention: that means Jesus Christ was breastfeeding as a walking, talking toddler.
From the very beginning of the church, Christians have been painting images of Mary breastfeeding Jesus; many of them are in churches. These images are called “Maria Lactans,” and in most of them, Mary’s breast is fully exposed and Jesus is a toddler in her lap.
Some of the people I know who are most supportive of breastfeeding a toddler are the older members of my church; a nursing toddler is not making noise or interrupting the sermon.
We have learned so much about parenting and child development in the past 100 years, and a lot of what we know about the healthy way to raise a child was pioneered by today’s grandparents and great-grandparents.
I am grateful for the wisdom of these men and women. But many people of their generation have the wrong idea about breastfeeding a toddler, because they never saw it or experienced it themselves.
Of course, every generation has its pioneers. My mother-in-law was one of them. She breastfed her son in the 1970s — the man who is now the proud father of four children who were all breastfed.
At the same time that women were discouraged (or forbidden) from breastfeeding their babies and toddlers, western society developed a twisted perception of breasts as purely sexual objects that continues today. In this light, it’s unsurprising that some people think breastfeeding a talking child is wrong.
I find sharing biological and social realities in an open, unashamed way dispels a lot of ignorance. And so I am taking a stand here, for all those women who deal with judgment and condemnation for extended breastfeeding.
My son is three. He is healthy, well-adjusted and generally happy. He is still breastfed. I am not ashamed. If you think it’s disgusting, that says more about you than it ever will about me.
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