Search This Blog


Thursday, 7 June 2012

How Breastfeeding Fell From Grace – and Our Children Have Paid the Price

Although I consider her pretty much weaned, my almost-5-year-old occasionally breastfeeds. It has only been over the past few months that she has stopped asking daily for "mama milky." 

From the moment of her birth, by first-born was a voracious breastfeeder. Day and night, she seemed to be constantly at the breast. So by the time she was 2 weeks old, I wondered what was going wrong. Why did she want to nurse so much? Was there something wrong with my milk? 

But then I learned about supply and demand. I learned that it is normal for human babies to need the breast quite frequently - some babies, almost constantly - but that our culture is just overwhelmed by a staggering amount of breastfeeding myth and misinformation.

So after that hurdle, there was no looking back. Despite doing several battles with mastitis, severe postnatal depression, a breast abscess, a biting 9-month-old, a wakeful 12-month-old – we got through it all. But no sooner had it begun to seem easy, than people began asking: "Is she still breastfeeding?" and "when will you wean her?" and "when are you supposed to wean? Isn't 6 months the cut off?" 

So how did it come to this? Why was I so determined to not only overcome those common early breastfeeding hurdles, but to breastfeed into the fifth year of my child's life, far beyond Australian cultural norms? Was it because I was determined to make some kind of political statement? Was it because my child was overly dependent? Was it because I was some kind of smothering mother who wanted to keep my child in an unnatural infancy? 

Was it because I'm just weird?

The answer to all of those questions is no. 

The truth is this: it's not about what wanted or needed – it's about what my child needed. And if my child didn't need to breastfeed anymore, she wouldn'tIt's as simple as that.

I only started research into breastfeeding 'older' children - the scientific facts, the anthropological research, the feminist musings – when people started asking questions.

Because here's what we don't tend to realise:

You don't suddenly go from breastfeeding a newborn, to hoisting a leggy 4-year-old onto your lap. It doesn't happen overnight. There doesn't suddenly come a tangible point when it goes from 'perfectly fine' to 'weird' and then you choose to buck that line and blow raspberries to society from the other side.

Although our children grow up quickly, when they are at your breast multiple times a day the progression from infant to toddler to child is so slow that you don't even notice it. 

Breastfeeding them becomes as natural and normal and everyday as bathing them, helping them dress, holding their hand. 

You've all heard it, but I'll quote it again: the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding up to 2 years of age and beyond. 

The physical, immunological and emotional health benefits of breastfeeding extend well beyond infancy. In fact, they continue as long as the breastfeeding relationship does. It's dose dependent: so while a little breastmilk is good, a lot of breastmilk is better.

Anthropologist Kathryn Dettwyler says:
"The minimum predicted age for a natural age of weaning in humans is 2.5 years, with a maximum of 7.0 years."
So okay, I hear you ask, if it's so biologically 'normal' - why is it so profoundly uncommon in western culture? 

The answer to that is complex, and takes into account many thousands of years of human cultural evolution.

Here's a potted account of what happened: 

Thousands of years ago, archeological evidence shows that humans were, for the most part, a peaceful and egalitarian society. Early prehistoric societies are believed to have been mother-centred, goddess-worshipping matriarchies. According to some anthropologists, the connection between sexual intercourse and pregnancy may not have actually been known. Instead, women were viewed with a sense of magical awe: not only did these beings bleed for days (menstruate) without injury or death; they were a source of sexual pleasure, and they swelled and grew and birthed children from their womb, and in turn nourished those children at their breasts for years! (1)

Italy, Sicily, Statue of a breast-feeding Goddess from the Temple of Megara Hyblaea
image source
Along with other movements, as awareness of the link between sexual intercourse and subsequent pregnancy grew, human associations began to change from that of a goddess-worshiping culture to that of a male-dominated, aggressive society: a patriarchy.

When a woman is breastfeeding, she is generally infertile. Typical child spacing in early human history meant that most women may have only borne 4-6 children in her lifetime, without the need for contraceptives.

Take away breastfeeding, however, and combine that with the availability of more food sources due to the growing of crops and rise of food industry, and a woman can potentially bare many, many more children.
"...on the eve of the Neolithic revolution, there was an estimated [global] population of around 10 million ... By 1700BC, a mere 10,000-12,000 years [later], there was an estimated population of 100-200 million. It is truly a staggering increase in a relatively short time." – Ann Sinnott, Breastfeeding Older Children (p. 237)
'High class', aristocratic women were for breeding; 'lower class' women were for wet-nursing the young of these aristocrats so they could become pregnant again. In the 15th to 17th centuries, elite women commonly had as many as 20-30 pregnancies – although resultant maternal and child mortality was high. (2). Thusly, breastfeeding began to be seen as lower-class.

As time went on, demand for labour meant more women moved into the work force. Being away from their children made sustained breastfeeding difficult - if not impossible, and an infant food source became necessary. Coupled with milk-surplus from the rise of commercial dairy-farming, thus came the rise and persuasive marketing techniques of infant formula. 

Moreover, birth practices moved away from a midwifery, women-centred domain into the hospitals and the hands of (male) physicians. Women were stripped of their biological power from before their infant was even born.

18th century physician William Cadogan instituted the 4-hourly feeding regime – and advocated never feeding at night. He also expressed a general disregard for the intelligence women - mothers in particular:
"It is with great pleasure I see at last the preservation of children become the care of men of sense. In my opinion this business has been too long fatally left to the management of women, who cannot be supposed to have a proper knowledge to fit them for the task." – William Cadogan (3) 
With all this taking place over thousands of years, it's little wonder that breastfeeding barely exists anymore.

The 2010 Australian National Infant Feeding Survey by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows that about 96% of mothers initiate breastfeeding at birth. But by 3 months of age, only 39% of infants are exclusively breastfed, and that rate drops to only 15% at just 5 months. These figures show that despite an excellent breastfeeding initiation rate, by the time infants are 6 months old, over 85% are not even reaching the WHO recommended 6-months exclusive breastfeeding duration – let alone continuing until natural weaning age.

If these figures were accurately reflective of homo sapiens biological ability to breastfeed, human beings would be extinct.

Research has shown that the support of the father is the single most important factor in determining whether or not a woman breastfeeds. (4). 

While many fathers are indeed supportive and encouraging of the mother/baby breastfeeding dyad, there are often occasions where they are not. One of the most cited reasons for weaning from the breast, (or even not breastfeeding at all), is the misguided belief that fathers need to be able to share the feeding in order to bond with the baby. Additionally, many women report their partners expressing feelings of jealousy towards the baby, feeling uncomfortable with her breastfeeding in public, or complaining about the mother's lack of time for them. (5)
"My husband began applying pressure to wean shortly before my daughter was one. I reluctantly weaned her ... later, I realised how deeply I resented him for this..." A mother, England. (6)
Where do these feelings come from for fathers? There are some suggestions that adult men who were deprived of their mothers breast or prematurely weaned in infancy, carry these scars subconsciously for life. Emotions triggered when their partner breastfeeds can stir up feelings of jealousy, grief, rage and sadness, unconsciously linked to their own needs having been denied in infancy. (7) For some fathers, these feelings alone can be enough to demonstrate a lack of support for sustained breastfeeding.

And of course, I couldn't write this post without mentioning the sexualisation of breasts in our culture.

Image source
Did you know that breasts aren't actually 'supposed' to be sexually arousing? Did you know that finding breasts sexually arousing is a product of cultural conditioning?

It's fair to say that seeing breasts as sex objects (rather than their primary mammalian intention of nourishing offspring) would have to be the number one reason that breastfeeding holds a cultural taboo.

A woman's breasts can be scattered everywhere in front of us without batting an eyelid. But pop a baby on that breast? And hello, controversy!

While those who vilify public breastfeeding like to tote their discomfort under words like: "she should cover up" – I'm going to take the leap that what they're actually saying is: "sucking at breasts is sexual and for adults - not children."

So it becomes particularly confronting when we see 'older' children suckling at a breast, because it suddenly becomes sexual.

This couldn't be further from the truth. Certainly, breastfeeding shares some of the loving, tender feelings of sex (and the same hormone – oxytocin) but to suggest that mothers are somehow unable to separate those feelings from sexual arousal is just preposterous. 

Thanks to Time Magazine, breastfeeding 'older' children is a discussion reignited in the mainstream. But I think we're discussing the wrong angle. Rather than discussing at what age a child should be weaned, we should be discussing why we're even discussing it in the first place. 

Why did breastfeeding, something imperative for survival of our species, become something so politically contentious? Why was breastfeeding taken away from women and their children?

If breastfeeding was something that men could biologically undertake - do you think it would be such a taboo?

(1, 2, 5, 7) Sinnott, Ann. 2010. Breastfeeding Older ChildrenFree Association Books.
(3, 4, 6)  as cited in Sinnott, Ann. 2010. Breastfeeding Older Children. Free Association Books.


  1. Very interesting! Some things I hadn't thought about before e.g. that sexualisation of breasts is a cultural thing.
    Thank you!

  2. Thanks for sharing. I breast fed my first child until he was nearly 8 months old, and then, because I had to return to work in the evenings and express milk, he gulped in down quickly, and as a consequence, became lazy at the breast, so he weaned himself :(
    Then I breastfed my daughter until she was nearly 12months old, and again, she weaned herself. But I would have been very happy to feed her for longer, and now that she is 4 years old, there are still times that I wish I was still able to feed her, especially when she is unwell.

    Thanks for sharing