Mom, what’s for lunch?

Joan Rivers used to joke that she was upstaged at a show by a woman who was breastfeeding a child down in the front.

“Oh yeah?,” she would say to the crowd, “the kid was fourteen. Who would you watch: her and him, or me?”

And as much as we – that is, the readers of this blog – would like to think that we are all open-minded, if not downright casual about our bodies, I’m willing to be that most of us have some kind of mental parameters about the age at which children should be cut off from breastfeeding. A year, 18 months, maybe two or three? I’ve never seen anyone breastfeeding children older than an age at which they would be talking, so maybe my idea of where to “normally” stop has to do with what I’ve seen, or what I’ve heard others mention.

So I guess it’s not surprising to see the comments on the following YouTube video that features an interview with a woman who continues to breastfeed her 7 and 8 year old daughters. “Disturbing” and “So wrong” are some of the nicer opinions. You won’t need to look far to find “Sick” and “screwing up her kids” and “insane” and predictably “abusive” and “pervert” are also among the almost 10,000 comments on this video.

I have to admit that at first, i was a bit weirded out by the concept, until I began to think seriously about it. Why is one, two or three years a mental or societal/cultural cut-off point? I began to wonder if it’s because at some point children can talk about their experiences; when we consider that breasts are secondary sexual characteristics, then perhaps we’re reacting to the proximity of children to something sexual. Think about that point as you hear the woman mention that her daughters can now describe to her how pleasurable the experience is for them. And then, think about it again when you hear the daughters discuss their names for their mother’s different breasts.

So, what is it that makes so many of us weirded out by the concept? Is it a violation of the firewall between child care and sexuality?

About Tom Allen

The Grey Geezer Dauntless defender of, um, something that needed dauntless defending. Dammit, I can't read this script without my glasses. Hey, you kids, get off my damn lawn!
This entry was posted in Beyond the Edge, Body Image, Culture, Interesting Oddities, Marriage & Relationships, Medical, Sexuality & Relationships and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to Mom, what’s for lunch?

  1. Anon says:

    Didn’t watch the video. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics says breast feeding can continue as long as both child and mother are comfortable with it.

    I don’t see anything inherently odd from a sexual standpoint, but there does seem to be something odd from a parenting standpoint. There’ s some concern that kids who breast feed long term may not learn to soothe themselves — in much the same way my children often slept in the same bed with my wife and I when they were young children, but as they got older we’ve made it clear they have to sleep in their own beds…not because there’s anything sexual about sleeping with mom and dad, but because we don’t want them developing unhealthy dependencies.

    Looking at other cultures, it looks like anything over 4 is extremely rare except in the case of children who are considered weak or too small at that age. 7 and 8 seem far over the line, though I’m not sure we should rush to also condemn it as “perverse” or “abusive.” Weird, definitely. Dangerous, probably not.

  2. Elizavetta says:

    I began to wonder if it’s because at some point children can talk about their experiences; when we consider that breasts are secondary sexual characteristics, then perhaps we’re reacting to the proximity of children to something sexual.

    I think this is a very interesting point to ponder. The idea that there is a boundary here that has to do with language, and specifically, language which names experience – not a sexual experience to the child, but a sensual one that we as adults sexualize.

    “Better than a mango!” What mother wouldn’t want to hear that?

    Goodness!

    Anyway… As a mother who breastfed three children, one of them for 4 years, and former breastfeeding consultant (yes, there was such a thing, even back in my day), I think I’m just going to sit back for now and see what kind of comments come in on this one 😉

    But in the meantime, for those interested in an overview of weaning and weaning practices, I’ll suggest this reportby Kathy Dettwyler who, based on her own academic research, distills her research into this general statement:

    The minimum predicted age for a natural age of weaning in humans is 2.5 years, with a maximum of 7.0 years.

  3. MissBonnie says:

    Besides weather it is ethical perverse or what ever, I really can’t under why a Mother would ‘wish or want’ to feed something carnivorous with teeth and a temper when all nutritional needs can be meet with food by that age. As for emotional needs whats wrong with general hugs and attentions.. I don’t see anything inherently odd from a sexual standpoint, a happy child and mother is better than distressed…but for Gawd sakes pass the school aged child a steak sandwich and say no!

    Mother of three breast feed children till around 12/18 months.

  4. Em says:

    I breastfed my daughter until 16 months and I only stopped because she started to get some tooth decay due to nighttime nursing (we co-slept too). I am absolutely comfortable with the idea of breastfeeding until 3 or 4… beyond that they form long-term memories and I’m not sure many kids we’ll want to remember breastfeeding because our culture does indeed attach some discomfort to the idea. Either way, I wouldn’t spend much time judging anyone who chose to do it.

  5. Jamie says:

    As the father of two kids, both breastfed – not by me 😉 – until the ages of between 3 and 4, the concept is not totally “out there.” Figuring out when the right moment to stop was a very subtle thing between mom and kids. Since I suspect there are a broad range of healthy answers – emotional and physical – for any given situation I am quite skeptical of people who assert that beyond any given limit is not ok.

    We used to joke that our oldest would have to go to college somewhere near home so she could come back and breastfeed, and were actually a little relieved when they both figured out how/when to stop.

  6. Tom Allen says:

    Mrs. Edge went back to work when the Edgelette was about 6 or 7 months; she weaned herself off a couple of months later.

    She – Mrs. Edge – recalls a friend who breastfed as late as 4 or 5. We thought it was strange that the little boy would ask for “some boobie” and nurse for five minutes.

  7. devastatingyet says:

    My aunt nursed my cousins until they were 4-6. They both grew up into healthy, delightful, well-adjusted adults, as best I’ve ever been able to tell. I thought it was weird when I was a kid, but I think it was just a sweet thing between them. It was something my aunt strongly believed in.

  8. Fuse says:

    I thought I’d get all ewww and fidgety watching it, but I didn’t. Does it seem a little weird to me, yes, but there are far worse things those children could be expeirencing. They seem very happyand well adjusted.

    And I’m so excited to see what my identicon looks like…
    heh heh

  9. Arafin says:

    Only on Earth! Gosh, what a planet!

    I have encountered women who continued to breast
    feed their children past three years. I knew the families.
    In later years when the children were grown I never
    saw any indication of harm caused by the breast feeding.
    Now continuing to the age of five, well, I just don’t know.
    I searched the web and found a ton of information on
    this subject and include the link to the best of the lot here.

    http://www.swedish.org/16578.cfm

    I guess everyone’s needs and circumstances are different
    and what works for one mother/child relationship might
    work for others and it might not. Yes, the You Tube video
    gave me a bit of a weird feeling, but in the end I figured
    it’s just none of my business.

    Arafin

  10. Luka says:

    Personally, I just couldn’t comfortably breastfeed a child of that age. Not because of societal taboos and the sexualising of the breast, but because I would want my body back! I breastfed until my child was a year old and, to be honest, once she had teeth and was getting to the “helping herself” stage (trying to lift up my top when the munchies struck) I thought the time had come to learn to drink from a cup instead. After all, I’d carried her around for 9 months, then spent another 12 tethered to her by the nipples, (what an image, but you know what I mean), so I felt the urge to reclaim my body as my own again.

    At 8 years old I can’t see what’s wrong with a glass of juice and a biscuit and a great big cuddling session, myself. Late weaning is kind of a reluctance to let them grow up in some ways, I feel. A reluctance to let babyhood slip away and childhood begin.

  11. Eileen says:

    I’d speculate that encouraging children to think of their mother’s breasts/body (and by extension their own breasts and bodies) as something treated with a mature, rational, respectful and open attitude could have some very great benefits.

    As for being weirded out by the film, I wasn’t. I don’t have any kids yet; I’ll report back on the breastfeeding after a few more years :).

  12. darklily says:

    I think several people have already said much of what I would say. I just want to add that I’d just like to see more mothers breastfeed their children. The last time I checked only about 25% of infants (in the U.S.) had been breastfed to the recommended minimum age (of one year) set by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The World Health Organization recommends 2 years as a minimum. Both organizations say that breastfeeding should continue as long as both the mother and child wish it to.

    Only about 2% of women are unable to breastfeed due to medical reasons (unable to produce milk). There are of course other medical considerations, but many can be accomodated. It’s certainly not easy, but if there were more resources and education, maybe more women would at least try.

    darklily (mom to DS#1, weaned at 13months; and DS#2, weaned at about 2y9m, but still tells me he misses “nurse”)

  13. darklily says:

    Didn’t mean to put that smily at the end, weird.

  14. Patty says:

    Due to pregnancy complications I was unable to breastfeed my children. And since the human body is designed for function, the breasts really should be seen as functional parts. And since mammary glands are mammary glands, why shouldn’t a child drink breast milk?

    That being said, it would probably be a lot easier to pump and have the child drink it out of a cup. That is a big deal, when a child learns to drink out of a cup (I’m working on that now with my son) so I think it is odd for a mother to keep her child at that stage. I also wonder about the social pressures when they do go out into the “big bad world.” What will people think? How will they treat these girls?

  15. Cat says:

    Well I breast fed Cam until he weened on his own. It kind of happened without a lot of work on my part. He just started to drink less and I began to produce less until he slowly stopped nursing. He was around 2 years old when he weened completely. I am not sure if I could have handled breastfeeding past 3 or 4. But I don’t think it’s weird for others to do so and the video didn’t seem weird to me. But then I think we spend way too much time full of ourselves pushing our own norms onto others.

  16. Elizabeth says:

    I’ve been extremely concious of seeing my children as independent humans from me, even when they were tiny. I’m the child of an over smothering mother so to *me*, breast feeding children of that age seems way too invasive.

    BUT, I’m also not big on having opinions about how other people should choose for their families.

    Now I’m wondering why I even commented. 🙂

  17. Patty says:

    Elizabeth, I love how you said that “children as independent humans from me.” I think that sums it up. We are not raising children, we are raising people, adults who will someday need to fend for themselves.

    Well put!

  18. havingmycake says:

    I didnt produce much milk due to my body’s reaction to anaesthesia but I had enough to ensure one feed per day for both my kids for nine months. I loved the closeness but Im not sure I would want to bring up a child who subconsciously associated breasts with security which is a possibility when it is done for such a long period of time at such a formative age. People look askance at kids who have dummies or who suck their thumbs beyond a certain age and I think this is a rather extreme form of the same category. I also wonder if there is a possibility that Mum is having a problem with her kids becoming more independent from her.

  19. Dave says:

    Humans overthink nearly everything.

    A close look at what the rest of the mammals do might be instructive.

  20. Elizavetta says:

    Ok, here’s what I think is interesting about this – this whole subject in general, but especially what happened here in the comments on this post:

    In your post, Tom, you posed this question:

    Why is one, two or three years a mental or societal/cultural cut-off point? I began to wonder if it’s because at some point children can talk about their experiences; when we consider that breasts are secondary sexual characteristics, then perhaps we’re reacting to the proximity of children to something sexual.

    So, what is it that makes so many of us weirded out by the concept? Is it a violation of the firewall between child care and sexuality?

    You asked a pretty point blank question. But almost none of the people who responded addressed it! (though a few did mention sexuality).

    Instead, just about everyone weighed in on their personal judgments and experiences concerning weaning and/or their thoughts on how the child might be affected developmentally by extended breastfeeding in the future.

    Now, this is a comment section and everyone is entitled to say what they want in response to the post. But, did anyone else notice that the majority of commenters never mentioned their own adult feelings about sexuality and breastfeeding, when the very question Tom asked is if we are weirded out by the sexual connotations of extended breastfeeding?!

    Doesn’t it seem that what happened in comments here actually affirms Tom’s idea that we (as a culture) are so squicked out by “the proximity of children to something sexual” (something that our culture has sexualized) that we (perhaps totally unconsciously) dodge the topic – even when we are asked point blank about our opinion of it?

    Please understand – I’m not dissing any commenters here! It’s just that I found this whole thing absolutely fascinating!

  21. darklily says:

    Ok, I’ll comment again (as per Elizavetta’s post).

    I can’t speak for “society.” I don’t consider breastfeeding sexual. I actually tend to be a little judgemental when I see infants with bottles, and I try really hard not to be.

    That said, I think that the squick factor (of an older child breastfeeding) may have to do with the inabaility to determine what the *mom’s* intentions are. Is it because of the security/nurturing reasons? Or is there sexual abuse occurring?

    At a certain point, normal, healthy children become aware of their sexuality….that would be the cut off for me.

  22. marianne says:

    I don’t see the issue as being about sexuality, I think (unless there is something going on subconsciously with me on the topic). I think every mother / child relationship has its requirements, because every mother and every child is an individual. My own children were eager to be up and away from the breast once they could walk… they wanted the mobility that a bottle or a cup allowed them. I had no problem with that, and let them set their own weaning timetable. When they wanted comfort and closeness, I was available for that. I don’t think that a child who breastfeeds at the age of 7 is going to be worse off than those who naturally do so much earlier. And I applaud any mother who is sensitive to the individual needs of her child.

  23. kimba says:

    I have trouble remembering to feed the dog let alone give up my breast over and over again over years and years for a child to latch onto. (Hands up who is the only childless commenter here.. yep.. that would be me.)

    The video and the concept didn’t disturb me in the slightest – other than the inherent attachment the mother and children have that I would find too much of an invasion of my personal space..

    But I reckon I’d look twice if I saw a breastfeeding 8 year old in a restaurant..

  24. I had a friend who worked for a woman that breastfed her daughter at the age of 6. This, however, was to the child’s detriment. She was breastfeeding her 6 year old the way you’d breastfeed a 6 month old, as their main source of nutrition. The child was underweight, lethargic, and malnourished because she wasn’t getting the nutrients she needed. Along with all of that the child’s teeth and bones were very weak because she wasn’t getting the necessary calcium. If the mother wants to continue breastfeeding her child..well that’s her choice, however if her doing so is affecting the child’s health, then something needs to be said about it.

    Interestingly Toni Morrison’s book “Song Of Solomon” has a character who was breastfed late in his childhood (this stopped when his mother was discovered feeding him). It seemed to be a sort of stress reliever for both mother and child. You’ll have to read the book to understand.

    And to appease Eliza:
    I see no sexual connotations to breastfeeding a 7 and 8 year old. They simply are not that sexually aware at that age (well, they aren’t *supposed* to be…however a recent spate of sexual assaults between elementary school aged children is making me think twice on that). Now if we go in to the 10th and 11th years and they were still breast feeding, then I would think there is more to it than simple bonding.

  25. Jill M. says:

    I just wanted to say thank you for having an open mind and not jumping to the “ew, gross!” comments right off the bat.

    I have nursed (and am still nursing) my two daughters. My first daughter self weaned at 25 months. My second daughter is still going strong at 26 months. I fully believe in child-led weaning. I want to make this country (the U.S.) a place where my girls won’t even think twice before feeding their babies where ever they might need or want to be fed.

    Breasts are for feeding babies! That they have a lovely secondary use as a sexual feature of womens’ bodies is wonderful. But that doesn’t make breastfeeding a baby any more of a sexual act than eating food with my mouth (I *gasp* use that for sex too!).

    http://www.thecowgoddess.com/2008/01/16/sex-and-breastfeeding-2/

  26. It definitely creeps me out, the 8 and 9 year old thing. But over here they breastfeed until maybe 3 or 4, I think. I dunno for sure, but its more accepted in this part of Europe. I was not breastfed, and its unlikely that I would do so beyond the first few days, and only then for the sake of immunity. I just gots a thing about it.

  27. darklily says:

    For isabella snow:

    I hope you reconsider. There is evidence that the immunity benefits continue on during breastfeeding, even after colostrum. From personal experience, a couple of years ago my family went to Disney and we all caught a stomache virus (each of us getting it a day after the the previous person, so it wasn’t food poisoning). Out of a party of eight, the only person who didn’t get it was the nursing toddler.

  28. 1000sharppieces says:

    Tom, I am not a Mom, but I do feel odd about a breast feeding child after about 2 years of age or so.

    Kids mature at different rates, so what happens for one child at 12 months is not the same for a 16 month old, for instance.
    However, once kids become a bit more independent, can say words such as “my teet-tee” and so on, I think weaning is a good idea.

    (I am in support of breastfeeding, btw.)

    It does start to slide into sexual awareness, as children learn about their bodies and pleasure, they will understand that Mom has uses for her body, too.

    The firewall does get approached, for the nurturing that comes from the breast for a kid is totally sexual in relation to a Daddy. I think that the nurturing is arousing for some men, that is why they enjoy watching the feeding, holding the Mom is his arms when it happens, etcera.

    He is sharing Mommy with Baby, after all.

    How many men have a story to tell about how sexy and sexual pregnancy was for them?
    How specifically, they loved to cradle the swelling breasts of their women?

    Heck, for some men, th sexiest woman is pregnant and for others, the fact the a woman has ripened and matured through motherhood is hot.

    i do not think it is an ‘erotic’ act for a woman to breastfeed but it is very intimate-she is keeping a child alive, which she must feel all the way down into the tips of her toes.

    I cannot say, for I have not offered my child my swollen breasts and been relieved to feed it, nurture it and release the tension in my breasts.

    Once a child gets to be sexually aware, we normally draw lines to create autonomy and space.

    To nurse a 3 year old or older child would be too close to violating that boundary and I do would not want that.

    I believe that we try to draw the line between sexual feelings and nutrition, but after a child gets to be so old, it gets blurry, I think.

    On a side note, I have been told the moment after a baby is born, the release is so great it is almost sexual. Makes sense, as when I am in pain, one it is over, I feel good, giddy to be precise.
    We should try ad see that our bodies are able to feel all types of feelings, it is how we filter them.

    The woman in the video need to let go. The comfort the kids get needs to be replaced by other tactile events. Today. I do not understand her rationale, and i wonder if she is trying to negate her sexuality by remaining the eternal mother.

    Breasts have two functions in this society. I propose a third-that of them belonging to the woman, not her man or kids.

    Thanks for this, you have gotten me thinking about all kids of things.

    -P

  29. Tom Allen says:

    Okay, most of the people who commented here might not see long-term breastfeeding as sexual because, well, it just isn’t. But the point is that we – as a society – view breasts as a secondary, if not a primary, sexual characteristic. I’m basing this on our odd views on women going topless in public, appearing on network television, on the buzz when some particular start decides to “bare all” for a movie or magazine spread, etc.

    The old joke is that boobs are like electric trains. They’re supposed to be for the kids, but really it’s Daddy who wants to play with them.

    The hundreds of comments posted to this video indicate that a hell of a lot of people think that there is something “wrong” with that woman, but rarely does anyone indicate what that “wrong” is. I think it’s because they can’t articulate the concept because they haven’t thought it through. And the reason that they haven’t thought it through is because they are associating “breasts” with “sex” and not with “feeding.”

  30. Dave says:

    WWDS?

    (What would Darwin say?) 😉

  31. -P says:

    Well, Tom, best feeding is not sexual but the primary way of thinking of breasts ( since we have bottles and formula) tends to be.

    I have to chuckle about the aside on trains-I have not heard that one for quite a while.

  32. -P says:

    Opps, *breast* feeding, not *best*.

  33. selkie says:

    First, I am completely comfortable with breastfeeding and as one commentator above posted, have to watch myself for finding it “wrong” to see a baby being bottlefed. Breastfed four kids – the least was to just a year (her choice to give up)- the most to almsot 2 – but this, sorry, there is to my mind an UNHEALTHY relationship here –

    i keep thinking how that child’s friends (if she has any) must react – that alone to me would suggest this is not a good idea. Children can be very cruel to each other – and I can only imagine how they would react to a child that age breastfeeding – especially with mum putting it on youtube!

    first, while the onset of puberty starts between 9 and 12 years old (generally speaking), chidren become aware LONG before that – and YES, breasts are primarily for a good purpose- FEEDING human young – but to pretend they do not also hold a sexual aspect is at best being deliberately obtuse and at worst, stupid. So while yes, breastfeeding GENERALLY should be done proudly, with no apology and with no nod to anyone who finds it “offensive” – breastfeeding a child of that age to me, borders on abuse …

    Lets indeed look at nature and show me ANY mammal that feeds their young past a certain age – they do not exist … unless there are extenuating circumstances – like a shortage of food, terrible weather conditions, etc.

    There are certaintly no nutritional reasons to continue breastfeeding and she cites an emotional need – which again sends up red flags for me … as I feel the child should have been given other ways of fufilling that type of need – one that is yes, more SOCIALLY acceptable – and hopefully, more internal.

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