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How Long Should I Breastfeed For? Ask a Man!

03/02/2014 16:07 GMT | Updated 04/04/2014 10:59 BST
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Don't you just hate having to repeat yourself?

A row erupted a few weeks ago after Embarrassing Bodies *expert* Dr Christian Jessen was quoted in Closer magazine as saying that breastfeeding an infant after six months has "no effect" and feeding beyond infancy could even cause psychological dependence on the mother . Embarrassing fail and old news, maybe, but also really frickin' problematic for the narrative of motherhood in our country.

Not two weeks later was the debate brought to the fore again, this time on ITV's Lorraine, showcasing a mother of seven who was (get ready to judge) still breastfeeding her four year old. Tired gasp.

The show followed the expected narrative for a TV segment on breastfeeding beyond infancy: call the mother to the stand and invite the audience to try to spot in her anything out of the ordinary - from subtle quirks to a full blown mental health diagnosis. Then ask a man for some perspective, some sobering logic, some clarity on the matter. Sigh with relief.

The mother vs the expert has become a common binary in lifestyle media aimed at women. The mother is almost invariably presented as about two seconds away from being sectioned, and the expert is mostly always a white man with (we assume) a medical degree.

While I was relieved to see that Dr Hilary Jones went someway to bringing some perspective to the 'is breastfeeding going to psychologically screw your kid up for life?' question, the hailing of yet another male medic as final authority on the dos and don'ts of infant feeding, while sort of clearing things up, leaves us with some persistent issues in the way we treat mothers and discuss breastfeeding in our society.

Firstly, it reinforces the bizarre consensus that women cannot be trusted as an authority on feeding their babies. I'll take this opportunity to reiterate what I've said more than once before, that for a man to be held up as an expert - nay, THE expert - over a lactating mother on matters of baby nutrition is a pretty awkward disconnect to miss.

It also continues to make medics omnipotent deities on what's okay and what's not. On almost any subject. Since when did a medical degree give someone the last word on breastfeeding? Or on infant nutrition, full stop?

Further, it perpetuates the idea that breasts are solely the possession and interest-area of men, ignoring the rights and expertise of women and babies to use breasts as they need to (including the right not to breastfeed, provided she has access to all the information). You know the old chestnuts: "for who's benefit are you doing it now?", "does your partner mind?". Boobs are for babies, people!

But isn't that...oppressive and stupid and sexist? As oppressive as you telling us, yes you, adult male, when to stop feeding our young so that your kind can have our boobs back. You're grown ups, wait your turn (if and when you are granted one). Boobs are for sex too, sure, but how has one function become taboo whilst the other is seen as a given.

By making male medics the godfathers of breastfeeding, we worship false idols. We afford them experience, knowledge and skills that we assume they have, and they don't even need to justify their advice to us with evidence (like, if the average weaning age worldwide is 4.2 years, and the WHO recommends breastfeeding for the first two years of life and beyond, how can a qualified man of medicine possibly believe either that breastfeeding beyond six months has no effect, or that doing so beyond infancy could be psychologically damaging? Really?).

The cultural consensus that doctor knows best undermines mothers, the real experts, and fails our children, all the time society and popular culture bestow the greatest esteem upon those with the deepest individual voice and highest pedestal.

If the embarrassing (har.) Dr Christian blooper has given us anything it's a reminder that social media allows the quietest collective voice an arena and a loudspeaker to rival even the most revered and popular day time medical expert. As Dr Jay Gordon (another male medic, but one who presents his advice along with evidence to support it) puts it, "we've long ago stomped out the cultural instinct for breastfeeding" , and consequently lay our parenting dilemmas at these men's feet and expect them to give us an informed answer.

It's not fair that we should have been led them to be able to answer us. It's probably not fair on them either, though I suppose it keeps those unnecessary middle-men in a job.