I Was Shamed For Breastfeeding My Toddler. Here’s The 1 Thing People Don’t Understand

"It is challenging to face down a judgmental world, particularly when doing something as vulnerable as feeding and comforting a young child."
The author pictured breastfeeding her child.
Photo Courtesy Of Indi Bains
The author pictured breastfeeding her child.

I didn’t set out to become an “extended breastfeeder”. In fact, for the first few months, I struggled to breastfeed at all. My newborn didn’t latch easily, often resulting in a grumpy baby and sore nipples.

But we persisted, and around three months, breastfeeding stopped seeming like an insurmountable challenge.

I’d like to say it was because, after weeks of blearily listening to any advice I could find, reading books and watching videos on the subject, I finally mastered the art.

The reality, I suspect, is something simpler – their mouth grew bigger, and suddenly they could latch without effort.

After that, it was a breeze. If they were ill – nursing soothed them. When they were upset – nursing again. Oops, they fell over – ditto. Zzz, they couldn’t sleep – guess what? The mammary glands became a pair of magic bullets: No upset too big, a mouth no longer too small.

But a few months later, I began to notice that many of my breastfeeding buddies were weaning their babies.

At six months, the current breastfeeding rate stands at 56%, while at one year, it drops to 36%. Most other mothers I knew stopped at six months, bringing on the creeping realisation of my minority status.

Suddenly, what I was doing was no longer considered “normal”, particularly in public.

Still, it didn’t start to bother me until after the first year, when a friend I hadn’t seen recently – who had stopped feeding her babies at six months – remarked with a grimace, “Oh, you’re still feeding.”

“Er, yes,” was about the extent of my reply. I couldn’t think of anything else to say; her attitude had taken me by surprise.

A while later, a friend we met in a café shifted awkwardly in his seat and commented, “Ooh, bitty,” when my child started fumbling with my shirt. “Bitty?” I replied. It turns out he’d been watching reruns of the TV show Little Britain and was referencing a comedy sketch about a grown man who was still breastfeeding in response to me nursing my 20-month-old.

On another occasion, another friend, my two-year old started to nurse. This time the friend said nothing, but the raised eyebrows and shocked expression she made while shielding her child from the sight of me nursing mine said it all.

There were the relatives who looked away awkwardly, the same ones that had cooed over my newborn being breastfed and were distinctly embarrassed at the sight of my two-and-a-half-year-old doing the same.

The clear implication was that there is a time when it is socially acceptable to breastfeed, and doing it afterward is – well, icky and strange and just plain weird.

Never mind that humans have been breastfeeding well past toddlerhood since the Stone Age.

Setting aside the known nutritional and health benefits that feeding an older infant brings (increased immunity, fewer incidents of ear infections, potentially even jaw strengthening that helps with speech development, as well as lower rates of breast cancer and heart disease in breastfeeding mothers) – one of the overlooked primary functions of breastfeeding has little to do with physical health at all.

It is about comfort and emotional connection. Childhood security and attachment are the cornerstones of adult emotional resilience.

Despite being primed with this knowledge, it is challenging to facedown a judgemental world, particularly when doing something as vulnerable as feeding and comforting a young child.

While I would make retorts to friends, the stares and frowns from strangers were particularly wearing. Eventually, we started coming home to nurse rather than risk facing any public expressions of distaste.

Fortunately – through breastfeeding support groups – I met other like-minded mothers to hang out with. Some were nursing children a few years older than mine. Having a community made a huge difference in restoring my confidence.

Being able to align once more with my own internal calibration of normalcy versus one externally imposed on me meant that, eventually, I became comfortable nursing my child again in public without thinking, even without our network present.

Of course, the comments still came. After the age of three, they became more forthright. People inquired how long I was planning to continue; might I consider stopping before they went to high school?

By this point, I was more comfortable ignoring dirty looks and replying to comments with something along the lines of, “Yes, we still breastfeed,” in a politely assertive fashion.

My final anecdote: The friend who squeamishly remarked to my now-nearly preschooler, “Are you still doing that?” after they climbed into my lap for a nurse. “They are, actually,” I said before changing the conversation. Fortunately, they were too young to pick up on the intimation.

Underpinning the squeamishness and distaste I have experienced while nursing is the deeply entrenched and sometimes unconscious cultural perception of the breast as a sexual object.

As this study notes, “In Mali, breasts have retained their primary biological function and hold no sexual connotations or stimulus. The public holds strong beliefs that breastfeeding is essential to create a bond of kinship… this belief has a positive effect on the rates of breastfeeding with 98% of mothers breastfeeding their babies up to an average age of 22 months.”

Here, the implication is that breastfeeding any child but the tiniest of babies is something perverse, something to be embarrassed by, rather than the evolutionary function of the mammary gland.

In our current cultural climate, I can’t imagine breasts becoming uncoupled from their primarily sexual connotations any time soon, but we can work on shifting cultural norms so the acceptable duration of breastfeeding becomes whatever suits each mother and child.

After all, it is fear of similar judgment to what I experienced that discourages many mothers from breastfeeding at all, particularly in public, which is crucially one of the very acts that might further normalise it.

This is important because the World Health Organisation recommends a combination of breastfeeding and complementary foods for up to two years and beyond, but globally, North America has one of the lowest rates of exclusive breastfeeding for the first five months of life and 60% of mothers in the US do not breastfeed for as long as they intend to.

This fact is partially attributed to “cultural norms,” along with problems with latching, concerns about infant weight, lack of support and unsupportive workplace policies.

Ultimately, “fed is best,” with breastfeeding as just one potential option and one with its own barriers to access for many.

But for those who choose it, breastfeeding is just breastfeeding, whatever the duration, whatever the location. I hope we can eradicate or at least minimise the social shaming of breastfeeding mothers – particularly those that go beyond the duration deemed acceptable.

In the meantime – despite not setting out with any particular intention, and regardless of judgment – I am content to continue nursing until my child is ready to stop.

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