Extended breastfeeding is not extreme parenting
When visiting my parents’ house, people frequently enter their powder room and disappear. It’s a lovely room. My mom knows how to make people feel at home. There’s potpourri (and Poo-Pourri , too). There’s often a scented candle burning and freshly picked flowers from her garden displayed in a simple but tasteful vase. There’s foamy soap and silky lotion as well as luxuriously, soft towels that make you feel like you’re touching clouds when you dry your hands. Yes, it’s a cozy, soothing room.
Of course, there’s also a commode and a stash of the latest People magazines. My dad’s guilty pleasure is keeping up on pop culture and imbibing the magazine’s trashy content. We’re all so grateful he shamelessly subscribes because we all retreat to the powder room and get lost in what our family jokingly refers to as Poople since the pages are often perused while taking care of other, more natural business. (My family has never reached total adult maturity because we still find potty humor hilarious.)
Over Easter weekend I found myself in the pooper – er, I mean powder room enjoying an almost spa-like experience. A springtime scent – gardenia maybe? – wafted into my nostrils. The kids weren’t trying to break in as they do at home because they were happily occupied, playing in Gaba and Papa’s basement. I picked up a recent issue of People magazine and realized how out out of touch I am because I don’t even recognize a lot of the celebrities anymore.
I flipped through the pages, checking out the latest gossip and fashion trends (I am a closet clothes horse) when a celebrity short entitled “Extreme Parenting” caught my attention. The brief piece featured photos of three celebrity mamas along with text highlighting their “extreme” parenting behavior. First up was Alicia Silverstone. I’m familiar with the vegan and former Clueless star. I’m pretty sure she’s about my age. Anyway, she apparently is a mama bird who pre-masticates her food and gets it all nice and soft before her toddler son scrambles over to her and takes the chewed-up food from her mouth. I don’t like to judge parenting styles providing it’s not negligent or blatantly harmful, and this parenting style does not outrage me since it’s not likely to harm a child (other than perhaps resulting in more infections because of the potential for germ swapping) or make him feel neglected, but this does seem a bit excessive, gross, as well as completely unnecessary to me. Not that I’ve never been known to pre-masticate a bite here and there for a wee one. Come on, you know in a pinch you’ve maybe chewed a bit of avocado or something else to make sure it’s soft for your little birdy.
However, I have no plans or desire to routinely chew up food for my kids, and I would never think of using my mouth as a bowl for my little ones. Ewww. It wouldn’t even ever cross my mind to do so. Probably because I belong to the mammalia class rather than the aves one, although apparently some mammals and even some human cultures do practice pre-masticating for their young.
However, I can’t really figure out the benefit of this. Human mouths don’t need to be food processors, especially mouths belonging to humans who are millionaires. Feeding even the youngest of our children what we eat – natural, whole foods – is something I strive to do, but I am completely okay with using a blender or something like this to get the food to the right consistency. And we do eat Goldfish for snacks, so our pantry is far from completely pure.
While I’m unaware of the science behind the practice of pre-mastication (or if there is any even), this does seem to fit in the extreme category and also just seems kind of nasty. Besides, its potential to share and spread germs seems great. I’m sure this parenting trend/choice is really, really cringe-worthy to anyone who is more germophobe than I am.
Mama number two was January Jones and yes, I recognize her, too, because my husband and I watch Mad Men. I’ve never watched much television – not even as a teenager or a young adult. I’ve never seen Oprah or a complete episode of Friends if that tells you anything. But my husband and I started having at-home date nights watching 24 back when he was a resident, and we’ve continued the tradition, and Mad Men is now on our rotation.
I have some friends who love the show, but a lot of my friends can’t get past the debauchery. Despite the show’s glut of infidelity, excessive drinking, and other moral gaffes, Don Draper is one of the most intriguing television characters I’ve ever encountered. He is the ultimate anti-hero. Despite his artistic brilliance as an ad exec, he is terribly flawed. He makes choices that make me cringe. Yet, he evokes compassion from me as well. Plus, I like the clothes on the show, and my husband and I always enjoy period pieces. It’s fascinating to look at the interior design, hairstyles, clothing, etc. from a different era.
So, anyway, I’m familiar with January Jones and I even knew she recently had a baby, so I guess I’m not as out of touch with celebrity news as I thought. What I didn’t know is that she chose to have her placenta encapsulated and then swallowed a pill daily keep her energy up. While I’d never heard of routinely feeding your children from your mouth, I am aware of people putting their placenta into capsules. In fact, someone advised me to do just this with my placenta after my fourth baby. I didn’t even consider following the advice, but the person informed me there was science suggesting placenta pill-popping can help ward off postpartum depression, something I struggled with after baby number 3.
I’m also aware of some cultures that save the placenta and then cook it up for the family to enjoy a savory postpartum dish. Again, this doesn’t appeal to me at all. I have nothing against my placenta. It’s completely necessary and natural, and it apparently does make great fertilizer. Honestly, it’s not unnatural or freakishly weird to me that some women might choose to ingest their placenta in an effort to replenish nutrients or hormones lost during labor and delivery.
Again, I’m not familiar with the science behind this, but it makes more sense to me than mouth-feeding a toddler. I’m not sure I’d categorize this as extreme (and it’s not really a form of parenting any way since it doesn’t involve an action that immediately impacts the child), but I wouldn’t say it’s mainstream either. And turning your placenta into a teddy bear? Now that’s just plain gross and weird. There. I’m judging.
It was People magazine’s third parenting choice that was labeled as “extreme” that really got under my skin. I didn’t recognize this actress’s name – Mayim Bialik – or her face until she was referred to as the character who played Blossom. (Or maybe I Googled her name and picked up on the Blossom association then. I can’t remember.) I never saw that show either, but it was pretty popular when I was a child so I do remember it.
Well, Blossom has blossomed into a mama, and her extreme parenting style involves nursing her 3-year-old. Um, what? Yes, I know there are people who believe 3 is far too old for a child to nurse. Grow up already! they think. There are people who believe it’s sick – a sign of hyper-attachment. Worse, there are people only in Western society where breasts are openly admired in rhinestone-clad bras and cleavage is sexy and meant to be ogled at who think nursing a 3-year-old or any child is sexual. Now maybe if I fed my kids from my mouth or served up placenta stir-fry after I gave birth, I’d be more defensive about these “extreme” parenting practices, but how is it that nursing a child who is still very much a dependent and has an emotional and developmental needs to be close to her mama as extreme?
Consider the source, some might counter. After all, this “article” was in People magazine. But that’s what makes it even more powerful. Young people read that stuff, and some of them take it as gospel. If People suggests nursing a young child is weird, then this just perpetuates society’s corrupted view of breasts and breastfeeding. We need articles in mainstream media that reject the idea that breasts are merely sexual things. We need articles that convey that feeding our babies and young children with our bodies is a part of God’s plan – or in secular vernacular, nursing is natural even when it involves a child slightly older than what is considered “normal.” Finally, we don’t need anymore articles that label anything related to breastfeeding as “extreme” or not mainstream. Just as moms who don’t breastfeed don’t need militant lactivists referring to formula as poison.
More than embracing some parenting ideology, I’ve always wanted to parent by love, and nursing my 3-year-old at bedtime and maybe one other time of day is just that: an act of love. I’m not suggesting that if you don’t practice extended nursing, you don’t love your child or that you don’t desire to be emotionally attached to her, so don’t even go there. Truth is, I never set out to nurse a child for as long as I am nursing my Mary Elizabeth. I never had an end goal for nursing any of my children. I’ve used pacifiers with two out of four kids (so much for “pure” ecological breastfeeding). One child was completely free to self-wean, and she did it at an early age (18 months seemed early to me anyhow).
I actually did have to immediately wean Mary Elizabeth while I was on bed rest after I went into pre-term labor. However, when the baby was born, she began to ask to nurse again. I didn’t make a big deal of it and honestly thought she wouldn’t like the taste of the colostrum. But it’s not really about the taste or the nutritive value anymore; this is my third child’s time to snuggle with mommy. This is me using my body as a sign of sacrificial love. Sometimes I enjoy the extra nursing sessions (remember I’m nursing a very voracious little man, too), but sometimes I’d rather not serve her from the milk diner. Then again, there are plenty of days when I’d rather not serve any of my kids because I’m feeling overwhelmed or in desperate need of 20 seconds of uninterrupted solitude (as I type this the 3-year-old is climbing on my back). But I don’t see our nursing relationship as unnatural or extreme.
To compare nursing a preschooler with feeding your son from your mouth or encapsulating the placenta into pills (eating it not in pill form would be the more natural route, no?) seems ridiculous. First off, strictly scientifically speaking we are mammals. We are meant to nurse our young with our bodies, and routine physical closeness is shown to increase the maternal bond between a mother and her child – whether this done via breastfeeding, snuggling, or grooming if you’re a chimpanzee.
The natural, worldwide age of weaning is frequently cited as 4.2 years, although even articles natural weaning like this one often argue that this figure is not accurate or even meaningful and that we shouldn’t get so hung up on the right age to wean. There’s nothing extreme about nursing a baby, a toddler, or a preschooler. Now someone told me a story about a young woman who was engaged to be married. Her future husband discovered she still occasionally nursed and broke off the engagement. I don’t know if this is an urban legend or not, but yes, this is extreme and unhealthy. But I assure you nursing my little girl when she’s in need of a mommy fix is not.
I consider myself an overzealous lactivist. We are fortunate today to have choices and healthy options for women who can’t breastfeed. In America, we are blessed that we don’t have to worry about food shortages or diseases as they do in Third World countries. We can choose to breastfeed for longer than what is considered the norm or “acceptable” not because we’re trying to protect our children, build their immunity, or make sure they are adequately nourished but because we see nursing as maternal, natural, and a vehicle for expressing compassion to a child who may be in need of a little extra TLC than the “average” child. The only thing extreme about practicing extended nursing is the love the act personifies.