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 Extended breastfeeding is not extreme parenting 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.

Enter the Conversation...

20 Responses to “Extended breastfeeding is not extreme parenting”
  1. Kris says:

    I saw that blurb, too, and thought the SAME thing! That actress in question is now on Big Bank Theory, one of my favorite shows, and I couldn’t believe they referred to nursing as “extreme”. She’s also, from what I have read, very committed to attachment parenting, and in fact, dropped off the acting radar for awhile to have her kids. I believe she has several. Goodness.

    • Kate Wicker says:

      The article did mention that she was a proponent of AP and come to think of it, I think it mentioned she was a star of The Big Bang Theory. Maybe Dave and I will have to add that to our date night rotation if you like it so much!

      • I LOVE Big Bang Theory and the actress you all are referring too. I have read HER blog too, and support her 100%. Her blog talks about how acting actually helps them attachment parent and make a living at the same time, since she can work blocks of time that her husband can handle since she nurses. It’s really fantastic how they parent without any outside help, and are so dedicated!

        LOVED this post…and Poople. I also love Poople…HAHA!!!
        ViolinMama @ A Rosey Outlook recently posted..More on my "Lost" Pride.

  2. jen says:

    My favorite part of this post—the lengthy almost-TMI preface explaining why you would be reading People Magazine. I love this.

    Oh yes, I agree with your other points, too :-)

  3. Anne says:

    I saw this article in People (love how it’s in your parents’ bathroom and called Poople :) Nursing is very individual and depends on the child’s needs. Some wean earlier than others and some want to continue longer – my two were very different and I went with their individual program.

  4. I am surprised that People magazine picked breastfeeding a three-year-old for Mayim Bialik not just considering there are a lot of people who breastfeed that long but also because there are some other things that people may consider extreme in her parenting and the one I hear people I know bringing up most often is the potty-training of newborns (there is a technical term something-elimination that I don’t know). To each there own but I was way too exhausted to even consider attempting to potty train even a three-month-old much less a newborn. To each their own, I guess, I just don’t know how I would ever accomplish such a feat.
    Kristen @ St Monica’s Bridge recently posted..Seven Quick Memes

    • Kate Wicker says:

      I’m with you, Kristen. It’s called elimination communication and considering I have trouble communicating period in the postpartum stage, I’m pretty confident I wouldn’t have much luck communicating with my bambino’s bottom. ;-)

  5. Claire says:

    Great post, Kate. Totally agree; nursing a toddler is in a whole different category than something extreme like a mother pre-chewing a baby’s food. My son was adopted and bottle fed, but had things been different I could have definitely pictured myself nursing him at age 3 (probably just a couple of times/day like you do with your daughter). He’s 4 now, and I can no longer picture it at his current age, but I know some people do nurse 4-year olds.

  6. Colleen says:

    Not wanting to sound insensitive or offensive, but wanting to showcase the other point of view…I would have to say that in America, in today’s age, nursing a 3 year old and sleeping in the same bed with your whole family (she also does that) is considered an extreme parenting choice.

    I think your desire to not label it as “extreme” is because you are offended that what you choose to do is being labeled that way.

    But if it’s what you feel is best for your family, then who cares if it is extreme? People might call my form of parenting “extreme” in the opposite direction because I wean my babies early (a year or less), work full-time, and never ever let them sleep in my bed on purpose. But that doesn’t offend me because I have to work so that we can have a home and food on the table, so my babies are put on a bottle early while I am away, and my milk supply decreases (hence early weaning). I am a super light sleeper and can’t have anyone (not even my husband) touching me while sleeping. So I do what works best for us, and you do what works best for you.

    We are all so eager to point out the weird things others do (pre-mastication and placenta pills) but can’t seem to take it when others question our choices. I just think you really don’t need to be shocked or hurt that the way you are parenting is considered “extreme” by some. Embrace it :)
    Colleen recently posted..Day 6: Will Exercise to Eat

    • Kate Wicker says:

      Hi, Colleen. To be clear, I was not offended nor shocked by People labeling breastfeeding a 3-year-old as extreme. In fact, a big reason for my post is to voice my opposition of the glut of mainstream media labeling different breastfeeding choices as “extreme” or weird (like Julie Bowen nursing her twins and showing a picture of her doing so). I wish it was more surprising that breastfeeding a child was compared to feeding a toddler chewed up food out of your mouth, but this kind of distorted view of breastfeeding is pretty pervasive, and that’s what I take issue with. I’d take issue with it whether I was still nursing my Mary Elizabeth or not because there’s a huge difference between something being extreme or as you seem to be arguing as exceptional or unusual due to the fact that it just isn’t practical or possible in modern American society for many women to practice extended breastfeeding because they have to return to work or for other reasons AND a parenting choice that isn’t something that is practiced cross-culturally or has been practiced since the beginning of human civilization as breastfeeding has. That’s what really bothered me. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the minority or not or even if I practice it or not, breastfeeding a toddler shouldn’t be compared to placenta pill-popping or using your mouth as a bowl for children.

      Colleen, you know I support your choices 100 percent. No mom has to defend why they weaned early, why they don’t co-sleep, etc. to me. As a side note, a good friend of mine who wanted to co-sleep but couldn’t get any shuteye when she tried pointed out that she was conditioned to sleeping alone, which might explain why many Americans do have difficulties sleeping with kids. I didn’t co-sleep as much with my second, and I didn’t sleep as well with my first but because she nursed all-night long I had to keep her close if I wanted any sleep, but now that I’ve gotten use to sleeping closer to my babies, I love the experience, and so does my husband. But we know this is a personal choice for us. It’s also a form of lazy parenting for me. :-)

      I am glad you brought this up, and I always appreciate your insight, Colleen. Likewise, I probably should have been more clear that it didn’t “hurt” or “offend” me to have something I happen to practice as “extreme.” I’ve always enjoyed being a mommy rebel actually. I’m insecure about my share of things but not parenting. Yet, I’m also, as I hope regular readers know, a huge proponent of supporting moms despite their personal parenting choices rather than quibbling over the “best” way to be a mom. As I’ve said ad nauseam, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to becoming an exceptional parent. And you don’t have to do exceptional/extreme things like, um, nursing an older little one to be exceptional. To each her own definitely. After four kids and some thick skin and weird looks and being called a dog who needs to be sent to obedience school because I found freedom in discreetly nursing at Mass, I wholeheartedly embrace my style of parenting because it does work for me, and I didn’t write this post to defend my decision or to put down someone else’s to wean early or to not breastfeed at all.

      Nor did I write it because I was losing sleep over the fact that People magazine (or anyone for that matter) might see me as an extreme parent. Like I alluded to above, if extreme means unusual, then that’s probably true. There aren’t a lot of moms who breastfeed this long in America, although there are far more than you might imagine. I know several “closet” extended breastfeeders who keep it secret, in part, because of ridiculous comparisons like the one made in People. They only “come out” to me because I’m not as shy about saying that yes, my 3-year-old is loudly asking for “mama’s milk” because yes, she still nurses on occasion.

      While I understand that practicing extended breastfeeding is more exceptional or unusual (which, I admit, are somewhat synonymous with the word extreme), I don’t agree it can even begin to be compared to chewing up your food for your baby or eating your placenta whether in capsule form or not. Likewise, I think it does a disservice to breastfeeding as a whole for popular, mainstream magazines like People to write anything that could be construed as negative or weird about nursing. Young people won’t remember how old the child was who was nursing – just that it was as weird as a toddler eating from his mom’s mouth.

      Finally, as I tried to point out in my post but perhaps failed to do so, breastfeeding for longer than the “norm” – whether it’s something all moms choose to embrace or not – is still a natural practice and something we were actually designed to do (and it sure does help with NFP/natural child spacing!), but the way our society is set up (moms working outside the home, etc.) is what makes it impossible, difficult, and/or extreme – not the practice itself. Nursing is timeless (i.e., it’s been practiced since humans inhabited the Earth) as well as something women do to some degree across cultures (unlike eating your placenta). Thus, it’s more mainstream and “natural” – ergo not as extreme as the other parenting choices featured in the article. That was the crux of my argument, but it was admittedly lumped in there with a TMI intro, some random chatter about television shows, and some of my own nursing anecdotes. :-)

      Perhaps I shouldn’t have chosen the words that it got under my skin to label breastfeeding as a toddler as extreme. What really bothered me was that it was even included in the same article.

      Below is the meat of my argument for those of you just perusing the comments and not wanting to wade through my rambling post:

      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.

      • Colleen says:

        Hi Kate,
        I guess we just misunderstood each other :) I think I see the label “extreme” as doing something unusual (such as breastfeeding a toddler who has access to lots of other food choices) but not abnormal (of course breastfeeding is normal) and definitely not negative. Keep up the good work, as you obviously are raising happy and healthy children!!

        • Kate Wicker says:

          Thank you, Colleen. The same goes for you!

          And I know you’re an advocate of breastfeeding. I think I failed to express that People definitely chose the label “extreme” to be sensational (the article even included a photo of Alicia Silverstone’s son eating from her gaping mouth), and I just don’t think breastfeeding a 3-year-old – no matter how unusual it is – needs to be sensationalized. Forgive my lack of clarity in my original post and my rambling here!

          Irony of all of this is right now I’m in agony as a nursing mama resting in bed with a fever and a highly inflamed breast due to mastitis. Ugh. :-) But I’m also thankful I have two nurslings to help me empty the hurting breast!

          God bless you!
          Kate Wicker recently posted..Extended breastfeeding is not extreme parenting

  7. Pank24 says:

    And I thought you just liked the bathroom for the Poople Magazine!

  8. Blair says:

    I loved this post, especially the part about People in the Pooper! I love People magazine and hope to one day provide that kind of enjoyment to the guests of our home! For now the guest bath is the kids’ bath, so People magazine won’t be welcomed there anytime soon ;) I have been reading about Mayim Bialik here and there, and I think it’s neat that she’s promoting an AP lifestyle.
    Blair recently posted..Air Show at Naval Base

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