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Breastfeeding a 4-year old. Disgusting? Or not “normal”?

A mother has posted a photo of herself breastfeeding her 4-year old. Fox news reports that she is “being shamed on social media for nursing her kids beyond the ‘normal’ age.” And that it’s “gross” and “disgusting.”

Fox news reports breastfeeding 4 year old as disgusting

Okay, and that “normal” age would be…what? And the social norm would be exactly the same as the biological norm, right? And the woman is being shamed for doing what she chooses for herself and family?

What about the right to “choice”?

In a country where a woman’s “choice” is so highly valued, why is it that when she chooses something that others don’t understand or value, she is criticized?

If a woman chooses to have an abortion, she is merely exercising her right to free choice. If she chooses to wear a nipple ring or a nose ring or a piece of jewelry in any other body piercing, she is merely exercising her right to free choice. If she posts a video of herself giving birth, well, it’s her body, it’s her choice to show whatever she wants. If we don’t want to see it, we don’t have to watch.

But if a woman posts a photo of herself breastfeeding a 4-year old, that’s just gross and disgusting. It’s not something she should choose to do past the “normal” age.

Breastfeeding is the biological norm

The problem here in the United States is that we think it’s “not normal” for older children to breastfeed. We assume that if we don’t witness it on a regular basis, it must be “not normal.”

There is consistently excellent data to show that globally, breastfeeding commonly continues until at least 20-23 months.

However, many statistics go undocumented because of the definition of the word “weaning.”

In the United States, when we say “weaned” we tend to mean that the child is no longer suckling his mother’s milk. In other words, weaning is seen as the cessation of breastfeeding. We regard it as an “event” that has occurred.

But technically, the first time that a child receives something other than his mother’s milk, he is being “weaned.” That is, his mother’s milk is no longer his sole source of nutrition. Using this definition, then, weaning is a process, not an event.

The World Health Organization looks at children who are “fed breast milk” at age 23 months. Hence, that doesn’t tell us anything  about whether the nursing relationship continues thereafter.

So before we put a date on when a child is weaned, we need the definition. And the existing data doesn’t pinpoint at what age when breastfeeding does cease, or when it normally should cease.

When large primates wean

Like it or not, we are animals! (We certainly aren’t plants, right?) In her studies,  Dr. Katherine Dettwyler illuminates points about when other large primates wean their offspring.

In a fascinating explanation, Dettwyler states that other large-bodied primates wean their offspring in relation to their length of gestation, adult weight, eruption of molars, and immune competence. (A calculation is made on each factor.)

Dettwyler explains, “The human primate data suggest that human children are designed to receive all of the benefits of breast milk and breastfeeding for an absolute minimum of two and a half years, and an apparent upper limit of around seven years.”

Why would we think that humans—who are large-bodied primates—would have needs that are different from other large-bodies primates?

And, I might add: What demarcates some “change” that dictates a “normal” need to wean? It seems to me that breasts could have been engineered to stop lactating at a specific time. (All mammals stop gestating a specific time, right?) But nope. Breasts keep on working.

So what, exactly, is disgusting or not normal?

You can tell me that’s it’s not socially acceptable to breastfeed a 4-year-old in America. I agree. You can tell me that you don’t believe Dettwyler. Okay. You can tell me, as one nurse manager told me years ago, “I think breastfeeding is disgusting and I would never do it myself.” (That’s a verbatim quote!) Fine. No one is forcing you (or her) to do so.

In the meanwhile, stop sticking your nose into other peoples’ parenting decisions. And stop shaming women for making a choice that is not illegal, immoral, or harmful.

Sheesh!

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12 Comments

  1. Judy

    The longest I heard of was 10 years. In the early 1980’s I worked with a Vietnamese gentleman that said he was breastfed until he was 10. He was the youngest boy, and the only male survivor of the war in his family. But the “Last Emperor” was suckled into his teens. So I’m with Marie – it’s not illegal, immoral, harmful or any of my business.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Whoa! Judy, that sure gives credibility to the fact older children DO nurse. Never mind whether they should or not, they do. There’s a ton of information on the web that claims the 2 to 2 1/2 years limit, but I truly believe that’s a misinterpretation of what the statistics actually say. Yes, kids DO nurse at 2 or 2 1/2, but that doesn’t mean they quit at that time. The definition is critical. And thanks for sharing this story, Judy. It’s been ages since I’ve actually seen you, but I remember you distinctly! Thanks for being in this virtual space with me!

  2. Kenny

    This is stupid! Breast feeding is for infants only, no later than age one. Any age beside that is for pleasure. Only Americans will try to normalize something for infancy.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Thankfully, Americans have normalized freedom of speech, so I believe that readers are entitled to their own opinions…and I do value respectful comments that might diverge from my own opinions. However, setting opinions aside, and re-stating the facts in my post, there there is consistently excellent data to show that globally, breastfeeding commonly continues until at least 20-23 months, and perhaps much longer.

  3. Cindy

    I find it totally gross to breastfeed . Pump the milk and bottle feed. Why are you breastfeeding a 4 yr old? I think women do it because it turns them on and they use it for their pleasure. It’s gross and disgusting! Kinda pervertish too some women get horny and masterbate with a baby sucking on them ! If a man did that they be called perverts. Isn’t that considered enjoying sexual acts with under age ? It’s just creepy to me . That’s what is wrong with the world , we can’t control ourselves and give into our desires.
    I am appalled to see a woman breastfeeding!

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Cindy, I’m honestly sorry you deem breastfeeding as “gross”, “disgusting”, “pervertish” “creepy” and that you are “appalled” by it. Certainly, you are entitled to your own reactions and feelings. I’d just remind you that your view is colored by the culture in which you live. In our culture, breasts are sexualized, and hence you are viewing breasts from a social standpoint. But whether you like it not not, from a biological standpoint, breasts are meant to nurture the young. Formula wasn’t invented until a few hundred years ago. For thousands of years, women have given birth and then breastfed their young. Without breasts and breastfeeding, infants would have died. The species would not have survived. That’s just a fact.

      About women being turned on, using it for pleasure, being horny or masturbating. I suppose it’s entirely possible that some woman somewhere has had those motivations or feelings. I’ve just never encountered such a woman.

    • Kay P.

      I agree with a lot of what you said. In my opinion, a mother is welcome to breast feed as long as she wants at home, but it’s gross to breast feed a toddler in public. I think 6 months is a good limit, but definitely not in public after age one.
      At that age they’re not ONLY having breast milk; they’re eating and drinking other things – so if you’re in the mall, it can wait until they get home. Mothers need to be more courteous and sensitive to the people around them on this issue.
      Frankly, every women I know who’s continued breast feeding after age three is a little needy. If a mother is breast feeding a toddler or a preschooler, it’s the mother who has a boundary issue and can’t stop. Her identity is so tied up in motherhood that she can’t separate herself – she can’t even physically separate her boob! – from her child.
      Breast feed at home until your kids are adults for all I care. Just limit it to infants in public.

      • Marie Biancuzzo

        Kay, as you rightfully observe, at that age, it’s not the sole source of nutrition for the baby. But as we all know, breastfeeding is about more than “food.” And, certainly, mothers can set boundaries if they wish. I’m all for setting boundaries, whether it’s for breastfed babies or wild teenagers or old grouchy mothers-in-laws or whatever. But speaking of boundaries — we can only set boundaries for ourselves. We can’t determine what boundaries other people should set for their kids (or others.) I often see and hear many “offensive” actions or words in public. People smoking near the door, using foul language, all of that stuff that we see on a daily basis in public places can be offensive to some people. Including me. I can’t control people who are uncourteous or insensitive. I can only control myself and my reaction. So I just ignore what they’re doing.

  4. CINDY RASMUSSEN

    I think you and Cindy have hit on an important (elephant on the room) view of breasts in more civilized countries. I think many partners feel those breasts are only sexual and worry that their breastfeeding partner is getting serial enjoyment from their nursing child, or they just want to enjoy those breaststroke again the way they used to. I totally enjoyed breastfeeding my children and never even thought of it as sexually pleasurable, it was empowering to me as a woman to give life and sustain life in very sacred way. It’s such a natural process, but as a human race we’re turning it askew into a sexual/perverted act. It’s just so sad…we’d rather give our small children something naturally made for a baby calf than our own, specifically produced for our child, human milk.

    • Marie Biancuzzo

      Yes, as I often say in my live courses, We are the only species who regularly gives our young the milk of another species. Cow’s milk is specially formulated for a 120-pound calf!

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