Fortunately for babies, breastfeeding has made a comeback. It was not that many decades ago that following birth many women were routinely injected with medications to dry up their milk, while others were strongly discouraged from the act being told it was “animalistic”. We have come far in evolving our attitude towards breastfeeding largely due to an increased understanding of the health benefits inherent in breast milk. This new research has prompted more health care providers to encourage breastfeeding and even the guidelines for duration have increased.
Although breastfeeding is a personal choice, this decision is heavily influenced by many factors, including societal attitudes. We have clearly seen a correlation between the number of women choosing to breastfeed and the increased acceptance of breastfeeding in general. Today the new controversy focuses on the length of time a mother should nurse her baby.
Until very recently, most breastfeeding guidelines encouraged mothers to breastfeed their babies until 1 year of age. This guideline replaced previous recommendations to breastfeed until 6 months of age. With each new round of studies that have emerged, pediatricians and health departments have felt obliged to adjust their recommendations.
Yet there almost always seems to be a lag time between the recommendations given by health officials and public behavior change. This is primarily due to the time it takes for people to recondition themselves to new ideas. Conditioning is a powerful force, and it is not easy to change people’s minds overnight – especially when the issue touches cultural taboos. After all, breastfeeding does involve breasts, and our cultural attitude towards this part of a woman’s body is emotionally charged.
That is why the most recent recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics “to breastfeed for at least the first year of life or beyond” and the Canadian Pediatric Association to breastfeed for “upwards of 2 years and beyond if so desired”, are not reflected by society in great numbers. Most people have preconceived ideas about how young, or small, a child should be if they are being breastfed. Anything beyond their socially accepted perception can be upsetting. There is definitely a stigma in North America around seeing a child that is walking and talking, still breastfeeding. Many people judge this as wrong and feel no reservation about expressing their opinion through disapproving looks or unwelcome criticism.
Many women stop breastfeeding because of social or familial pressures, despite their personal desire to continue. Without any support – and breastfeeding does require support – women often feel alone in believing what they are doing is healthy and nurturing. To avoid being chastised they either bow to pressure or, in some cases, become “closet breastfeeders”.
Mounting evidence clearly highlights the benefits that come from longer durations of breastfeeding. It is only a matter of time before society starts to accept the idea, or visual image, of a baby that can both breastfeed, and ask for it by name. Until then, a mother should take comfort in knowing if she does choose to breastfeed past 1 year of age, she is continuing to grace her child with many immunological benefits. She certainly is not doing anything to damage the psychological well being of her child. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics confirms this!
1. American Academy of Pediatrics. Retrieved at www.aap.org
2. Canadian Pediatric Society. Retrieved at www.cps.ca
3. Dettwyler KA. A time to wean: the hominid blueprint for the natural age of weaning in modern human populations. In: Stuart-Macadam P, Dettwyler KA, eds. Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter; 1995:39 -73