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Erika Christakis

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The Hypocrisy of Breastfeeding Shamers

Posted: 05/14/2012 10:55 am

The Hypocrisy of Breastfeeding Shamers: Where's the Outrage Over Adult 'Oral Fixations'?

There's a lot of drama going on at TIME about 'extended' breastfeeding and whether the cover photo of a gorgeous blond mother nursing a preschooler was such a great idea. But the extensive commentary has missed something important: We have a double standard concerning human frailty when it comes to adults and children.

Why are we so quick to criticize 'extended breastfeeding' (even the term smacks of clinical judgment) when we have no such impulse to crack down on the myriad ways that adults fuel their own oral fixations? Think about it. Where's the outrage over adults' "extended" use of alcohol, tobacco, illegal and prescription drugs, unsafe sex, and food? All humans, to varying degrees, have anxieties and impulses that are soothed by oral pleasure. This impulse is hard-wired in humans, in some more than others, as we've all seen from ultrasound pictures of babies in utero during late pregnancy enthusiastically sucking on their thumbs. Why do we attach such judgment and hostility to this reality when it concerns young children?

Surely there are better things to worry about than children who are over-nurtured. Yet to hear the breastfeeding detractors tell it, mothers who indulge these primitive needs beyond a culturally arbitrary cut-off point are acting like narcissistic creeps. My guess is that the mothers who practice extended breastfeeding are nothing of the kind but are simply women who've observe a need that can be best addressed by nursing and have the time and desire to fulfill it.

People also worry that the children themselves will grow up damaged by such intense intimacy with their mothers. Late breast feeders aren't typically maladjusted weirdos, however; they just really love nursing and find it comforting in the same way that a lot of bigger kids find thumbs and blankies and transitional objects comfortable because, let's face it, childhood is scary and stressful for many (even most?) children. As anyone who's witnessed a night terror or checked under the bed for monsters knows all too well, the problem with childhood is not that young kids are soothed too much but that they are soothed too little.

Any nursing mother knows you can't force a child to breastfeed if she doesn't want to. It's like forcing someone to urinate. So why do we care about the tiny number of young children who, for reasons of biology or circumstance, have above-average soothing needs and a mother willing and able to indulge them? Why should we care if someone's breastfeeding habit has gone on longer than a nosy neighbor might find appropriate? My neighbor's drug-buying habit has gone on longer than I find appropriate!

My point is that grownups have a lot "self-soothing" habits that, unlike extended breastfeeding, can cause widespread and costly societal harm. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that alcohol alone accounts for at least 75,000 deaths annually, ranking third after preventable deaths from tobacco and poor eating. These figures include women who consume more than one drink per day or more than three drinks at a single occasion -- not something most people would consider a dangerous addiction. Maybe if adults were less judgmental about breastfeeding mothers, and instead focused on the hypocrisy of their own oral fixations -- smoking or drunk driving, for example, or hiring a sex worker for oral sex without a condom, or even just eating too many cheeseburgers -- they might feel less inclined to criticize very young children for acting like, heaven forbid, babies?

 
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