THE BLOG
05/30/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Breastfeeding: The Controversy Continues

Q: I have a wonderful son and a wonderful daughter-in-law. They have been married for five years and during that time we have seen them often and always have a good time. Often they join our other two younger children for grand and delicious family get-togethers which now -knock on wood - have been enriched by the arrival of our first grandchild. He is 9 months old and is obviously the joy of our lives.

So, what could possibly be the problem here? I am almost embarrassed to say what it is and I have not discussed this with anyone else. What perplexes me is that my friends who have grandchildren and discuss them endlessly never bring up this problem. Are they embarrassed -or am I alone in my predicament? I can't stand my daughter-in-law's incessant breastfeeding.

Why doesn't she stop already? Why does she do it all the time and all over the place? You can hardly turn around and there she is, my grandchild at her breast, and she's going at it. Shouldn't she be more discreet? I know that men sometimes are uncomfortable in the presence of a nursing woman, but I am not talking about that sort of thing. I am talking instead, I suppose, of moderation and also of being discreet. I know breastfeeding is natural, but so is sweating.

I know breastfeeding is healthy. But is it healthy for the mother to stop all activities in order to be available to the baby? Isn't it unhealthy to provide something less than the amount of food a baby needs to sleep through the night so it doesn't wake up needing another feeding? Isn't it unhealthy for the mother to be depleting all her resources so that she's really not available for other aspects of child-rearing or for taking care of her home and family?

A: Well, you certainly do represent the yawning gap between a younger generation's attitude toward breastfeeding and your own. What's more, your questions also suggests some additional personal issues that are only indirectly related to your daughter -in-law's breastfeeding. Let's start with the general issues.

Yes, this generation certainly feels differently about breastfeeding than previous ones -and, in fact, about child-rearing in general. When you become a grandparent, one of the things you realize is that the wheel is constantly being re-invented. When my first grandchild was born, I was sure that my kids would want the advice from me, especially since my doctorate dissertation specifically dealt with mother-infant interaction. I was the expert, for crying out loud!

But I soon realized that my kids were intent on discovering parenting on their own. I respect that. I got pleasure out of watching them get pleasure out of discovering the joys of parenting. Every parent is entitled to discover that on their own and to instill their children with their own particular values. At the same time, your kids are looking to you, their parent to tell them that they are doing a good job being a parent. A little applause never hurts.

Breastfeeding is certainly one of those issues that varies greatly from one generation to the next. This generation believes in for both emotional and physiological reasons -and for good reason. There are lots of studies about the benefits of breast milk when it comes to immune deficiencies and allergies. More recently, a study suggested a connection between long-term breastfeeding and higher IQ scores. So, women who believe in the virtues of breastfeeding, not only have reason to do so, but strongly feel justified in doing so wherever and whenever they -- or the children -- want. In fact, some cities are now having lengthy debates about whether to allow public breastfeeding, so when it comes to discomfort it appears you are hardly alone.

I must admit I am a bit biased, since I breastfed and loved it. I was bucking what was customary in my generation. The nurses in the maternity ward were very angry that my baby had to be brought to me in the middle of the night in order to breast feed. Nowadays babies are kept in the mother's room in order to facilitate breastfeeding. I applaud that.

In my opinion as both a mother and shrink, I firmly believe that breastfeeding facilitates mother-infant bonding. Nature has seen to that. The infant is pre-wired to see the mother during breastfeeding. In fact, he or she can see no further. Their eyes at birth can only focus the distance between themselves and their mother's eyes.

That's nature. Now for nurture. A mother who breastfeeds has already established priorities. The baby comes first. It comes over sleep, work, or play. That doesn't mean that breastfeeding moms love their child more than a non-breastfeeding mother, nor does it mean, in my opinion, that their baby will be smarter or more capable because of the breastfeeding. (Remember, the single study relating to higher IQ scores has yet to be replicated.) It just means that the likelihood of the mother being intensely involved with her child is greater -- and the chances to develop a strong bond between mother and child because of increased time together in a very intimate situation is greatly enhanced. All this being the case -and nothing, but nothing being "greener" than mother's milk and a delivery system with no carbon emissions -it stands to reason that some mother would be excessively proud to breastfeed in public. They think they're doing a public -as opposed to private -service.

So, accept your role as a grandparent and understand your own personal issues as well. Since this is your first grandchildren, this is the first time you are feeling and experiencing this new stage of your life -and your children's, too. Do you miss not having the main role in parenting decisions? Do you feel your daughter-in-law is no longer taking care of your son? You suggest that by wondering if her energy for taking care of the home -not to mention your son - is being depleted by her marathon breastfeeding. Might you also feel that you are missing out on what appears to be those special moment for your son and daughter-in-law -- a moment that does not include you?

Relax, you're hardly the only grandparent who has questions and emotions about breastfeeding. Everyone talks about the shifting roles for the parent and the adjustment that is required for them. But grandparents who are also finding themselves in transition from long held beliefs to new roles have to make adjustments that can be painful. Ask your friends quietly. They may agree with you. I don't usually like to say to anyone that I understand what they are feeling, but there are aspects of your discomfort that I understand. All grandparents do.