TIME Magazine: The Breastfeeding Debate

I can't get behind the cover photo, if only because if we're talking about what may be best for a child, we can at least agree that kids deserve to have their privacy respected.
05/11/2012 02:29 pm ET Updated Jul 11, 2012

The magazine isn't yet out on newsstands, but the airwaves are fluttering with TIME's provocative cover of a 3-year old child dangling from his mother's breast. Given the fundamental role that attachment plays in my parenting approach -- the second chapter of my book is devoted to it -- I felt compelled to participate in the conversation about attachment parenting, despite my feelings about how it has come up.

In my decades of working with children and families, I've seen over and over again that a child who feels securely attached to a loving and attentive caregiver grows up to be more self-confident and independent. Not only that, but the instinct to resist being bossed around that we're each born with -- one that contributes to our safety insofar as it prevents us from being influenced or harmed by strangers -- is fortified when a child feels a strong attachment to their parent or caregiver.

Breastfeeding is an ancient and natural component in promoting a mother's attachment to her child. The touch, closeness and leisurely dance between a mother and her baby that takes place when she is nursing is nothing short of holy for those women who can and choose to participate. I strongly advocate that whenever possible, a new mother take the time to offer her baby -- and herself -- the chance to linger for that brief time, whether it's months or years, in the ritual of breastfeeding. Far be it for me to decide when that should end; arguments can easily be made that culturally speaking, children have nursed far beyond what we're used to. And on the other hand, even a few months of nursing offers a baby a tremendous jump start, whenever possible.

Some women cannot nurse, or choose not to, and there's no question that they can still bond with their children. In my work, I teach ways of fortifying attachment throughout a child's life, not just in the first few years. More importantly, when a woman decides she doesn't want to nurse, no one benefits from shaming, blaming or guilting her; most of us already feel like we're swimming upstream as we raise our kids. We don't need more evidence from "experts" that we're falling short.

But when it is possible to breastfeed and the desire is there -- rather than nursing from a sense of obligation or guilt -- everyone wins; the mother-child bond is nurtured, the baby nourished and mom gets to stop, relax and simply slow down to meet the pace of her baby in a world that's often moving at breakneck speed.

That said, I can't get behind the cover photo, if only because if we're talking about what may be best for a child -- and clearly the collective opinions of those engaged in this dialogue are all over the map on that -- we can at least agree that kids deserve to have their privacy respected. I confess to believing it's good that TIME has sparked this conversation; it's long overdue. Too many parents treat parenting as a side sport -- no preparation, zero training and suddenly we're responsible for raising a human being.

But in the same way that I rarely write about my own son, now 21, I don't believe it was right -- or necessary- - to expose this little boy so provocatively to get a point across. Can we only engage in important discussions about raising children when we're sensationalistic? Clearly , those generating the piece believed otherwise. I'm not sure what that says about our capacity for learning, for being exposed to new ideas, or for advancing our understanding of what might best serve a child in a way that's thoughtful.

I think Lisa Belkin said it best when she offered this:

Women who breastfeed their children for three years are outliers, but they are not spectacles, and we shouldn't hold them up as either Madonnas or freaks. Women who do not breastfeed are not monsters, and we should not condemn them, or really have any opinion about their decision at all.

We are in this parenting thing together. Some of us will want to sleep with our children; some will find it absolutely unacceptable. Some will do their best to respond to their baby's every cry and others will fervently believe that it's in her best interest to learn to self-soothe for at least a few minutes so she can put herself back to sleep. And some will decide that they want to nurse their babies -- as women in other times and cultures have done for thousands of years -- beyond their first few months of life.

I hope we can explore these ideas wisely. For most of us, parenting is the most important thing we will do in our lives, and it deserves our willingness to grow, stretch and expand our knee-jerk ideas and beliefs, based largely on those of our own parents and immediate culture. We have to bring nursing a child into mainstream life; a generation ago (perhaps less), a friend of mine was accused of indecent behavior when she nursed her baby- - discreetly -- in Disneyland!

My hope is that we will engage in these conversations with tolerance and respect. We are, ultimately, a tribe of parents, albeit a very large one. All children benefit when parents support and encourage one another to be their best. Outside of attachment, we feel resistant. When we feel our point of view is respected, honored and heard, we become receptive. It's just how we're wired.