Enough With the “Breastfeeding Shaming” Already

A few days ago, one of my close friends sent me the link to photos in the Huffington Post that have been getting quite the hype lately. The photos, of a mother and her two daughters (ages 3 and 8 months), were taken during a motherhood shoot. When the girls started to get fussy midway through the shoot, their mother decided to breastfeed them. As you can imagine: most of the responses in the comments section were angry, disgusted, and hurtful. Oh because, you know… there’s nothing more horrifying than breastfeeding your child in public. 

Welcome to America: where graphic sex and violence are on every TV channel, billboard, and magazine, but God forbid you pull out a boob to feed your child.

Before I show you these graphic images, I must warn you:

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(Sit down, just in case.)

Are you ready?

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Okay, so now that these traumatic photos are out of the way… please forgive my sarcasm. It’s just that I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry about this.

My first reaction to the 800 (mostly mean, uneducated, and judgmental) comments was to freak out. Yes, I did think about responding to each and every one of them. But that wouldn’t have changed much, would it?

Most of the commenters seemed pretty sure of themselves:

“Sorry but by 3 a child has a full set of teeth for a reason. To eat solid food all the time. Nature meant it that way… my daughter stopped at a year by her own choice. Once she had a bottle/tippy cup option I showed her the boob and the bottle, she grabbed the bottle… that was that.”

“No 3 year old should still be nursing. When they can eat big people food they are done. This is your way of holding on to the babies just a little too much. Time to let go.”

and my personal favorite:

“I get that moms want to do this, and think it’s beneficial, but studies HAVE shown that there ISN’T a reason/need to breastfeed your child beyond 1-2 years… After that, it’s just selfishness on the mother’s part.”

(Don’t freak out, Johanna. Don’t freak out.)

First of all, commenters #1 and #2… are you claiming that by three years old, when a child has teeth  (my son already has six, does that count too?) he should only be eating solids? Oh because it’s “unnatural” to drink if you’re able to chew? Do you not give your children cow’s milk, for example? In that case, can you explain to me why drinking cow’s milk (which is really not meant to be digested by humans) is better than drinking human milk, which is naturally produced for our babies?  And “if nature meant it that way”, why do we  often continue to produce milk way past the one year mark?  In cultures where mothers and babies are not pressured to wean prematurely, babies self-wean  naturally between 2.5 and 7 years of age, with most babies self-weaning around age 3 or 4.

Commenter #3… Funny, because studies have shown the exact opposite. I’ll just go ahead and copy and paste this little tidbit here, from my post “Breastfeeding Past Infancy: Do You Know the Benefits?“:

Breastfeeding past the 12 month mark

  • Baby continues to get immunological advantages of human milk during a time when he is increasingly exposed to infection and germs.
  • After 1 year, human milk has more fat and energy contents, compared with human milk before 1 year (growing babies NEED the extra fat & especially human cholesterol!)
  • In the second year (12-23 months), 448 mL of breastmilk provides (Dewey 2001):  29% of energy requirements, 43% of protein requirements,36% of calcium requirements,75% of vitamin A requirements,76% of folate requirements, 94% of vitamin B12 requirements, 60% of vitamin C requirements . Note that this is exactly what baby humans need; cow’s milk is designed to grow baby cows which have smaller brains per body mass (bestforbabes.org)
  • Nursing toddlers (between the ages of 16 and 30 months) have been found to have fewer illnesses and illnesses of shorter duration than their non-nursing peers (Gulick 1986).
  • Some of the immune factors in breast milk increase in concentration during the second year and also during the weaning process. (Goldman 1983, Goldman & Goldblum 1983, Institute of Medicine 1991).
  • Breastfeeding toddlers (babies > 1 year), helps them learn to self-soothe and self-regulate, manage frustrations (some parents report avoiding the “terrible twos” altogether) and lessens pain from bumps and bruises (breastmilk contains analgesics, i.e. natural pain-killers) (bestforbabes.org).
  • Breastfeeding toddlers (babies > 1 year) helps them make a gradual transition to childhood. Children who achieve independence at their own pace are more secure in that independence then children forced into independence prematurely (bestforbabes.org)

That’s what studies have shown.

And so what if a mom enjoys providing all of these good things for her child? Is that a bad thing?

This post really got me thinking about issues that go beyond a simple breastfeeding photo… like emotional abuse and shaming other women for choices that only concern them.

 I find these images incredibly beautiful, not disgusting or shameful. Those are the last things I would’ve called them. But I can tell you about the disgusting and shameful things I see, on Facebook alone, every morning. Hostages beheaded, refugees washed out on beaches, animals being abused, the list goes on. It’s time to get your priorities straight, America.

Feeding your child (because that’s what it is, not stripping or being provocative in front of strangers, in case you were confused there for a second) is the most natural thing in the world and no woman should feel ashamed for doing so in public. You want to wean your baby at the 6 month mark? The one year mark? Good for you. Leave the ones who don’t alone. They’re the ones committing to it, not you. And only a breastfeeding mom knows how much of a commitment it is to breastfeed your child (I’m not sure why women and men with no children would feel the need to comment in the first place?)

As mothers, we’re all doing what we feel is right for our children. Obviously, this means something different to everyone — It’s time to support each other for making these choices, not put each other down each time someone does things differently. It’s time to change this stuck up, closed minded, and aggressive mentality that causes moms to breastfeed in bathroom stalls. Seriously, I’ve had enough.

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A photo I took in Barcelona, Spain   Summer 2009

It’s normal everywhere else in the world... why not here?

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Johanna Riehm teaches in the department of Communication and Media at Manhattanville College and in the department of English at Mercy College. She teaches courses in the history of communication, public speaking, and social media, as well as creative and technical writing workshops. Johanna’s work has been featured in Graffiti Literary Magazine, The Write Place at the Write Time, The Bangalore Review, Cactus Heart Press, and the LaMothe Review. She is working on her first longer work, a creative nonfiction novel called We Carved Our Names in Tamarind Trees.

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