Breastfeeding in public: is nine months really the end of the road?

bibAlthough the NHS recommend breastfeeding for at least a year, and the World Health Organization for two years and beyond, I’m well aware that Western culture doesn’t really allow for this. Thanks possibly to hard-line health awareness campaigns, it now seems generally acceptable to be seen feeding very little babies in public, but it’s also still acceptable for people to vociferously object to anyone breastfeeding an older child. Gauging the point at which breastfeeding goes from ‘good’ to ‘bad’ is a tricky business, however. When does your gorgeous little infant suddenly lose their innocent penchant for breast milk, and turn into an ‘older child’, apparently in danger of being psychologically damaged by continued nursing?

Many people I know have given me their opinion on breastfeeding beyond this (as yet undefined) ‘baby’ stage.

After a television programme on extended breastfeeding, a fairly inebriated friend of my husband held forth about how how unpleasant it was to see people breastfeeding children (which doesn’t entirely explain why he spent an hour watching it on television). It wasn’t clear why he held this view, but the fact he is an avid reader of such publications as The Sun, Nuts, FHM and Maxim perhaps gives some indication of his attitude towards, and personal interest in, breasts. ‘Surely it’s got to do some long term psychological damage – f*** up your attitude towards breasts,’ is an argument that is wheeled out quite frequently (as demonstrated in this discussion of Nell McAndrew’s decision to breastfeed her toddler), although interestingly, I’ve yet to hear it from a woman. It is of course possible to turn this argument on its head – in many other countries, breasts are viewed as primarily practical, rather than sexual, so if you must view these things in black and white, you could argue that this is the ‘right’ way round – but such men seem strangely unreceptive to this possibility.

The idea that a child may be negatively affected by a memory of breastfeeding is another charge that comes up quite frequently. I’ve never got to the bottom of quite why this would be the case, but it seems, again, to be to based on the premise that breasts are for grown-ups, and getting them out for children is slightly suspect.

I had a recent discussion about feeding older children with a couple of very good friends, and although a concrete age was never mentioned, the topic came up when I started to breastfeed C, who is now nine months old. Although obviously still a baby (she can’t yet walk), she is able to sit up, wave, clap and generally communicate. It’s presently quite unusual for babies in Britain to still be breastfed at this point – according to the latest Infant Feeding Survey, only 20% of mothers make it to nine months. The timing of the conversation may have been entirely coincidental, of course, and nothing to do with me giving C an afternoon snack, but I found it hard to dismiss the thought that there was a coded message in there.

I’ve since talked to my friend about this, and while she was adamant this wasn’t the case, she also admitted she has a bit of a problem with breastfeeding toddlers. When she asked me how long I was planning to feed C, I said I wasn’t sure, but I couldn’t dismiss the possibility of continuing for another few months. She understood my reasons for this, and agreed that this was, in theory, a positive thing, but it clearly wasn’t something she felt entirely comfortable with. I’m ashamed to say that it isn’t something I feel entirely comfortable with either. The idea of feeding C (behind closed doors) is lovely, but the thought of admitting to anyone that I’m ‘still’ doing it is less appealing. I am, however, convinced that this is something I have to address: it isn’t much good complaining about our society’s attitude to breastfeeding, unless I’m prepared to challenge it myself.

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6 Responses to “Breastfeeding in public: is nine months really the end of the road?”

  1. Kate Says:

    The “not feeding them at an age when they might have a memory of it” argument makes me laugh. I breastfed my youngest until he was two and a half. His older brother would have been just past five years old. Neither of them remember anything about it; my youngest doesn’t remember breastfeeding and my oldest doesn’t remember his mum having her boobs out all the time. 🙂 I wish they *did* remember it, as it would be a lovely memory. But do babies remember being bottlefed, either?

    • Elizabeth Jay Says:

      Thanks for that Kate – I agree that remembering being breastfed would only be a good thing. Still, it’s a good point about (not) remembering bottle feeding, for those who have yet to be convinced of this!

  2. Karin Says:

    My daughter is now 2 years old, I nurse her at home. But I would not dare to nurse her in public anymore. I did until she was about one year old.
    She has a dairy allergy, I have no idea what other milk to give her. Mine seems to be the only one she can have without any ill effect.
    I would like her to remember being nursed. I nursed my other daughter until she was 14 months old, I now regret having stopped so early.
    I hope both daughters will grow up and think of nursing as the only way to feed a baby milk.

    • Elizabeth Jay Says:

      Sorry to hear that your daughter has a dairy allergy, but it’s great that she is still able to have your milk. A friend’s baby had a dairy allergy, and as she was formula fed from the start she ended up having to have a special milk only available on prescription (after the several weeks of terrible colic it took them to work out what was wrong).

  3. Sally Says:

    I fed mine till 18 months. Didn’t care what other people thought although I did get comments. It’s such a shame people think they have a right. I’ve never felt I have the right to comment on what people are feeding their kids and I’ve seen some horrific things, coke in a bottle!

    • Elizabeth Jay Says:

      I really admire you for that Sally. I’m generally happy to tell people I’m still breastfeeding C (who’s now walking and therefore way past the ‘acceptable’ point), but as it only really happens in the mornings and evenings, when we’re at home, I haven’t had to deal with much direct negative confrontation. A lot of family and friends still don’t seem to be comfortable with it, but when faced with the possibility of an intelligent discussion (rather than just shouting abuse from the other side of the street), they tend to keep quiet.


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