For mothers breastfeeding children beyond infancy, how a life of secrecy and castigation blights the experience
The female body, from the moment it pushes out an offspring, is subdued, and replaced by something inert — a bottle, a pacifier, a silicone toy, a crib, and erased entirely before the passage of a year.
January 2020, or a pre-pandemic India.
We were alone in the park. We were strangers. Confessing was easy.
The woman seated by my side was in her late 30s. Like me, she was watching her toddler. Her son curled his body into a comma on a jungle gym; mine chortled on a swing.
She began by asking the questions all mums do — how old is your son? (one-and-a-half); firstborn? (yes); does he eat well? —
I shrugged. "If he wishes to. Either way, there’s always breastmilk."
She turned quiet. Then asked, "You breastfeed your toddler?"
She lowered her voice — it was less than a whisper. "Me too."
And so it began. The deluge.
She told me of her household comprising (besides her son) her husband and in-laws, and of how, the moment her child crossed infancy, they started castigating her for nursing him. "He’ll never grow up," they reprimanded, while at other times they said he’ll become weak, pointing to 'how furiously he clings!'
To end the noise, she made a pact with her two-and-a-half-year-old child — if he needed to nurse, he’d signal discreetly. She’d then find an empty room, lock the door, and feed him where no one was watching.
"Not a soul at home knows I nurse him. At night, he breastfeeds when my husband sleeps. During the day, we have our time together when my in-laws nap. If family is around, he has learnt that he must delay a feed."
Something within me shattered when I heard her words — perhaps a naive certainty that breastfeeding was a right every woman could exercise for however long she and her child desired.
I breastfeed my (almost) two-year-old son on demand, by day and through the night. I breastfeed him when he seems unsure of the morning, when he rejects lunch as unappetising, when strangers make demands of him and intimidate him, when toys backchat and turn hostile, when he is sleepy, when he’s unwell, and when, in the busyness of life, we both feel the urge to reconnect.
I breastfeed him because it’s how we communicate, look out for one another, and grow in unison.
A close relative, when he learnt that I still nursed my child, expressed horror. "This is crazy,’ he said. "You’re crazy."
Those of us who breastfeed our children past infancy seem to have formed a coven. We are the witches who exist beyond the pale of all that is normal. We are the heretics who haven’t weaned our babies off our breasts.
To nurse a toddler or an older child is to invite judgement.
Maybe it’s because of the optics. A mother nursing a newborn could almost go by unnoticed; the baby is tiny, barely perceptible in the crook of her arm, suckling at her breast. A toddler (or an older child) though is not one to be invisibilised. He’s rambunctious, openly joyful as he suckles, sometimes claiming the mother’s entire body, sometimes standing, his mouth pressed against the areola, sometimes sprawling at an awkward angle, taking up all the room there is. A child past infancy won’t be coy about his meals. He’s ardent, very real.
Or maybe it’s because, over time, we have mislaid our core identity as mammals — as a class of creatures whose offspring seek nutrition from the mammary glands — and have chosen to reduce women’s breasts to sexual objects. So a half-grown boy (or girl) positioned by a boob isn’t engaging with a meal or revelling in the security that goes with such feasting. No, we have distorted the image, so it appears unsavoury, cheap.
In 2012, Time magazine published on its cover a photograph of the 26-year-old Jamie Lynne Grumet breastfeeding her three-year-old son. It should have been an unremarkable image — mother and child on a rocking chair perhaps, the kid spilling out of her arms, content. Instead, there stood a woman, hips curving provocatively, a breast oozing out of a spaghetti top, with a full-grown boy on a footstool, taking in a mouthful, glancing cheekily at the camera. The image didn’t spell food. It yelled sex.
Or maybe, if we dare admit it, it’s because there’s something formidable about a woman whose body can sustain a pre-schooler — satiate his hunger, soothe his frayed nerves. Her simple act conveys such fierce self-assurance that it threatens to destabilise the patriarchal order. Or, to put it differently, in the words of Gabrielle Palmer (in the dazzlingly argued The Politics of Breastfeeding), the exclusively female power demonstrated by a woman breastfeeding a toddler jars precisely because "it is unacceptable for a woman who has claimed some of the supposedly male power to show she can have both."
With brute force, therefore, the female body, from the moment it pushes out an offspring, is subdued, and replaced by something inert — a bottle, a pacifier, a silicone toy, a crib, and erased entirely before the passage of a year.
For patriarchy to succeed, a woman must be made to believe she isn’t sufficient, certainly not for a wild and unruly toddler, or an articulate and assertive older child. And anyone who tries suggesting otherwise must either be silenced or shamed.
Game of Thrones, by no means a flag-bearer of feminism, managed to convey some of society’s deep suspicion of, even horror at, a mother committed to extended breastfeeding. When eight-year-old Robert Arryn suckled by Lysa Arryn’s breast, the camera watched in contempt. The storyline screamed that Lysa, poor thing, was mentally unsound, and her was son deranged, even stunted. This alone could explain why she revealed her bosom to her full-grown offspring, and why he sought comfort in it.
We, the breastfeeding mothers of toddlers (or those older), are condemned to inhabit the attic. We are mad.
To nurse a child beyond infancy is to be out in the cold.
When I moved to a new city in India with my 15-month-old, my hope was that I’d find a breastfeeding-friendly paediatrician, someone who’d back my decision to nurse my child till he self-weaned. Too soon, I hit a dead-end. While there was the odd doctor who encouraged exclusively breastfeeding a newborn for the first six months, I couldn’t find a single paediatrician who’d endorse extended breastfeeding.
"Desist," the doctors I approached said in unison. The kind ones asserted that breastfeeding past the age of one was unnecessary — a meaningless indulgence that offered little to mum or toddler. The less benign ones viewed it with undisguised hostility. Prolonged breastfeeding, they said, impaired a child’s physical health, his mental well-being.
"Replace breastmilk with more solids," urged one paediatrician, "since at this stage, breastmilk is no more than water." "Wean," said another, "or your boy will never know self-reliance." "Stop night feeds," said a third, "or you’re bound to gift your child dental caries." "It’s about time," declared a homeopath. "You do know, right, that breastfeeding is a habit? That no child self-weans?"
Not long after moving to a new city, I had deduced that most allopaths were misguided about the cognitive, emotional, and psychological ramifications of full-term nursing, and the fact that the benefits of breastfeeding (be it disease prevention or fostering secure attachment, or even counteracting the decay-causing bacteria in the mouth) only accrued the longer a mother breastfed — for, to quote anthropologist Kathy Dettwyler (who discusses the subject at length in the seminal A Time to Wean), "The body doesn’t know that the baby has had a birthday and suddenly start producing nutritionally and immunologically worthless milk".
But the homeopath’s assertion that babies would not stop breastfeeding of their own volition gave me pause, until I recalled my mother telling me that I had self-weaned at the age of three. Later, a distant friend recounted how her daughter, on turning four, woke up one morning, nursed, then said, "Milk over, Ma. Thank you." She never asked for the breast again.
As I wished to rely on more than anecdotal evidence, I dove into research papers, a number of which, after a close study of larger mammals, discussed the parameters that seemed to guide the age of natural weaning — from the quadrupling of a baby’s birth weight (Lee, Maituf, and Gordon) to six times the length of gestation. Palaeoanthropologist Holly Smith, after studying a group of twenty-one species of non-human primates (including chimps and gorillas with whom we share 98 percent of our genetic material), observed that their offspring self-weaned around the same time they developed their first permanent molars. In human beings, this would translate roughly into five-and-a-half to six years of age.
To me, Smith’s age range made immense sense. For a child’s immune system truly matures only around the time he turns six. Breastmilk, packed with immunological benefits, props up his fragile body until such time that he has the wherewithal to confront a germ-rich world independently.
If breastfeeding, then, is no more a ‘habit’ than breathing — in other words, if it is quite simply a biological need — why are doctors cautioning mothers against full-term nursing? Why are they using flawed ‘rules of thumb’ such as the tripling of a baby’s birth weight or the actual length of gestation to advertise one year as the appropriate age to wean?
Some of the average paediatrician’s advice springs from woefully inadequate training. Medical study glances at lactation but cursorily. It is, to quote journalist Lisa Selin David, "probably the only bodily function for which modern medicine has almost no training, protocol or knowledge." Consequently, the majority of doctors, deprived of solid facts and tutoring, rely on a mix of biases and cultural norms to prescribe weaning post infancy.
Some medical advice can be traced back to the ruthless propaganda of the packaged food industry.
But a lot of the problematic comments mothers are exposed to in clinics are firmly rooted in a medical practice that is essentially driven by men, who, according to critic Jana Sawicki, monopolise "control over women’s procreative bodies and reduce them to passive objects of medical surveillance and management". The fact is that it isn’t just childbirth that has been appropriated by a strictly patriarchal model of healthcare, it is everything after, too, from how a baby is handled (with carrycots and dummies), to where he sleeps (away, apart, in an lifeless cradle or stroller), to when and how long he is to nurse (scheduled, and no more than a year). So, all at once, the ancient lived knowledge of women recedes, and is silenced. Not surprisingly, mothers who subscribe to full-term breastfeeding — in other words, mothers who defy the time-bound, masculine rules attached to nursing and tune into their instincts — are chastised, and then relegated to the margins.
Not just that. So firm is the grip of medical advice — no matter how flawed — that mothers committed to prolonged breastfeeding have, in courts of law, been repudiated for failing to "wean in a timely manner" (see Dettwyler).
During the present pandemic, my nightmares have revolved around not just succumbing to a virus but also being separated against my will from my nursing toddler, my cries that he is physically and emotionally dependant on breastfeeding — that it is, for him, as vital as an umbilical cord to a foetus — getting dismissed as unworthy of attention.
So here’s what mums breastfeeding their offspring past infancy never tell you — that they’re aware that they operate in a space denied legitimacy by medicine; that sometimes they’re scared.
Here’s a fact: to breastfeed a child past infancy is to be deprived of a community.
Gone are the friends who discussed sore nipples and engorged breasts — they’ve long weaned their kids to return to breast-pump-free work schedules.
Gone are the relatives who offered vague noises of support — now, they’re openly disapproving, making barbed jokes about the ‘sissy boy’ who seeks your breast.
Gone is the kindly paediatrician who mumbled ‘good’ when you said you nursed your newborn.
I recall feeling more than a twinge of envy when I read an essay by Ruth Kamnitzer who lived in a traditional felt tent in the Mongolian countryside for three years with her baby, while her husband conducted a wildlife study. She spoke of how, when she’d breastfeed her toddler outdoors, local grandmothers would regale her with tales of the dozen-odd children they had nursed, and taxi drivers would prophesy that her son would make a great wrestler — for, in the land of Genghis Khan, those who were breastfed beyond infancy were known to possess extraordinary strength.
But the segment that spurred in me jealously like none other was one where Kamnitzer spoke of not just the everydayness of breastfeeding her three-year-old in Mongolia, but also the exuberant levity such moments could carry. She writes:
‘At the first murmur of [toddler] discord, [my Mongolian friend Tsetsgee] would lift her shirt and start waving her boobs around enthusiastically, calling out, “Come here, baby, look what mama’s got for you!” Her son would look up from the [offending] toys to the bull’s-eyes of his mother’s breasts and invariably toddle over. [. . .]
‘Not to be outdone, I adopted the same strategy. There we were, two mothers flapping our breasts like competing strippers trying to entice a client. If the grandparents were around, they’d get in on the act. The poor kids wouldn’t know where to look — the reassuring fullness of their own mothers’ breasts, granny’s withered pancake boasting its long experience, or the strange mound of flesh granddad was squeezing up in breast envy. Try as I might, I can’t picture a similar scene at a La Leche League meeting.’
So, this is what we, the inhabitants of cities who breastfeed our babies beyond infancy, will never know — a moment where we are freed of the burden of over-explaining or rebelling or looking back in anger; a moment of giddy delight we can share with others. The path we have chosen is lonely.
But here’s what mothers who breastfeed their children beyond infancy also never tell you. That there are times, as they nurse, when they stumble into indescribable muchness, — a kind of muchness denied while breastfeeding a drowsy newborn — one that is responsive, alive.
Here I am, my son in my arms, his mouth busy, his eyes lowered, intent. Suddenly, in the middle of the business of suckling, he looks up, catches my gaze. His left hand lifts, his fingers stroke my cheek, once, twice — and I have everything I need.
Dharini’s first work of literary fiction, These, Our Bodies, Possessed by Light, has been published by Hachette. She was the former editorial director of Simon and Schuster India.
— Illustrations ©Adrija Ghosh for Firstpost
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