Extreme breastfeeding: Should children be nursed for years?

Mother breastfeeding her son

Breastfeeding children for years rather than months is in the news. But is there anything wrong with it?

The latest cover of Time magazine has caused outrage. Under the headline "Are you mom enough?", a young woman is pictured having her left breast suckled by a boy who appears way beyond usual breastfeeding age.

The woman, it turns out, is Jamie Lynne Grumet, a 26-year old mother from Los Angeles, and the boy is her son Aram, aged almost four.

The cover and accompanying article about "attachment parenting" has re-ignited the debate about whether extended breastfeeding - until the age of three or even six - is harmful. And the magazine and mother have faced accusations that they have exploited the child for publicity reasons.

Much of the criticism has focused on the age and looks of the mother. "Why is this attractive woman breast-feeding this giant child?" asks Hanna Rosin of Slate.

Time magazine cover of mother breastfeeding her three-year-old son

"The image is the natural next step in the hot naked-mama photos that have become an obligatory part of a celebrity career path (Claudia Schiffer, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson) and makes Angelina Jolie, who allowed herself to be photographed breast-feeding a mere infant, look like a wimp."

Others suggest the article is really about the guru of attachment parenting Dr William Sears, and question Time's motives for choosing a photogenic 26-year-old getting her breasts out.

Financial Times columnist Gillian Tett was one of those who queried the cover picture, as Politico.com reported, although she felt there were two sides to the debate.

"My first thought was, it's a really cheap shot. It's a piece about Bill Sears, it's not about an attractive blonde woman breast feeding," Tett said on the chatshow Morning Joe. "And yet if you look across cultures across in the world today, attitudes about breast feeding and breasts in general vary enormously. In many ways, this is at least making us think about our approach toward parenting and our approach toward breast feeding. But it still makes me wince when I look at it."

Analysis - Health impact?

The mantra "breast is best" will be familiar to every mother - but for how long should an infant be nursed asks BBC health and science reporter James Gallagher.

  • No government or international body has a recommended upper age limit on when a mother should stop breast feeding her child
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) says there are a range of health benefits for exclusively breast feeding babies for the first six months
  • After that the WHO suggests a combination of foods, fluids and breast milk up to the age of two "or beyond"
  • Dr Mary Fewtrell, who specialises in childhood nutrition at University College London, said that there isn't any research into the health benefits of continuing to breastfeed children up until school age
  • She said that "even for the health benefits of breastfeeding beyond a year or 18 months, there is little research" and that this was far more a social than a nutritional issue

There were angry reactions from mothers, according to Storyful, which aggregates news analysis and social media reactions to events, many worrying that Time's coverage will make it harder for women to breastfeed in public.

The story went viral on Twitter, as summarised by US social media site Intent.com. "Breastfeeding your three-year-old is one thing, but putting a picture of him doing it on the cover of Time?" tweeted The Daily News' Bill Hammond. Writer Meredith O'Brien argued it was a gimmick to grab readers: "The cover doesn't celebrate the practice. It exploits it."

And actress and new mother Alyssa Milano tweeted: "@TIME, no! You missed the mark! You're supposed to be making it easier for breastfeeding moms. Your cover is exploitive & extreme."

Time defines attachment parenting as "extended breast-feeding, co-sleeping and 'baby wearing', in which infants are physically attached to their parents by slings."

The magazine's photoshoot includes three other mothers, including Jessica Cary of Brooklyn, who has a three-year-old daughter. "I don't think about when I'll stop [breastfeeding]. For us, it's a life philosophy," Cary explains.

Mother and baby asleep Co-sleeping means the baby shares its parents' bed, rather than sleeping in a cot

Photographer Martin Schoeller, who says he took inspiration from images of the Madonna and child, explained to Time why he had featured the mothers and children standing up. "When you think of breastfeeding, you think of mothers holding their children, which was impossible with some of these older kids. I liked the idea of having the kids standing up to underline the point that this was an uncommon situation."

The Daily Mail questions the wholesomeness of what Grumet was doing, noting how her blog includes a photo of her nursing her son in Hugh Hefner's mansion with the caption: "I've breastfed Aram at the Playboy mansion. I actually felt it was the most appropriate place on earth to do it."

The Mail article tartly adds: "There is no explanation to explain why she believes this."

It's easy to squirm at the cover, says Sheila Eldred at Discovery News, but says this is more about American "squeamishness" than anything else. And a related article in Time shows that the World Health Organization recommends breast-feeding until at least age two, and the average age of weaning worldwide is around four, she points out.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    If someone really wants to breastfeed their child to the ages of 5 or 6 then fine its not my buissness! All I'm saying (and maybe I'm being narrowminded) is that it just strikes me as a bit odd. And I wouldn't allow a child of mine to be breastfed by the time they could eat solids and talk. To be honest I feel sorry for the child whose peers might be less than understanding

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    There's so little research? What about all of us who were weaned at a much younger age and have gone on do have our own children? Isn't the answer obvious. What bothers me probably more than the 'unmotherly' nature of the cover of Time (as if she's just a dispensing machine and 'proud of it'!) is the deeper issue of making children too dependant and too influenced by their mothers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    just showed my 9yr old daughter the image of the Time's magazine cover and her immediate first impression is 'ewww!'.it does challenge ppl to pinpoint what is not right about... is it the image, or the idea of breast feeding a child that old?! personally i think if the child can start to communicate and be able to eat solid food,then i'm sure breast milk is unnecessary,which is around 2-3yrs old?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    Reading all these comments about how healthy, intelligent, assertive, creative and bonding all these children are after prolonged breast feeding, what utter rubbish! Mine are all the above (top of their class, very athletic,heathy, never missed a day of school and kind and well balanced 9 year old boys) and have only been breast fed for the first 3 months.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    Another set back for making breastfeeding acceptable and the most natural and positive thing you can do for your child. I am pro breast feeding, all my children were fed until 2 years old, despite having to work full time with the youngest. My children all over 21 are now bright healthy adults, with my daughter still breast feeding her 2 year child. This article sadly shocking and in bad taste.


Comments 5 of 13



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