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Childhood Perceptions of Breastfeeding

Do you ever wonder how children’s perceptions of breastfeeding evolve as they get older? I do! I am interested in how children’s perceptions change specifically in the period surrounding their wean time, as well as the next couple of years after weaning.

It seems obvious to me that a child’s relationship to breastfeeding evolves from the time they are a newborn till the time they wean. What happens then? Breastfeeding which was always a personal experience for the child becomes something of a spectator sport, something which they no longer participate in, but will often see other children in the act.

Recently, my 2 ½ year old daughter and I were at the library socializing with other children her age. A nursing toddler, a little girl Rita’s size, caught her eye. She hurried over and asked “Are you nursing?” The mother replied “Yes” politely while the nursing toddler went about her business.

Awkward-Extended-Breastfeeding-Explanation crisis averted.

Then Rita asked “How come your still nursing? You're not a tiny baby!” I started to cringe a bit, wondering where this conversation would lead. The mother smiled but paused for a moment and responded “Because she still likes to.” A great answer in my book and Rita seemed content with it too. 

What strikes me as comical about this situation and others similar to it is that Rita breastfed long beyond being a “tiny baby.” In fact when she weaned only a few months previous, she was quite a big girl, weighing in at over 30 lbs and past 2 years old! Yet, for some reason, at this point, Rita only associates nursing with tiny babies.

Perhaps, I am the culprit to Rita’s association of breastfeeding with tiny babies.

As Rita was fully weaned, every so often she would try to nurse on me (she still does this six months after weaning every once in a while). I would respond to her nursing attempts by saying “What are you doing trying to nurse? You're not a tiny baby anymore, you finished up all mama’s milk.” At this she will laugh and forget about her prior request.

Did I oversimplify the breastfeeding relationship to my daughter throughout the weaning process? Granted she is only two, so naturally many of our explanations to her are probably oversimplified. But, after our interaction at the library I felt like I may have fallen short.

My daughter and I breastfed longer than most,  and yet she didn’t understand the relationship when she saw another toddler-mother pair modeling it! I am thinking through continuing to educate her on the evolving role that breastfeeding can play in a child’s life and emphasizing that it is unique to each child.

I have one memory from my youth of breastfeeding.

Growing up, I was not exposed to breastfeeding. It was Christmas and the whole family was together. I drifted from the group and wandered into the seemingly empty living room. There was my Aunt Nancy, with my newborn cousin, silently nursing. I felt like I had interrupted, didn’t belong and snuck out just as quietly as I had entered. That’s it. My only memory of breastfeeding comes from my Aunt isolating herself from the rest of my family to nurse.

I will never forget the first time I saw a group of mothers breastfeeding together.

At that point I was a breastfeeding mom myself and it blew my mind. It kindled an ancient memory in me, as if I, deep down in my cells, remembered a time when women gathered and tended their children together.

I don’t want my daughter to grow up with the minimal exposure to breastfeeding that I had. I want her to understand it as a natural part of our lives, something that does not need to be secretive or concealed.

 I want her to know how it filled me with pride to breastfeed her!  It fills me with joy to think about her experiencing this same relationship someday! As she grows and her memories of being at the breast grow foggier, I will strive to continue educating her about the normalcy of breastfeeding (at any size or age). I’m not trying to turn my two year old into a lactivist by any means; it is simply my hope that as she gets older she remains comfortable with the breastfeeding relationship when she observes it! As with most situations in life, a bit of compassion and understanding go along way!

Till next time, Be Well!

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