Breastfeeding Older Children
Article first published online: 28 FEB 2012
Copyright © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Volume 39, Issue 1, pages 87–88, March 2012
How to Cite
Hormann, E. (2012), Breastfeeding Older Children. Birth, 39: 87–88. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-536X.2011.00524_3.x
- Issue published online: 28 FEB 2012
- Article first published online: 28 FEB 2012
Breastfeeding Older Children Free Association Books , London, England , 2010 294 pp, $34.50, pb
In her introduction to Breastfeeding Older Children, Ann Sinnott outlines what she calls the “inverse reality” of sustained breastfeeding in line with World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations that all children be “breastfed for two years or beyond”: “There are no official statistics on children over the age of three years. Most surveys only collect data on younger children, e.g., the British Infant Feeding Survey cuts off at nine months, others at one year or two” (p 1). She cites the very few surveys of children whose breastfeeding extends into the period covered by “beyond,” including her e-mail survey of mothers in 48 countries on five continents, which forms the basis of this book. More than 2,000 mothers and 4,000 children make up a unique database on the experience of breastfeeding beyond the current cultural norm and the impact not only for mother and child, but also the father, the couple relationship, and the wider community, including employers.
Each of the 11 chapters cites up-to-date expert opinion (and often expert opinion of yesteryear), creating a historical, cultural, sociological, and psychological context for sustained breastfeeding. Mothers and fathers—and sometimes the children themselves—add their own comments.
The first one-third of the book looks at the widespread professional disapproval in Western cultures of long-term breastfeeding, citing the influence of Freud and the psychoanalytical community in general, as well as claims that long-term breastfeeders “exist in social vacuums” (p 26); (early) weaning promotes the child’s development; “a child reluctant to wean” is “inappropriately exercising power” (p 29); and mothers may somehow “inveigle children into sustained breastfeeding” (p 32), or even that the mothers may be compensating for lacks in their own lives—“mothering by proxy” as Sinnott terms it. A rather extraordinary quotation from Lisa Miller, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at London’s Tavistock Clinic, sums up this approach. Children must “learn to transfer affections and passions from person—the mother—to things” (p 39).
Drawing on the attachment theory of John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth (p 53) and on the expertise of some Western authorities, among them, pediatrician Jack Newman, psychologist Lucy Waletzsky, and anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, Sinnott presents a whole other psychological scenario facilitated by long-term breastfeeding, in which the child’s secure attachment to, and trust in, his mother allows him to venture out into the world, knowing he has a safe haven to which he can return as needed. Brain development, the immune system, and remediation of illness are all known to be enhanced by breastfeeding well beyond the norms common in Western societies. And then there is what Sinnott calls “primordial joys” (p 64), a sometimes forgotten factor in relationships of all sorts.
With the theoretical background established, mothers, fathers, and couples speak for themselves in the next 100 pages. There are interesting discussions on the primary function of the breasts, the effect of long-term breastfeeding on maternal health, the practicalities of breastfeeding an older child, and the unremitting pressure many mothers get to stop. Claims of sexual abuse, custody battles, jealousy, and the challenges to a couple’s intimate life are explored in these chapters. Some familiar voices on breastfeeding as one aspect of a woman’s overall sexuality—Niles Newton, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, and Michel Odent—gently illuminate this discussion. Other voices, such as Iris Marion Young, directly address the issue that breastfeeding can raise for some men: “Breasts are a scandal for patriarchy because they disrupt the border between motherhood and sexuality … if motherhood is sexual … she [the mother] may find him dispensable” (p 156).
Maternal employment, feminism, a look back into early human history, and an assortment of appendices conclude the text. The enormous amount of information in this book is both its strength and its Achilles heel. The numerous quotations from the questionnaires are a prime example of this. They bring the research to life, but with as many as six—sometimes fairly long—quotations on almost every page, they become distractions rather than enhancements to the text. The final chapter, “Origins,” seems a bit of an afterthought. Placed at the beginning, it would more easily have been seen as an integral part of the book.
Sinnott’s passion about breastfeeding and her conviction that long-term breastfeeding is part of a range of perfectly normal human behavior (I share this view) sometimes lead her into italic and punctuation excesses. It’s always a bit risky for an author to use personal anecdotes in a professional text. Overdone—and especially if they are used as supplementary evidence for the points being made—even the best research may be taken less seriously than it deserves. The most striking of the many examples of this excess in the text is the behavioral and intellectual assessment of the author’s daughter (pp 41, 42, 274), who was still breastfeeding at the time at age 4½+ years. A more exacting editorial hand could have eliminated some of the problem areas and made this the book it should have been.