Children copy their mothers

Another breastfeeding post, I know most of our audience will appreciate them and feeding (of any sort) seems to be a major part of my day.  And it ties in nicely with “The Octopus Myth,” seeing it is a toddler who has indirectly caused this flap.

Apparently in the UK it is National Breastfeeding Week.  So to celebrate someone in a hospital made up a little poster to put on the notice board.  A fairly innocuous poster I would have thought, with a picture of a little girl breastfeeding her doll under the heading “It’s Normal.  Children copy their mothers.”  Apparently this is “distasteful, inappropriate and crude.”

Let’s take them one at a time.

Distasteful: unpleasant, provoking dislike, disapproval, or mild disgust

This actually says a lot about the people who are making the complaint, doesn’t it?  If a picture provokes disgust, then it means they find breastfeeding disgusting.  Or at least a child pretending to breastfeed is disgusting.  So I wonder which it is – do they find the sight of breasts disgusting?  Do they find the thought of a baby sucking at them makes them sick?  Or do they see it as disgusting for little girls to play with dolls?  I wonder what they think of dolls with nappies?  Is that disgusting too? 

Inappropriate:  not fitting, timely, or suitable

Well it was definitely timely, if you can’t put up a poster about breastfeeding in National Breastfeeding Week then when can you.  Obviously some people would prefer never.  As for fitting, hospitals have a public health responsibility.  That’s sort of their reason for being.  And the WHO describes their infant feeding guidelines as a “global public health recommendation.”  Their recommendation is for exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months, then the introduction of suitable complementary foods while breastfeeding continues until 2 years or beyond.  So a hospital would actually be obliged to promote breastfeeding, and particularly to normalise it.  So then we consider suitable, and this is obviously the one that has people upset.  It’s not the time, it’s not the breastfeeding, it’s the toddler.  We’re back with her being caught doing something not quite right.

Crude:  vulgar or obscene.

And here we have it.  The upsetting thing.  The reason that toddler is being disgusting and unsuitable.  It’s all about sex.  They might as well have put up a photo of her masturbating, I mean we all know that some unfortunate toddlers who haven’t been well brought up do that.  Not mine of course.  But it’s certainly not something you promote.

So breastfeeding is really all about sex, and not something that little girls should be indulging in.  In fact “it isn’t normal. Children copy their parents but I don’t think any little girls should be breastfeeding their dolls.”  So what should they be doing with them?  Using a good old bottle?  Starving them? 

Without sarcasm, I think this quote actually sums up the problem neatly.  Children copy their parents.  That little girl was almost certainly breastfed and it’s a pretty good bet she’ll go on to breastfeed her children, because she already knows that that’s how you feed a baby.  We don’t object to them learning how to sweep or wash the dishes.  We don’t object to them learning how to shop, or garden, or drive a car.  Surely caring for a baby is an important skill they’re going to need in the future?  Selfishly, I think most of us want grandkids one day. 

My toddler can change a nappy.  She can wrap her baby up and cuddle her, she feeds her solids (and doesn’t quite get why the real yoghurt isn’t a good idea) baths her, and comforts her when she falls over.  She’s also taught her to fly off the slide, so maybe she isn’t quite ready for motherhood.  But she breastfeeds quite regularly.  She will also offer me a feed, and I know this is ringing alarm bells for the sex obsessed among us.  Incest!  How terrible!  Save those children!  But do unto others as you would be done by.  Breastfeeding is a minor part of her life timewise, but it is incredibly important to her emotionally.  It is her comfort, her reconnection with Mummy, her good start to the day.  And that is what she is offering me, in her own toddler way she is trying to make me feel better.

And it’s not just me, a year ago any baby who cried at playgroup was fair game.  Up went the shirt and she would offer them a feed.  And that’s really what is meant to happen, our critic is quite correct.  Toddlers shouldn’t be breastfeeding dolls, because there aren’t any out on the savannah.  They should be practicing their skills on little brothers, sisters and cousins.

Let’s drag our minds out of the gutter and think about what they are practicing.  The least important thing they are learning is the mechanics of breastfeeding.  Anyone who’s watched a toddler knows that they do a lousy job of attaching and quite often miss the breast completely.  Their poor little dolls would starve, if their nipples weren’t horribly cracked.  Rather they are learning the emotions of breastfeeding and the place of breastfeeding.  They are learning that breastfeeding is about comfort as well as food.  They are learning that it is about closeness.  They are learning that it is about sitting down and spending time with your baby.  And most importantly, they are learning that that is how babies are fed.

And if they don’t learn that, they are way behind when they have their own children.  Quite simply, they won’t know how babies are fed.  They might think babies feed out of a bottle.  They might think it is a choice.  There is a fundamental core of support they are missing, because they don’t have the surety that ‘I will breastfeed my children.’  Of course things get in the way, of course plans can change, of course some people will breastfeed successfully without it.  But starting out with the assumption that you will breastfeed is a big step towards being successful.  And starting out with the idea that it is disgusting, inappropriate and crude is only going to make it harder.

That’s the attitude that’s easy to argue against or ridicule, but there is another argument in the article that is more insidious.  We don’t want to upset new Mums who can’t breastfeed for medical reasons.  How could we be so mean.  New Mums are so vulnerable, so hormonal, so fragile.  And they are.  The baby blues are horrible.  And I was one of the lucky ones with problems that were relatively easy to fix, 24 hours of expressing let the grazes heal and it only took a few weeks to sort out the oversupply and fast letdown.  So we should definitely be gentle with new Mums.  But I really question how many of them can’t breastfeed for medical reasons. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everyone can breastfeed.  There are definitely mother/baby pairs for whom it doesn’t work, there are women who need medications that would be dangerous, there are babies with tongue tie or who don’t have the muscle tone to suck, there are women with insufficient glandular tissue and ones with hormonal problems that mean their milk does not come in properly.  But that is incredibly rare.  Breastfeeding in the form of mammals has been around for well over two hundred million years, and depending on your definition humans have been doing it for a couple of million years.  Any species that couldn’t feed half their babies would have died out by now.  And if you believe in creation by an omnipotent God it’s even worse – are you really saying the Creator only got it right half the time?  So not being able to breastfeed for medical reasons is extremely rare, and even rarer to find out while you are still in the maternity hospital rather than when you are home and have tried desperately.

Then why do we have such a high failure rate?  There are a lot of women out there convinced they couldn’t breastfeed.  This is obviously too complex to go into in this blog, which is already too long, but a part of it is the support women receive and their own attitude to breastfeeding.  And a big part of that comes from their mothers and starts when they are toddlers playing with dolls.  By stopping people seeing that, we are stopping them seeing that breastfeeding is just a normal part of the things that toddlers learn, about what grownups do.

And while that may upset the very small number of women who cannot breastfeed for medical reasons, isn’t it far worse to convince large numbers of women that their bodies don’t work?

2 responses to this post.

  1. Thanks for this beautiful post! Upon reading, I became slightly alarmed that my 18 month old daughter had never yet tried to breastfeed dolly or teddy or bear. She regular spoons them bowls of air, but has never yet offered them ‘milkies’ A test was in order. I called her over to me and asked her if bear needed some ‘milkies’. She picked up bear and offered him up to my chest. Yay! Then I said, “I think bear wants you to feed him.You give him milkies”. She reached out for bear and pretended to feed him. I couldn’t have been prouder of my little girl!

    And back to the original post, can you imagine the furore that would have been created if the poster showed a little BOY breastfeeding his dolly instead!!!!!


  2. Posted by Kylie on September 12, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    I’m just reading through your blog on the nappy hunt and felt compelled to write about this. I have a two year old son, and a 6 month old son, both of whom I have breastfed. My two year old quite regularly lifts his shirt and offers his ‘breast’ to his little brother when he is upset. I think it is beautiful and not at all sexual – for goodness sake, they are 2 years and 6 months old!! The people that make these comments, well, I can’t write what I would like to say to them, but really, get some perspective people!! Thank you for a well written, very informative blog post!


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