By now you’ve all seen it: The Time cover with the young and beautiful mom breastfeeding a 3 or 4 year old boy, who for some reason is standing up on a chair as he nurses and stares down the camera. If you’re like me, you’ve in fact seen it over and over (and over and over and over) in your Facebook news feed, accompanied by commentary and opinion on both sides of the issue. Beautiful! Love it! Disgusting! Perverted!
I have my own opinions… on the photo, on the sensational “Are you mom enough?” headline, on the act of breastfeeding a 3 or 4 year old in general. But here’s the thing. My opinion, your opinion, the opinion of the zillions of people who are freaking out about this cover… none of it changes the fact that what’s shown on that cover is normal. It’s not wrong, it’s not disgusting, it’s not perverted. It shouldn’t even be controversial. It’s just…. biology.
I’m going to go over this one more time:
Humans are mammals. Let’s just start there. Humans are mammals, and mammals are biologically designed to get their early years’ nourishment from their mothers. And even if mom doesn’t initiate cessation herself, the child will eventually fulfill his/her need and wean, at whatever age is appropriate for that child. The appropriate age range is huge – just as it is for learning to walk, talk, and use the toilet – but being mammals, there are certain biological factors that point to what may be a natural and normal age for weaning.
You with me so far?
You may have heard that the worldwide average age for weaning is around 4. I’m quite certain I’ve touted it myself. But my recent readings have shown me that that number is not very meaningful, and in fact not necessarily even accurate. So forget that number. I’m not a math person, so words like “mean” and “median” tend to give me a headache anyway.
But I do love facts.
Here then are some facts about mammals and weaning*:
1. Larger mammals usually nurse their offspring until they have quadrupled in body weight. In humans, this happens around 2.5 to 3.5 years of age.
2. One study of primates showed that offspring naturally nursed until they’d reached 1/3 of their adult body weight. For humans, this means about 5 to 7 years.
3. Another study compared weaning ages and sexual maturity, and suggested a weaning age of about halfway to sexual maturity… around 6 years old for a human.
4. Still another study, conducted by Holly Smith on 21 different species of primates, showed that the offspring were weaned at the same time that they got their first set of permanent molars. In humans, this happens at 5.5 to 6 years.
*Read A Natural Age of Weaning by Katherine Dettwyler for more. She concludes a natural weaning age of anywhere from 2.5 to 7 years*
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding for at least a year.
The World Health Organization (WHO) now recommends breastfeeding for a minimum of two years.
And it should go without saying that the health and emotional benefits – both for mom and child – can’t be argued.
These are all facts. Your discomfort or disagreement doesn’t change them. It seems to me, given all of the above, that the question really shouldn’t be why or how moms like the ones on the cover of Time could breastfeed so long. It should be why so many people are in a rush to wean so early.