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Extended Breastfeeding Myth #3

Affiliate Disclosure | in Motherhood | by | with 14 Comments

This is really embarrassing but it’s time to put it out there:

I just quit sucking my thumb last year.

Okay, not really, but let’s just say that I was a thumb sucker until way, way, WAY past the normal window for that behavior. I’m mentioning this because today we are tackling myth number three in this series about extended breastfeeding and my childhood experiences will be taking center stage. Just wanted you to know how the story ends. Or actually, how it didn’t end for a long, long time ; – ) Shall we jump in?

Myth #3: Extended Breastfeeding Will Make Your Child Uber-Clingy

Before becoming a mother I read The Nanny Diaries, which is both a sad and hilarious account of our cultural obsession with getting our kids “ahead.” It really brings to light the question of whether promoting independence to give our kids an edge is a healthy priority. Setting that aside for now, I’d like to ask four questions:

Earth Mama Angel Baby -  Healing Hearts Baby Loss Comfort

  • Does pushing our kids toward independence make them more self-confident? More successful?
  • Will kids that are weaned early engage the world in a more secure way and become more productive, successful members of society? On the other hand, will kids that are breastfed into toddlerhood be socially awkward, unproductive members of society?

No, maybe, no and no.

Breastfeeding & Independence: Is it Either/Or?

Unlike Myth#1 and #2, there is some actual research on this subject. Dr. Jack Newman recently wrote an excellent article called Breastfeeding a Toddler: Why on Earth? As a consultant with UNICEF for the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative in Africa who has also published several articles regarding breastfeeding in Scientific American, he’s considered by many to be an authority on the subject. Here’s an excerpt:

But I want my baby to become independent.

And breastfeeding makes the toddler dependent? Don’t believe it. The child who breastfeeds until he weans himself (usually from 2 to 4 years), is generally more independent, and, perhaps, more importantly, more secure in his independence. He has received comfort and security from the breast, until he is ready to make the step himself to stop. And when he makes that step himself, he knows he has achieved something, he knows he has moved ahead. It is a milestone in his life.

Often we push children to become “independent” too quickly. To sleep alone too soon, to wean from the breast too soon, to do without their parents too soon, to do everything too soon. Don’t push and the child will become independent soon enough. What’s the rush? Soon they will be leaving home. You want them to leave home at 14? If a need is met, it goes away. If a need is unmet (such as the need to breastfeed and be close to mom), it remains a need well into childhood and even the teenage years.

Of course, breastfeeding can, in some situations, be used to foster an overdependent relationship. But so can food and toilet training. The problem is not the breastfeeding. This is another issue.

So, the answer to question number one, do children that are weaned before the typical world average of 2-4 have greater security and self-confidence, is NO.

Does Independence = Success?

I am always amazed by what parents are proud of. Admittedly, I have been proud of some pretty silly things with Katie. Like when she was teeny tiny and let out a huge burp I thought it was awesome. When I visit with other moms they are always proud of the milestones. Is he eating solids yet? Is she sleeping through the night? When did he start walking? Most people seem to think that reaching these milestones early is a good omen that their child will be successful. But is that really true?

Question number two, whether children encouraged towards independence are more successful, is difficult to answer. You see, I hope to raise my children with the concept of freedom, but not necessarily the popular ideal of independence.

Independence, as it is represented in our culture, typically implies a separation from others . . . a sense of being self-sufficient. Which honestly, is nothing more than a pipe dream. When we focus on independence as a goal we downplay our need for one another . . . our needs for relationship, community, and survival. What we need to be teaching our children is how to be interdependent and still remain free.

Here’s what I mean: Remember how Dr. Newman said a satisfied need goes away but if it is unmet it can carry on into the teenage years? Well, that was me. When I was six weeks old my dad insisted that I be initiated into the world of independence by being dropped off at a daycare center. (This was not based out of a financial need in our family, it was simply a preference.)

Without my mom there to breastfeed me I quickly found my thumb. When my mom weaned me at a year old (she’d never heard of anything different), my parents divorced and I had to pack up and go to a new house, my thumb and my yellow blankie got me through it.

It’s hard to overstate what an insecure child I was. I don’t mean I didn’t like myself, I mean I felt disconnected from others and that terrified me. The world was a big, scary place and most of the time, I felt alone. When I entered school things only got worse. I begged to stay home, faked illnesses, did whatever I could to prevent separation from my mom.

In every area that I was forced into independence I became anxious and clingy. As I got older and continued to feel the ache of those unmet needs I grew increasingly resentful. Then angry. And THEN I learned independence.

The people I needed most in life left so many needs unmet that I didn’t feel I could trust them. I didn’t want to need them, and eventually I convinced myself I didn’t need anyone. By the time I got to college my nickname was Femi-Nazi. It’s true! When Daddypotamus transferred to my college and asked some of the guys about me they told him, “Don’t even bother. That girl is FIERCE.” And they were right.

But you know what? The accelerated independence program had worked in one respect. I was successful. Seventy-five percent of my tuition was being paid by scholarship, I was in a program for intellectually gifted students, and my GPA was, well . . . good. I drove a nice car, blah blah blah. Success. You know why? Early childhood had not taught me to cherish and nurture the interests and needs of others. How could it have when my needs and interests were mostly cast aside? My childhood taught me that if I needed something from people I was going to have to become powerful enough to take it by force, because no one was going to give a crap otherwise. That’s where my will to succeed came from. That’s where I think it comes from for many people in America.

While many parents and teachers may point to external successes as a sign that pushing the independence issue is good for kids, I would encourage more of a wait and see approach. I looked successful on the outside but I was falling apart within. If I hadn’t met Daddypotamus and began a very painful but healing journey with him I don’t know where I would be. But I can tell you it would not be good.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against many of the things parents think of when they hope their children will become successful. I pray that my own children will find fulfilling careers and earn a good income. But my goal is that they will find their calling by recognizing how they can best contribute to the world, not control or exploit it. And I do this by intentionally cultivating a focus on our interconnectedness without veering over in to co-dependence.

Someday my daughter may be almost successful. Maybe she will be an up and coming fashion designer that gets offered a shot at her own line. I can almost imagine it. Millions of dollars right there at her twenty-something year old fingertips. And then she learns her clothes will be made in India. In sweatshops filled with malnourished five year-old children that work 12 hours a day.

And she walks away from the deal. The opportunity of a lifetime.

I can almost see her, intrepid as she will most certainly be, finding another way to fulfill her dream without sacrificing the lives of people she’s never met and would never have had to answer to.

Nothing would make me more proud than a decision like that. Some people may think it’s a shame that she “almost” made something of herself. But you know what? I think those are the kinds of cultural values that gave us Enron.

I want Katie to recognize that we are all interconnected, that we need each other, and that when we exploit others we destroy ourselves. I want her childhood to be filled with experiences in which her needs are met deeply, because someday she will be a reservoir of hope in a way I have not yet begun to imagine. Whether it’s breastfeeding, co-sleeping or going to the nursery with her, that’s what I’m shooting for.

My last thought on the subject is this: I am not saying that extended breastfeeding is the only way to raise a connected, compassionate child. That is just ridiculous. Some of my best friends only bf to a year and their kids are awesome. This is just one of the tools I have chosen because it’s absence in my life profoundly affected me.

This is me, a reformed dominator, trying to make good on my life ; – )

If you’re still reading I am simply amazed. Thank you!

So what do you think? Are we pushing our kids to be independent too early?

Related Posts:

Extended Breastfeeding Myth #1: Extended Breastfeeding Causes Homosexuality

Extended Breastfeeding Myth #2: Your Kids Will Resent You for Making Them Weird

Extended Breastfeeding Myth #4: Breastfeeding BOYS Past Nine Months Will Increase Their Sexual Awareness


Sustained Breastfeeding: Australian Breastfeeding Association

Extended Breastfeeding

Extended Nursing: Is it for you? – BabyCenter

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14 Responses to Extended Breastfeeding Myth #3

  1. Joanna Moore says:

    i definitely agree that our society pushes children to become independent way too early, and meet milestones at some magical age. every child is different and should be allowed to get there when they get there. it’s hard to remember though that these ages that every child should do this or that, are just brainwashed into us and shouldn’t make us force our children to be a certain way, or think something’s wrong when they’re not doing such-and-such yet, or still doing another. i have to remind myself often that even though johnny and susie’s daughter/son is potty-trained/sleeping-in-their-own-bed/still-taking-naps/feeding-themselves/etc, doesn’t mean that mine has to. great post!

  2. Linda says:

    I definitely think that society pushes independence at too young of an age. My son turned 3 on May 30th, and he is 50% potty trained. He knows what to do & he knows when he has the urge to go, but sometimes he just doesn’t tell me. My Mom, my Aunt, my Grandma, etc. are always telling me that he should already be potty trained. But truth is, when I try and force him to go every 30 minutes, he will sit on the potty, then go in his pull up the second I take him off the potty. HE doesn’t want to be forced to do anything. He is a VERY smart kid for his age, and I just don’t see the need to push him or force him to fully potty train. I think he will do it when he is ready.

    I have to say that I was the one that was judging my friend’s kids who weren’t potty trained by 2 1/2 or 3 yrs old before I had children of my own. And now I see that it isn’t just a “do this and that” and you are done. It just doesn’t work that way. It makes me mad when we are with family because my cousin’s daughter (she turned 2 on May 16th) is fully potty trained other than at night. And everyone compares her to my son. And I hate it.

    I really love this post! My husband and I have been discussing the topic of the pressures of society a lot lately.

  3. Jaime says:

    Is extended breastfeeding supposed to be until the child weans him or herself?

    About five years ago I saw a Dr. Phil episode where an 8 year old boy and 6 year old girl were still breastfeeding and the mom was concerned about having child abuse charges brought against her. It was an interesting episode…which begs the question…

    What if your child never moves to wean themselves? Is there a point where you say “that’s enough”?

    I’ve heard some people say that extended breastfeeding is done for the mother’s comfort and her desire to feel close to their child – and I’ve heard others say that it helps the child feel secure but is a sacrifice for the mother.

    It would be interesting to speak with a group of adults that had experienced extended breastfeeding as children and see if it made a difference in their lives.

    I don’t even know if my mom breastfed me or not – I’ve never asked her. I do know I was an insecure person until I went through theophostics and God healed me. I think for me the insecurities mostly had to do with the fact that my dad chose drugs over our family.

    I think if, as a female child, you have a mom and a dad that are married and both care about your well-being – and you have a dad that teaches you how you deserve to be treated by treating you well – you probably don’t have a lot of insecurity problems whether or not you breastfed at all. That’s just a theory though – I can’t honestly say I’ve known anyone in my generation that had the experience of a whole, happy, healthy family.

    I can only imagine that being a parent is the most complicated job on the planet. What is right for children? Or more importantly, what is right for your children? Research that proves one thing is disproved by someone else’s research. You only get one shot with that one human being and how do you know what is the right decision?

    I have a lot of respect for parents like you, Heather. You are making a lot of decisions that aren’t mainstream because you care about what’s best for your daughter. I hope that if I ever have the opportunity to become a mother, that I can be so brave.

  4. Pippi says:

    My daughter is 2.5, still nurses (even though I’m heading into my third trimester), and is ridiculously independent. She happily waves us out the door when we have babysitter — even if it’s someone she’s never met before. She was never upset when I started back at work part-time. She loves doing things all by herself — from attempting to dress herself to opening doors and turning on lights. She even insisted that she wanted to change her own diaper (I told her using the potty would be easier). It’s her personality. Clearly extended nursing hasn’t stopped her from being independent!

    • Heather says:

      See? Hearing that just makes me happy. My daughter is not extremely independent, but that’s just who she is. She’s a nurturer and sometimes a little timid, but I know she’ll venture out when she’s ready. We easily accept that adults are different (adventurous, analytical, whatever), but often forget that everyone starts out as a child.

  5. Melodie says:

    This is such a great post Heather. I grew up feeling pretty insecure too. My moms stayed home with me because everyone expected it of her but she never breastfed me, not even once, and I think she regretted her role as a SAHM because I have never felt close to her. As you know I am a long term breastfeeding mom myself and love how independent my girls are, although both in different ways.

    • Heather says:

      I didn’t really mention this in my post, but you bring up an interesting point. I guess moms can sometimes “do the right things” and still fail to communicate love and nurture to their children. On the other hand there are people like my mom. She wanted to stay home with me and would have breastfed me into toddler if she’d had any idea that was okay. I did feel abandoned by being left in daycare and I suffered from being weaned to early, but as I grew I recognized her mistakes came from ignorance rather than indifference. Her love for me transcended her mistakes and ultimately kept me anchored enough to find healing later in life.

  6. 3 Reasons I Love Breastfeeding My Toddler « The Mommypotamus says:

    […] don’t I know that I’ll make my child gay, or uber-clingy, overly aware of “sexuality” or maybe just plain embarrassed? Apparently, I do not. But […]

  7. ylon says:

    I am blown away by your amazing attitude. It brought tears to my eyes. I am also not one to leave comments but I just can’t help myself. I have two beautiful boys. The first the best surprise of our lives. I never intended to breastfeed past a year or co-sleep very long. I didn’t realize there were options. However thankfully to ones like you and great websites and books I breastfed past 2. He is almost four and still sleeps with us and his 1 year old brother. I tell my friends and family who think I am crazzzzy that it’s like a sleep over every night. We have so much fun together. It’s the amazing loving family I wish I could have been part of. Thank you for all your insight and posts. I enjoy them immensely!

  8. Sarah says:

    Hi Heather, I don’t know if you will even see this post but thank you fore these articles. I quit breastfeeding my first two children at 17 and 19 months. Looking back with every nursing dropped for my oldest daughter she began sucking her thumb more. I did not even make the connection until years later. Fast forward 8 years when God blessed us with #3. After trying all that time I am doing many things differently. She is now 2 years and almost 2 months. She still nurses 6 times a day, sometimes one side, sometimes both. It is a whole new ball game. We have a grand time of playing and talking. Tonight she was talking about airplanes not wearing shoes and airplanes not eating soup (which she adores). After trying for 8 years to have her I am in no hurry to end nursing but take my cues from her. Your posts are encouraging that she will do what she needs to do when she is ready. My husband is in agreement and fine with it. That too has been a tremendous gift. God has blessed and encouraged me through you.

  9. Rose says:

    Wow, I’m coming to this 5 years after you wrote it, but I still want to say: thank you for sharing. It’s beautiful. You’re spot-on about our interdependence (with other people and all sorts of living things) and the need to raise our children to be deeply aware of and thankful for it. I hope you re-read these older posts sometimes to remember what gifts they are!

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