The benefits of breastfeeding are plentiful and well documented. Breastfeeding is universally recognized as the optimal source of nutrition for newborns. Babies, mothers, families, and communities all benefit when a mom is able to breastfeed her children. Breastfeeding initiation rates have been steadily increasing in America, however the breastfeeding duration rates are well below the targets set by national and international health authorities. Because women often wean within weeks or months of birth, many older children are not exposed to breastfeeding and don’t appreciate it as a normal behavior.
How to Turn “Breast is Best” Into “Breast is Normal”
The phrase “breast is best” is used routinely, but for children, the phrase should be “breast is normal.” Breastfeeding moms may wean early, may return to work and pump milk privately during the day, or may breastfeed in a private space. It is not uncommon for children to never see a baby breastfeeding, which means they never understand breastfeeding as a normal part of life. Public breastfeeding can be very intimidating for mothers, who are often harassed or chastised when they do choose to nurse in public.
Fortunately, times are changing. There is now a huge commitment to promote and protect breastfeeding and to provide mothers with the support they need to successfully breastfeed. With recent policy changes in Idaho and Utah, public breastfeeding is now legal in every state.
Help Your Older Children Understand Breastfeeding
If you have multiple children and you choose to breastfeed them, the easiest way to get your elder child accustomed to breastfeeding is to simply allow them to see their siblings being breastfed. However, there are other ways to normalize breastfeeding even if your child is the youngest or an only child, or if you choose not to breastfeed:
If you see women publicly breastfeeding, explain what the mother and baby are doing. Discuss breastfeeding with your child and answer their questions honestly.
Expose children to different animal families and allow them to see the caretaking and feeding of newborns. After all, all mammal mothers nurse their young! Mammal moms and their babies can often be seen at petting farms and zoos.
Use beloved dolls or stuffed animals to talk about breastfeeding. Children love to mimic what their parents do, and using a favorite toy is a great way to help them feel included as they can "breastfeed" along with you!
Make a child-size sling for your child to wear to carry their dolls/stuffed animals in order to help them develop early care taking habits (a long scarf works well for this).
Read them books that depict breastfeeding. The books in the Nurtured and Nuzzled Bilingual Book Set or If My Mom Were a Platypus: Mammal Babies and their Mothers are three good options. A more extensive list of children's breastfeeding books can be found here.
Imagery that depicts breastfeeding as natural and normal can be found in a growing number of picture books for children. Some books specifically mention the act of nursing while others incorporate it seamlessly into other aspects of life.
Babies Nurse, a picture book written by Phoebe Fox and illustrated by NBA-player-turned-watercolor-artist Jim Fox, is a perfect example of the former. It depicts a number of mammals nursing their young, including a human mother and baby at the end. By showing breastfeeding across the mammal class—from pandas to puppies and, finally, people—the book demonstrates how natural breastfeeding is. Wendy Watson, a children’s book author and illustrator, says the book is “invaluable in presenting nursing as something natural, normal, loving, and good for both babies and mothers.”
Similarly, Cuddled and Carried, a picture book written by Dia Michels and illustrated by Mike Speiser, includes an illustration of a breastfeeding mother and baby alongside non-human mammal babies being cared for by their mothers. It depicts breastfeeding as an act of love—just one of many ways that parents care for their little ones. Pediatric Pain Medicine Doctor and Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine Board Member Sarah Reece-Stremtan says of Cuddled and Carried that “it normalizes the nurturing relationship between parents and their children.”
Benefits of Educating Young Children About Breastfeeding
Whether or not you are able or choose to personally breastfeed, raising children who are familiar with the concept is still beneficial. It teaches them not to gawk at other women who publicly breastfeed, and to seriously consider breastfeeding as a possibility if they themselves choose to have children later on in life.
As an added bonus, the normalization of breastfeeding lays a groundwork for children to understand that breasts are not a uniquely sexual organ. Children who understand how normal breastfeeding is will appreciate that breasts are first and foremost a tool to nourish babies.
Visual imagery is key to normalization. Annie Reneau, a breastfeeding advocate, notes, “kids who see breastfeeding their whole lives don’t see it as weird. But they do need to actually see it in order to counteract the constant messaging in advertisements and media that breasts are sexual.” Similarly, Jen, creator of the blog Breastfeeding Needs, reflects on her own experience with breastfeeding, saying “before my daughter was born I had never seen another woman breastfeed…I was squeamish about it…Now imagine if I had seen it before I had babies myself? It would have been normal, I would not have been squeamish, and I may not have had the initial resentment and stress over it...”
Teaching children not to stigmatize breastfeeding is our best hope for raising a generation that is more accepting of such a natural act and will allow mothers more freedom to follow their instincts. Becoming more accommodating to public breastfeeding will enable and empower more mothers to exclusively breastfeed their children, leading to health benefits for both the mother and child.