How to explain breastfeeding to children of all ages

Every once in a while, pretty much every time breastfeeding in public comes up on The Leaky Boob Facebook page or in a group setting, someone expresses in frustration why they feel women should cover or go somewhere private to breastfeed asking “what do I say to my child as to what she is doing?”  Inevitably I think they are joking for some reason and for a moment I’ll be amused.  But then I realize they are completely serious and they find this to be a very valid reason as to why women should not breastfeed in public.  So I, very seriously and with compassion for their situation, offer suggestions, believing that knowing how to talk to children about nutrition, life, and normal infant feeding is important and I don’t want to leave them hanging.  How DO you talk about it?

If you’re very busy, and you probably are, I’ll go ahead and save you time and you can get on with your day:

Tell them she is feeding her baby.

This explanation is the most straightforward and appropriate response no matter what the age of the person asking.  It has the added bonus of being neither awkward or an untruth.  From 12 months to 120 years old, anyone can understand that a breastfeeding woman is feeding her baby.  It is simple, it is clear, it is true.

Eplaining breastfeeding to a child

Now, it is possible that some may find this confusing and want to argue that it is somehow gross, indecent, or too intimate to be done in public.  This argument is made possible by beer commercials, the media’s portrayal of women’s bodies, and our own overblown ideas fixating on only the sexual nature of the female breasts.  However, those that would raise such objections are not likely to be children but rather adults that have bought into the messages of society that the female body, in particular the female breasts, exist solely for the sexual gratification of men.  Children do not naturally have such bias so it is doubtful that, if your child is asking what a woman is doing while breastfeeding, they are equating the act with sex.  The anxiety you feel about their question is coming from your own inner insecurities and not that of the child.  Have no fear though, it is a simple fix: take a deep breath, own your issues, and answer honestly.  Hopefully by doing so you can avoid handing down the same issues you have internalized in objectifying women.

Need more help in handling this situation?  As a mom of 6 children and a teacher of many more, I’ve had lots of practice.  Check out these 6 simple ways of answering the question “what’s that lady doing?” when your child sees a breastfeeding woman:

18 months – 2.5 years old: “You see the mommy feeding her baby?  Isn’t that sweet?  Let’s leave them alone so that baby can finish their snack, would you like a snack too?”

Or, for the toddler that breastfeeds as well…

“Yes, that baby gets to eat just like you.  Would you like to have some mommy milk now too?”

2.5 years old – 4 years old:  “Oh, that mommy’s just feeding her baby.  All mammal mommies have breasts to feed their babies and even the daddies have nipples but really only mommies have nipples that work for feeding babies.  Where are your nipples?”

Or, for the preschooler that breastfeeds as well…

“Yes, that baby gets to eat just like you.  Would you like to have some mommy milk now too?”

To help them understand how normal this is and that all mammal mommies feed their babies this way, watch one or all of these sweet clips from Sesame Street:

Mom and baby mammals

Buffy nurses Cody

Maria Breastfeeds

You’re My Baby music video

4 years old – 8 years old:  “She’s feeding her baby.  That’s what breasts are for, feeding babies.  That’s where the term ‘mammal’ comes from, all creatures that feed their babies with their teat or breast are called mammals.  What animals can you think of that feed their young this way?”

Or, for the child that breastfeeds as well, all that plus: “Would you like to have some mommy milk now too?”

8 years old – 11 years old: “Thanks for pointing out the mom feeding her baby, I love seeing moms feeding their babies, don’t you?  Can you think of other ways babies are sometimes fed?  Do you know what kind of creatures feed their babies this way?  What other animals feed their young with their mammary glands?  Do you know how I fed you as a baby?  You were breast/bottle fed and I’m so grateful for the time I had getting to feed you, it was so special.”

11 years old – 13 years old: “It is so nice to see a mom feeding her baby.  What do you think of seeing this?  It isn’t always easy for moms to breastfeed in public, our society hasn’t always been very supportive of moms.  It is the normal way for babies to eat though, we should smile at her to encourage her as she takes care of her baby.”

13 years old – 18 years old: “She’s feeding her baby, isn’t that cool?  Does it bother you?  I wonder why a mom feeding her baby would make you uncomfortable?  Did you know that the primary function of the female breast is to feed babies?  Breastfeeding is the normal way for human babies, actually, all baby mammals, to eat.  You and I don’t have to hide when we’re eating, why should that baby have to hide?  And did you know that bottles are designed inspired by the breast?  I’m really glad we got to see this mom feeding her baby, I hope it helps us remember that this is normal and good.  Too often the only capacity in which we see the female breast is with an over emphasis on the sexual nature that ends up objectifying women.  Let’s smile at her to show our support and in thanks for the reminder that women aren’t sex objects.”

For an adult that acts like a child when they see a woman breastfeeding, refer to the explanation for the younger two categories, that should be simple enough for them to understand.

If you would, however, rather not inform children about breastfeeding and would prefer to hand down issues, simply act like breastfeeding is shameful.  With a reaction like that you can continue to be a part of a society that pressures women to breastfed yet sends confusing messages that doing so is somehow shameful and perverted.  Such a reaction will go a long way in helping absolutely nobody.

Because it really is as simple as breastfeeding is a mother feeding her baby.

 

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Comments

  1. Thanks for this great resource. I have to say that it always worries me when adults have trouble explaining the simple act of breastfeeding. What are they going to do when children ask about the hard topics: birds and the bees, poverty, violence, exploitation, drugs and addictions, mental health disorders, etc.?

    • I think the same thing. If we get stressed out about answering simple and very innocent questions about infant and early childhood nutrition, we are in for a truly rough road with other topics. ~Jessica

  2. YES I totally agree. I run the nursery at church and naturally, bring my nursling along. She often gets overwhelmed by all the other kids, so I nurse her (with a cover, just in case any of the families feel uncomfortable). Many of the kids have asked “what are you doing?” and I just say “feeding the baby.” Many of the toddlers try to look, lift up the cover, etc. I don’t shoo them away, I just smile and say “she’s having some milk. Can you show me your truck/blocks/whatever?”

    I always hope these conversations help to normalize breastfeeding in some way!

  3. One of my favorite questions came from a 30 year old woman who truly didn’t understand the Mother’s Room at work. “But your baby isn’t with you”…assuming that time was just to nap. I wish! She was from another country where pumping definitely wasn’t the norm. We went to grab coffee, and I explained pumping to her. Turns out, where she’s from, normal is either not going back to work ever or staying home for a year. She had never heard of a breast pump, and called her mom after our chat to tell her about it. Even some of those clueless adults can learn something even we are willing to teach!

  4. After having my son, I went back to work as a nanny. I’ve been with the family for years at this point and so had a hand in feeding the youngest (formula). Bottle feeding was the norm in their house and I was worried how they would handle my nursing around them (already dealing with surrogate-sibling rivalry). I was just establishing my own nursing relationship and having a lot of difficulties. I couldn’t cover because it took us so many tries to get a good latch and I HAD to see what was going on. I voiced my concern to their mom during a visit while I was still on maternity leave. I wasn’t sure of her feelings on the topic knowing all her babies had used formula. I even tried to nurse before the kids came home that day to avoid the topic with them. Baby had other ideas and wanted to eat again. I looked at their mom with what I know must have been sheer panic but went ahead and latched him to stop the fussing. Their mom rolled her eyes at me like I was being ridiculous and just said “guys, this is how Baby A gets his food. Okay?” And that was it. The oldest watched for a minute and went back to telling me what she did at school. The youngest could have cared less and was totally oblivious. (He now likes to “interpret” Baby A’s cry and thinks he’s hungry all the time. I think he just likes that I make a point to read to him while nursing). The middle watched very intently and then gently touched the side of my breast and then her own chest. “I want to try,” she said. Cue look of panic again. Does this 5 year old want to nurse?!?! Her mom asked her to clarify and she said she wanted to help with the baby and feed him too. Utterly adorable! I (and her mom) explained how you had to be older, a mom, etc to be able to do it and that it was great if that was how she wanted to feed her babies. I catch her “nursing” her dollies sometimes now. I am so grateful to my boss for taking something I thought would be difficult (especially since it was not a situation she had dealt with herself) and making it a total non-issue. My son and I are getting better at this nursing thing and I’m pretty confident in public now. It’s true…the kids don’t have issues. It’s all in how we teach them!

  5. Cassandra Hodges says:

    Perfect advice! Ive shared this today with some mothers who were anxious about explaining all the breastfeeding images appearing on social media to their children after already teaching them that breasts area private thing and noone should touch them.
    I think its easy to forget that kids are pretty accepting about how stuff works.

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  7. I once had to explain to my 8 year old nephew why i was hiding in the bedroom to breastfeed…. Now that was more complicated to explain.

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