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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.

 

“Is Nursing Bad?”

children familyI have 5 children. Five girls. Yes, five. Yes, they are all girls. Yes we have certainly figured out what causes “that” and I have to say we’re pretty dang good at it. Obviously.

I want many things for my 5 girls when they grow up. In fact, I hope they have leaky boobs themselves one day. I know they may not, for whatever reason but it will not be because they think it is weird or gross or anything else other than normal. As their mother I’m doing everything in my power to hold breast-feeding up as normal and so far, it is working. Last summer I learned that my children didn’t even know what formula was.

“Mommy, why is she giving her baby a bottle? Are her boobies broken?” 6 years old Lolie asked loudly, much to my embarrassment.

I didn’t know the woman in question, she was a stranger feeding her baby at the park.

“Maybe it isn’t her baby and she doesn’t have milk in her boobs yet.” Earth Baby, at 10 years old, was trying to explain before I could jump in to quiet the conversation.

Breast-feeding is important enough that I didn’t want the conversation to halt but I could tell the woman and others at the playground could hear us and I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. Talking softly I encouraged them to lower their voices but immediately regretted it when Lolie asked if talking about nursing was bad. After a short pause I returned my voice to a normal speaking volume, telling the girls there was nothing wrong with talking about breast-feeding. I did explain that I didn’t want to say anything that would make the woman feeding the baby a bottle to feel bad. The conversation that followed continued at a respectful volume level, thankfully.

nursing breastfeeding baby
We discussed the possible reasons why a woman would be giving a baby a bottle instead of her breast. They were immediately sympathetic that perhaps her breasts were, in fact, broken and not able to produce enough milk. It was reasonable to them that maybe this woman was a babysitter, perhaps an aunt or friend and the mom was at work and had left a bottle of pumped milk. Or that the baby was adopted and could be drinking formula because there was nobody to give him breast-milk. This idea was very sad and after I explained what formula was they wondered for a bit as to what could have happened to the biological mother and why there was nobody to donate breast-milk. That conversation gave them a great idea, since I was no longer donating my breast-milk to one of the 3 babies I had been helping to supply they insisted I go up to the woman and offer to nurse the baby or at least give her some pumped milk. Pointing out that I was actually ok not donating any more and that I didn’t know this family or that they would be interested I begged my way out of that potentially awkward situation. But it was my suggestion that maybe that mom never wanted to nurse and was choosing to give formula that got the strongest reaction. I reminded them a few times to lower their voices but by then a distraught Storyteller couldn’t help herself and loudly argued that “every baby should get to have their mommy’s warm sweet milk if they can!” At 8 years old she was already a breast-feeding advocate. I admitted she had a point.

The conversation ended shortly after that outburst and the girls moved on to playing. I noticed a short while later that The Storyteller was assisting Squiggle Bug off the slide and walking her towards me saying, a bit too loudly, “You want to nurse? You want sweet mommy milk? Ok, I’ll take you to mommy so you can have your special boobies. You’re a lucky baby to get to nurse instead of having yucky formula.” No, not passive aggressive at all.

rainbow child
I started out to write a piece about sharing breast-feeding with older children and ended up with this. Breast-feeding, in any amount, is worth encouraging and showing children as normal. In the recent Old Country Buffet incident a breast-feeding mother was told “this is a family friendly restaurant” as though breast-feeding isn’t family friendly. I beg to differ and so would my children. It is about as family friendly as one can get and the more families see it happening the healthier we, our children and our future grandchildren will be.

A year later, I realized just this morning how normal feeding a baby from my breast is for my daughters. I was pumping and Earth Baby asked: “Are you going to nurse her a bottle?” Anything other than nursing just seems strange. I love that.