6 year-old boy in foster care because his mother insists on breastfeeding him.
December 12, 2000 6:20 AM   Subscribe

6 year-old boy in foster care because his mother insists on breastfeeding him. "It's an offense to me that my child has been in foster care for over 120 days because [the state] decided it didn't believe in my parenting philosophy," said the unidentified mother.
posted by ethmar (26 comments total)
I don't know what to make of this. However I am surprised that the mother has been producing milk for 6 years. I always thought that the body "turned off" the flow after a certain amount of time. Then again, I'm not a biology major.
posted by ethmar at 6:22 AM on December 12, 2000

It did say 'allegedly against his wishes'. Chances are there is something wrong about breastfeeding a 6 year old, be it her philosophy. I really doubt there was anything sexually abusing about it. It's strange, because, often, people complain that noone breastfeeds anymore, and children suffer, now it's the other way around with this lady.
posted by tiaka at 6:37 AM on December 12, 2000

Nope. It can go on as long as the demand is there. Still I imagine the mother is expressing her milk manually to keep up the supply.

There's nothing wrong with continued breast feeding as long as the child wants it. Our baby daughter is still breast feeding a couple of time a day at 14 months and is showing no signs of wanting to give it up.

But as usual someone has to take that to its "philosophical" extreme. It sounds to me like the mother is a nutter. Then again all this talk about "sexual abuse" sounds like the state has got it ass-about too.
posted by lagado at 6:41 AM on December 12, 2000

I don't know if that could be considered abuse. The child has no idea that what's going on could be bad. In most abuse cases, I'd like to think that the kid has some idea (regardless of how small) that there's something wrong. That's just my view on that.

I agree with Lagado, the mother may be a nut. By the time a child's 6, he or she is quite ready for solid foods and other liquids.
posted by Cavatica at 7:16 AM on December 12, 2000

Breastfeeding until 6, or longer, is not uncommon in some places, like Japan. Issues like extended (child-guided) breastfeeding, or "co-sleeping" are definitely on the table these days. Perfectly sane professional couples I know are exploring them. Don't forget, ideas like having a baby at home using midwives, or having a vaginal birth after Caesarean, were considered equally fringe a generation ago. Hell, breastfeeding was outre in my parents' day. When you read what "experts" have to say about all these things, it quickly becomes apparent that it's all just opinion--it's not like there have been real clinical studies--and the opinions are strongly infomred by the ideologies, theories and taboos of the opinionizers.
posted by rodii at 7:22 AM on December 12, 2000

By the way, I find it fascinating that all of us males are so ready to pronounce on this. What ho, lads, let's retire to the library for some sherry and leave our distaff companions to weigh in on it whilst they sew.
posted by rodii at 7:54 AM on December 12, 2000

I figure the problem with it is that the kid is old enough to discover that none of his friends are still breast feeding, which must make him think he's weird or wrong somehow. Six does sound way, way too old for that to me anyway - but even if it's ok for other reasons, I imagine it could harm the kid's social development.
posted by dnash at 8:06 AM on December 12, 2000

Here's an interesting fact - the global average for breastfeeding children shows most mothers around the world weaning at age 5. The American average is eight weeks, or somesuch.

The type of parenting the mum practices is called "attachment parenting" and while I agree that six is awfully old for a child to be breastfed, I think the co-sleeping issue should be left out of it. Six is not too old for a kid to crawl into bed with mom, and if he was there to begin with, there's nothing wrong with that either. Attachment parenting teaches baby-wearing, co-sleeping, and "childled weaning" - meaning the kid gives it up when he's ready.

In this case, it sounds like he was definitely ready, and mummy was NOT. It's interesting.
posted by annathea at 9:25 AM on December 12, 2000

I would concur with Annathea on this. I think that the Mom really wasn't ready to give it up. I also think that six borders on that age when kids start to become more self aware and more self-conscious.

I do think that there must have been other ways to deal with this issue besides removing the child from the home.
posted by amanda at 9:40 AM on December 12, 2000

The average age at which children stop breastfeeding in 3rd world countries is 8 years of age.

The milk a woman produces actually changes as her child gets older, adapting to the nutritional needs of the child.

Breastfeeding women are significantly less likely to conceive, so in third world countries where birth control is not readily available breastfeeding keeps populations under control and protects the health of the mother (numerous unwanted pregnancies are unhealthy, especially where hospital care is unavailable)

The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for at least the first three years of life. almost 49% of the 10 million deaths among under-five children each year in developing countries are associated with malnutrition and breast milk is the best way to insure this doesn't happen.

From the same article
"I would like to close on a brief personal reflection. During the last session of WHO’s Executive Board, I listened with a mixture of pride and admiration to a summary of the latest breastfeeding prevalence figures from Norway:

92% of mothers are breastfeeding their child at 3 months of age

80% are breastfeeding at 6 months and, long after complementary feeding has begun,

40% are still breastfeeding at 12 months!

These figures are of course due, in part, to the excellent conditions offered to working mothers. But as a Norwegian mother and grandmother, I know that there’s more to the story than this.

How is it that mothers throughout Scandinavia regularly breastfeed their babies for long periods, while in so many other industrialized countries—even where women’s participation in the labour force is modest—rates are often dismally low?

Is it only, or even mainly, because of the generous conditions offered mothers in paid employment?

Or is it as much due to the high value that society places on children getting a good start in life that these conditions are so generous?"

Sure, it may seem weird to most Americans because culturally most folks don't breastfeed. But as a former La Leche League child who was raised in a number of third world countries, I have to says it's perfectly healthy to breastfeed at the age of six.

I did it (although I don't usually disclose this information), and I don't have a screwed up relationship with my mother, I'm not sexually warped, I have a social life and so forth.

posted by croutonsupafreak at 9:41 AM on December 12, 2000 [1 favorite]

Crouton, thanks so much for your input. I've never spoken with a grown up LLL baby. :) I've often wondered how the children evolve as they get older after being raised that way. I personally plan to be an AP mom myself. But that's not happening for a LONG time.

My comment that six was too old to be breastfed was spurred by the fact that this child in question was obviously ready to not breastfeed anymore. Plus, living in America has definitely made me wary of parents' motives. But I spent some time in Norway a few years ago, and noticed on more than one occasion tthree and four year old children still being breastfed. It seemed correct, somehow, esp. in that environment.
posted by annathea at 9:52 AM on December 12, 2000

And then there's the dismal state of foster care in the United States today.

I can't imagine that breastfeeding a child until the age of six could be anywhere near as harmful as taking that child away from his mother.

posted by jennyb at 9:54 AM on December 12, 2000

I didn't notice this the first time I read the article, but the babysitter supposedly had been caring for the boy 10-12 hours a day for six days a week for the last two years. That doesn't sound like attachment parenting to me, and by extension, it makes me wonder what would possess the mother to continue breastfeeding in such circumstance. I am curious as to what is going to happen with this case.
posted by annathea at 10:51 AM on December 12, 2000

i used to work at a television station and one of the reporters was interviewing a doctor of osteopathy for a story. mid-interview, her rather large 5 year old son climbed on her lap and undid the buttons on his mom's blouse and began nursing. maybe i'm a prude, but i think that's just too old. it's kind of creepy.
posted by centrs at 10:57 AM on December 12, 2000

You're a prude. And you're the problem, I'm afraid I have to say.

The sexual abuse issues surfaced because the mother, whose parents slept in the same bed with their children, practiced so-called co-sleeping as well. The Department of Children and Family Services has said that this co-sleeping was a factor in its decision to take the boy from the home. The mother has said she has not slept naked with her son in several years.

As I have said innumerable times before in this forum, while there are indeed problem situations in the world, it is *not* safe to assume that "not like you" means "bad". The biggest problem here has nothing to do with the practices in question... it has to do with *other people's opinions* about those practices.

And "this is a private thing that we don't talk about with non-family members" now reads as "I'm abusing you, and I don't want you to tell anyone"... even though it's a perfectly rational thing to tell your child.

It's the recommended approach to childhood masturbation, for example. "That's a private thing; don't do it in public."

If this child lived in a society where breastfeeding or sleeping with parents to that age was the norm, there would be no problem; the problem comes from the society around them.

So, how is it the society's business how she should raise her kid, in the face of the factual evidence (from other societies) that there's nothing *inherently* wrong about it?

(obviously, it's not causing sexual maladjustment or malnutrition or any of the other possibly directly attributable problems it might in those cultures, or they'd have stopped.)

It's not the child abusers who cause the problems, it's the *spectre* of child abuse that's the biggest danger.
posted by baylink at 1:03 PM on December 12, 2000

I think the problem extends from the kind of culture that simultaneously imposes a taboo on breasts (no tits on TV, please!) while fetishising them in other media. It's as if breasts aren't the property of women and their children, but rather Playboy/Larry Flynt enterprises: "you have no right to be employing your breasts in the manner nature designed for them when they could be [airbrushed in a glossy mag | cantilevered in a Wonderbra | on the catwalk] etc.

It's simulaneously prudish and voyeuristic: classic Protestant sexuality at work.
posted by holgate at 1:26 PM on December 12, 2000

It's the recommended approach to childhood masturbation, for example. "That's a private thing; don't do it in public."

Well, they DO call it "self abuse". :-)

(Hey, thanks for tightening up the thread. I felt bad leaving that gap.)
posted by ethmar at 1:45 PM on December 12, 2000

you know, i didn't say anything about the co-sleeping and i didn't say that she was doing anything "bad". i just personally found it to be a very bizarre sight to see a child who didn't even fit in his mom's lap to climb up, undo her buttons and "help himself". i think if a child can do that they are too old. i don't care what they do in other societies. i don't think this woman was breastfeeding her child as a method of birth control. i think the child didn't want to do it anymore and she was encouraging him to do it anyway for whatever reasons of her own. as for nutritional benefits, how often do you see non-breastfed children being given bottles of formula at the age of six? how many six year olds would find it embarrassing to be forced to drink from a bottle?
posted by centrs at 2:29 PM on December 12, 2000

It's too hard to make any real judgement based on the information in this article.

Cavatica: By the time a child's 6, he or she is quite ready for solid foods and other liquids.

I'm assuming that the kjid has been eating solid foods now for 5 and half years as well as continuing to drink breast milk.

We have no plans to ween our child until she wants to be weened. Still I would be surprised (but not concerned) if it was still going 5 years from now.
posted by lagado at 2:46 PM on December 12, 2000

right on, baylink & holgate.

I feel weird about this disclosure, because I know it's taboo in society but what the heck ...

As a weaned at age 6 LLL child, I have to say I stopped not because I wanted to but because my mom thought I was too old to keep it up. When I was 5-6, I knew it was not normal to still be breastfeeding, but I didn't think it was wrong, just not something other people would understand. I don't really remember the experience, but I understand that it's very comforting for young children and it promotes closeness between children and their mothers. Mothers who breastfeed tend to have their delta brain waves in synch with their children's. This does not mean that kids don't learn to be independent when they're older. In fact, I think feeling so safe and having such a refuge at such a young age may be good for kids as they get older.

Of course, every child differs. My younger brother lost interest in breast feeding when he was three, and that was fine too.

But it's only creepy for a 5-year-old to unbutton his mother's blouse if he or she is getting something creepy out of it. For a child to seek comfort and a mother to offer it in a biologically natural way seems perfectly fine to me, if unusual in today's society.

That said, I can see how it would make people uncomfortable. I obviously don't think everyone should breastfeed their kids until they're 5. But there are millions of people the world over who grow up perfectly fine nursing until they're older.

Just my two cents.

posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:36 PM on December 12, 2000 [1 favorite]

>If this child lived in a society where breastfeeding or sleeping with parents to that age was the norm, there would be no problem; the problem comes from the society around them.<

okay, I have a question that I've been thinking about for a while:

if something is normal in a society, then is it unlikely to cause harm to the child or adult who participates in it? I'm thinking of cultures in which young girls used to sleep with the head of the tribe when they had their first menses. in that context, this was a normal event, and there wouldn't be a taboo connected with it, so the emotional damage of shame and the like wouldn't manifest (I suppose). however, would there be other kinds of harm that could come from it? (it could hurt, is one I can think of.)

in *our* society, this would quite clearly be seen as sexual abuse. is that harm that comes from that based strictly in societal norms?

to take a very extreme example, the clitorectomies that are performed in some cultures today: accepted within the society; the failure to allow this procedure performed may even be cause for societal disapproval. obviously, this *hurts* and is often done in an unsafe manner, etc.

but is a culture's view of an action inherently the only measure of whether something is harmful or otherwise?

posted by rebeccablood at 4:13 PM on December 12, 2000


(Clear enough answer? :-)

In my most humble opinon (shyeah, right), in fact, the culture's view of the action is often the *worst* measure of whether it's harmful (no offense, Brennan :-).

The question we seem to be after here is: is the harm from the societal reaction different, in degree or in sort, from that of the actual act?

It would seem clear to me that the answer is "yes, it is, and it's often *much* worse.

if something is normal in a society, then is it unlikely to cause harm to the child or adult who participates in it? I'm thinking of cultures in which young girls used to sleep with the head of the tribe when they had their first menses. in that context, this was a normal event, and there wouldn't be a taboo connected with it, so the emotional damage of shame and the like wouldn't manifest (I suppose). however, would there be other kinds of harm that could come from it? (it could hurt, is one I can think of.)

If the old guy wasn't careful and kind, yeah. I don't know how *that* pendulum swung. But if that was what kept you from being ostracized, and it was a slight, temporary pain, yeah you did it.

The difference bewteen that and clitorectomy is, I think, a difference of sorts, rather than a difference of degree, and I don't have a problem objecting to the latter, even though I don't object to the former. (No wisecracks, please. :-)

Oh, and BTW: is the difference between a difference of degree and a difference of sorts a difference of degree? Or a difference of sorts?
posted by baylink at 7:29 PM on December 12, 2000

but is a culture's view of an action inherently the only measure of whether something is harmful or otherwise?

I'm going to run with the clitorectomies example, though I know that it was intended as an extreme example.

As a passage into adulthood, sleeping with the chief and having surgery on your clitoris are two drastically different events.

A tribal tradition for centuries is probably a reason for celebration. I'm sure the night would be met with trapadition by many, but at the same time it's the climax (pun fully intended, unfortunately :-) of your youth. I imagine there was preening and preperation, and mothers and aunts and sisters and tribal women building up the "becomming an adult" aspect of it.

It may not have been completely consensual, but it wasn't a violation in the same way as rape today is.

It also wouldn't really be about ownership.

Clitorectomies, on the other hand, are performed on a girl while she's forcefully held down and cut and mutilated; sometimes sewn. They're performed on her so she won't enjoy sex at all, and therefore she'll only have sex with her husband, because it's her job.

Sewing happens so that she physically can't have sex until her husband cuts her open.

Clitorectomies are all about ownership, the woman being nothing but a piece of property. There's a huge difference between that and a passage to adulthood.

Now, it can be argued that giving girls to the tribal leader after their first menses would be to a degree a symbol of ownership - I'm the leader, you're my people. I can't quite think of a way to respond to that right now.

I say again, I realize that you used it as an extreme example, but the very concept of a clitorectomy, it's destructive and vile and just makes me feel ill. I can't think of any way a clitorectomy can be positive, whereas a tribal tradition of adulthood I can see the positives.

Hell, there's even a chance young tribal girls would enjoy that first night. I can't see anyone enjoying a clitorectomy.
posted by cCranium at 6:25 AM on December 13, 2000

Dang, I'm late to this thread, but anyway.

I'm a lactating mom of a 19-month old girl. I plan on nursing her until it feels unreasonable to continue. I imagine that she'll slowly taper off over time (ending by the time she's 3-5 yrs old I suspect), but I may give her a nudge here and there in that direction if it truly seems appropriate.

Even now, she sometimes wants to nurse quite a bit more than I am prepared to let her, so I've started to put her off a bit sometimes, make her wait a little while or give me a break for a bit if I want/need it. I would not completely cease nursing her just for my own preference, though. She sleeps with me and her dad every night, nurses pretty much at will during the night (1-2 times these days), and always gets to nurse in the morning and the evening, usually nursing to sleep. I no longer pump milk for her to have at daycare, but I did that for over a year.

I have to work during the day, so she's in daycare. I do consider myself to be a moderate "attachment parent". I admire the ideals, and I take what works for me. And I resent the implication by certain people who claim that those who have to leave their children with babysitters or at daycare cannot by definition practice attachment parenting. I go out of my way to foster physical and emotional closeness with my daughter whenever I'm with her (only with her consent - she doesn't hesitate to push me away from a hug when she's had enough, trust me!).

She gets to nurse longer than over 99% of children in this country, she never has to sleep alone at night, and she gets read to, loved, cuddled, and told how wonderful she is repeatedly every single day, so, in essence, BITE ME if you want to impugn my mothering ability. Grrr! I second-guess myself on a regular basis, and I do the best I can. Those who have been perfect parents of exquisitely brilliant, tenacious, cantankerous, willful, physically adept and free-spirited children such as my daughter are free to step forward and point out how incompetent I am, of course. (well, they don't exist, so...)

Another variable to consider is that breastfeeding reduces the risk that the mother will get breast cancer, at least somewhat. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, and underwent a very successful regimen of experimental chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation. She's doing quite well now, but trust me, I will do everything in my power to minimize my risk of breast cancer, especially since I have a significant family history now.

I think weaning is necessarily supposed to be an ongoing negotiation between a mother and child - it needs to take into account the individual predilections and needs of both parties, which are unique and which change over time. Not to mention the varying conditions of how much and what kind of resources are available for both mother and child.

Is the mother harried, depressed, not getting her needs met? Wean a bit earlier (as long as you're well past a year, that is). Is the baby sick, particularly needy, or possessive of a delicate digestive system (like my daughter)? Wean a bit later.

This is Nature, folks. There are no real "rules" beyond "what succeeds, succeeds, and what doesn't, doesn't".

The child and the mother face very different cost-benefit analyses when it comes to weaning. Broadly speaking, it's to the child's benefit to nurse as long as possible, and it's to the mother's benefit to wean the child and keep her resources (not just calories, but time and energy) to herself, perhaps even resuming ovulation and conceiving another child more quickly (and thus perpetuating her genes more).

At some point, a balance point is reached, and weaning occurs. Sometimes, children just give it up eventually. Sometimes, mothers just call it quits without giving the child input. I think this is rather cruel, personally, and not the optimum way to do it. But hey, it's Nature, like I said.

Whatever happens, it's clearly not kosher to "force" a child to keep nursing. Granted that you can't really "force" a kid to nurse in the most obvious sense, you can guilt them into it or manipulate them emotionally. I'm sure some people *do* do this, though I'll bet it's extremely rare.

(Far more sadly common is the case of women who never even consider nursing, never try it, wean extremely early, or don't get the support and assistance they need to nurse as long as they want to. You can thank the profit-seeking formula companies for much of this, btw.)

To the poster above who felt the 5-year old nursing was being goaded into it by the mom - did she say anything to the child? Anything such as "Come here and nurse, honey", or "You want some mommy milk now, right?" might conceivably be considered to be a nudge towards getting a child to nurse who might otherwise not want to. But it sounds like the kid jumped in the lap of its own free volition, and undid the mom's blouse on its own. Sounds like voluntary nursing to me. Lucky kid to have a mom so willing and able to meet the child's needs at such an age.

It's too bad for you that you felt uncomfortable watching it - perhaps you might educate yourself about the normalcy and benefits of long-term nursing (not to mention the fact that breasts are NOT inherently sexual, as is commonly believed). I recommend checking out the work of Kathy Dettwyler, an anthropologist who is an expert in this area.

Just because someone feels "uncomfortable" watching two people engage in a non-sexual act, doesn't mean that the observer has a right to make or even ask the people to stop. This would be similar to a racist being "uncomfortable" watching a white woman hold a black man's hand as they walk down the street (or vice versa), or a homophobe who couldn't handle seeing a pair of gay men or lesbians do the same thing. If you're offended, then *leave*. Go into a different room, go home, pretend you have to go to the bathroom, whatever. It's not your place to interfere with anyone else's rights to freely associate without being harassed.

I'll grant that sexual conduct in public is widely considered to be rude to observers, but I'm not talking about anything sexual here - I'm talking about holding hands and nursing (the nurturing of a child at the breast, which may or may not involve the intake of calories). People in this country are just going to have to get used to the fact that breasts are not solely sexual objects.

Those of us who are proud to nurse our children are going to keep doing so - we're here, we've got breasts, and we're not afraid to use them as they were intended! Get used to it! (or stay home where you won't be offended by the sight of a nipple, goodness gracious me).

It sounds like in the case in the news story, it's not anywhere near clear what really happened. I would be really interested to find out *EXACTLY* how the child was interviewed (the babysitter's testimony isn't sufficient, imho). Did they tape it? Did the kid come right out and say "My mommy makes me nurse and I don't want to anymore!", or was an incriminating statement drawn out after hours of questioning along the lines of: "You're a big boy, big boys aren't supposed to nurse. Do you want to do that nasty, yucky nursing from your mommy?" "(*sheepishly shakes his head 'no'*)".

Seriously, look into the incredibly bogus techniques used in the Little Rascals child-molestation case for details on how skilled interviewers can get a child to agree to just about anything. The children want to please, and when they're asked fifty times in a row "Did someone touch you? They did, didn't they?" and they answer "No" and get a clearly-annoyed interviewer who repeats the question, they eventually figure out that the 'right' answer is "Yes". Once they say "Yes", they are lavished with praise, attention, pity, and love.

So if they claim it's justified to take a kid out of the home if he's goaded into doing *anything* that his parental unit wanted him to that he didn't want to do, why aren't they breaking down the doors of families whose children really don't want to be goaded into eating their vegetables? Or taking piano lessons?

This case is just goofy, and it's going to make breastfeeding (especially long-term breastfeeding) seem even more like a fringey far-out thing. Gah!

Ah well, gotta keep fighting the good fight, talking to people and showing them day by day how breastfeeding long-term is good for my daughter, and good for me too.

Anyway. Poor kid, poor mom. I hope they can all sort it out eventually.

I leave you with one of my favorite Heinlein quotes:

Nursing does not diminish the beauty of a woman's breasts; it enhances their charm by making them look lived in and happy.
posted by beth at 1:25 PM on December 13, 2000

Beth, I've noticed a lot of your posts on metafilter are bordering on the hostile. Any particular reason why?

If you are referring to my comment that the child was being left with a babysitter for 10-12 hours a day, six days a week (so it didn't sound to me like attachment parenting) then you're overreacting. If you're referring to something else, I apologise. I realise how difficult it is to be a mother breastfeeding a toddler in this particular society, and I am sure your position needs to be defended on a daily basis.

However. No one here is trying to impugn YOUR mothering ability, as you say. I agree with nearly all of your comments above, but the way they are presented sounds militant and defensive. No one here is even really attacking the mother of the six year old - most people who've posted seem genuinely interested in learning, for the first time, that kids can be breastfed past the age of six months, or whatever's standard here in the US.
I stand by my original post - a child left with a caretaker six days a week for 10-12 hours does not sound like an AP kid, therefore I'm interested in learning more facts about the case. I am not saying a working parent can't be an AP parent, and I am not saying that the woman in this case is not one (or is, for that matter.)

Merely curious.

The rest of your post is interesting - and thank you for educating the rest of us. Just remember, though - no one here cares if you breastfeed your child until she's twelve. No one is attacking you or your parenting techniques. Some people are asking questions, some people are expressing curiousity or discomfort or whatnot, but so far everyone's been very open and curious about the matter.
posted by annathea at 4:52 PM on December 14, 2000

Beth, I've noticed a lot of your posts on metafilter are bordering on the hostile. Any particular reason why?

You misspelled "defensive".

I get my hackles up rather easily when it comes to the topic of breastfeeding, and in particular the idea of people passing judgment on whether another person's parenting decisions do or do not constitute Attachment Parenting.

After all, it isn't a membership group - it's a set of techniques and attitudes, and the point is to take what works for *your* family and leave the rest.

Someone flayed me on an AP mailing list once on this issue when I mentioned that *gasp* I work outside the home, and yeah, it's still a sore wound. They wrote something to the effect of: "whatever makes you feel good about letting your daughter be raised by strangers".

It's not easy to drop my daughter off every weekday, but I do what I have to do.

She thrives at her school, for what it's worth.
posted by beth at 9:54 AM on December 15, 2000

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