Few issues generate more controversy than whether women breast or bottle feed their infants (with the exception perhaps of ‘natural’ versus ‘caesarian’ births). So what happens if the story features not an infant but a toddler or older child who is being breastfed?
In May 2012 American mother Jamie Lyn Grumet was featured on the front of Time magazine with her four year old son feeding at her breast. ‘I plan to breast feed for another year” she declared to mixed reactions from the many members of the public and media pundits who joined in the debate. In the US the story has gathered support from a small group of women who are known to favour what is termed “attachment parenting” – this involves co sleeping with your child and breastfeeding on demand.
The media of course has an odd relationship with breastfeeding. The female breast features fairly regularly across most (if not all) media outlets but not in the context of breastfeeding. Indeed it is very rare to see a media image of a woman breastfeeding baby (apart from to emphasise the suffering of the vulnerable in news stories from disaster zones). Even celebrities who are happy to appear performing the most mundane activities (getting coffee from Starbucks, walking their dog) or talking at length about the birth of their child or breakup of their relationship with numerous photos in celebrity magazines are rarely to be seen breastfeeding. When actor Angelina Jolie very unusually featured on the front cover of W magazine (October 2008) breastfeeding one of her newborn twin babies there was outrage. Jolie and partner Brad Pitt who had taken the intimate photographs were considered to have crossed a line from private to public. Others such as TV presenter Denise van Outen have spoken of having little choice but to give up breastfeeding in case the paparazzi managed to capture a photograph and because she felt extra pressure as a public figure. In the UK we have especially low rates of breastfeeding and rates are even lower within some socio economic groups and communities which means that existing health inequalities can be compounded.
There are strong associations between infant feeding and the social demographics of parents. But it is parental attitudes that are an obvious target for campaigns. While breastfeeding tends to be depicted as healthy but problematic or associated with particular types of women such as middle-class ‘earth mothers’ it is hard to see how anything will change. Studies have found that male attitudes to breastfeeding are of crucial importance and that cultural ideas about sexuality and masculinity have a role to play in the choices women make. In the UK and USA breastfeeding in public is a very visible activity whereas in other countries where breastfeeding is the norm (Norway, many sub-Saharan Africa countries, and increasingly, Australia) breastfeeding in public is common and largely unremarkable. Images of older children breastfeeding are unlikely to challenge these strongly held ideas about what is ‘normal’ or ‘permissable’. Many ‘ordinary’ women share the anxiety of breastfeeding in public with some fearing that they might draw unwanted attention or even be asked to leave a building if they feed their child.
The latest twist is that a new reality show is planned from the makers of Bridezillas and Dance Moms. The series provisionally titled Extreme Parenting will present, ‘over the top’ child rearing practices including extended breastfeeding. Jeff Collins, the president of Collins Avenue Productions is quoted as saying the show will be ,”peeling back the curtain to look at choices other people make that will have a huge impact on their children or their lives.” In some communities bottle-feeding /formula feeding is the norm and media portrayals of breastfeeding are considered especially important as they offer a rare opportunity for women to witness a child at the breast (a proxy for real life exposure). It is hard to imagine that scenes of breastfed toddlers in the context of Extreme Parenting will help shift deeply ingrained cultural attitudes about appropriate behaviour and may simply fuel the feelings of disgust and embarrassment that many women (and men) already associate with the practice. Breastfeeding rates have not altered much in past years and it seems that health campaigners have much to do in terms of targeting cultural attitudes. But one thing is for sure, while there is a dearth of images of breast feeding (positive or otherwise) any representation will be scrutinised, debated and critiqued with a significance that ensures breastfeeding remains a remarkable rather than unremarkable activity.