More on Extended Nursing: An Interview with Vanessa Lowe

Vanessa Lowe with her son

Vanessa Lowe with her son

Our guest today on Mothering Outside the Lines is breastfeeding advocate Vanessa Lowe, who has made a documentary about extended nursing. Vanessa Lowe’s background includes a doctorate in Clinical Psychology, as well as four years as host of a radio show on KWMR (a community radio station in Point Reyes Station, CA). She’s a musician and songwriter, and has released four records, with a fifth coming out in 2011. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and five-year-old son. You can learn more about her radio documentary here.

Or listen to the documentary, Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy, now:

JM: Tell us about your documentary.

VL: “Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy” is an independently produced hour-long radio documentary. It features the voices of 14 women who have breastfed their children between one and four years. Some of the major topics covered include dealing with judgment and criticism, public nursing, the benefits and challenges of breastfeeding, weaning, nursing while working, and getting support. Also featured is commentary from Dr. Nigel Rollins, of the World Health Organization, Dr. Jay Gordon, a Fellow of the American Association of Pediatrics, and Dr. Katherine Dettwyler, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Delaware.

The piece is primarily about the stories of these 14 amazing mothers who are so considered and articulate about the parenting choices they have made. The moms I interviewed were incredibly candid and honest about the whole process of breastfeeding their kids, including the joys and difficulties they had along the way. There are some truly funny stories, too!

These are the kinds of stories that we just don’t hear about except for in a group of breastfeeding mothers. My goals were twofold: to put these voices out there to support and educate mothers; and to allow these voices to be heard by people who are not aware that breastfeeding beyond infancy is not that uncommon, is actually a positive thing, and is practiced by a wide range of perfectly normal and healthy mothers!

JM: How did you get interested in the topic of extended nursing?

VL: When my son was about two years old, I started noticing that I was sometimes not that comfortable breastfeeding him in public. I was surprised by this because I was well aware of the medical recommendations to breastfeed for at least 1-2 years, and I was also educated about my legal rights to breastfeed in public. I never encountered any negative reactions to nursing in public—I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is sort of a bastion of liberal ideology.

But I had heard stories in the media about mothers being kicked off of airplanes or out of stores, and I had received mildly concerned comments from a few family members.

So even though breastfeeding my two-year-old son was going well, I had absorbed some of the negative views on the practice simply by living in a culture that was not widely supportive of the practice. I found myself anticipating negative reactions.

And then there was this huge contrast between all the scientific findings and medical recommendations about breastfeeding, and the negative cultural attitudes about the practice. The discrepancy seemed to me to be largely about many people’s misperceptions and lack of information, along with some insidious cultural biases.

I started thinking about how to initiate an intelligent, informed cultural conversation about all this. I decided that an important step would simply be making the largely unheard voices of breastfeeding mothers heard.

JM: Is it really normal to breastfeed beyond six months? Beyond a year?

VL: Absolutely. As Dr. Katherine Dettwyler notes in the documentary, human children are expecting to be breastfed far beyond even one year. Her argument is based on several different areas of research including studies of non-western civilizations, as well as that of non-human primates.

The World Health Organization recommends that children be breastfed for at least two years.

JM: I’ve heard women say that your milk changes and is no longer nutritious the longer you nurse. Is that true?

VL: Breast milk continues to supply important antibodies to the child beyond infancy. Of course, as children begin to eat solid foods they are increasingly getting nutrition from other sources, and are not as dependent on breast milk. But the mother’s immune system continues to pass on immune protection to the nursing child.

There are other benefits to the child beyond nutrition. Many of the mothers in “Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy” talk about the emotional benefits of continuing to nurse their kids.

JM: I’ve had many family members tell me “Enough already! It’s time to stop nursing!!” when they saw me nursing a toddler. Do you have advice for how to handle negative comments like those?

VL: There are many ways to deal with negative comments. I think it depends on what your goal is. You can choose to educate people and let them know about the scientific information and medical guidelines—many people are actually unaware of these things, and are simply reacting to cultural biases that they have absorbed or inherited. They may have the misconception that there’s something inappropriately sexual about breastfeeding beyond infancy, or may be mistakenly worried that your child will be hindered in developing independence.

La Leche League has a great fact sheet full of helpful suggestions for how to deal with criticism.

Some mothers use gentle humor. When someone asks, “How long are planning to nurse that kid”? you can just say, “Oh, at least another ten minutes.”

It can be hurtful to receive negative comments about nursing a toddler or older child. Negative comments may even cause a mom to doubt her own parenting choices. Seeking out other breastfeeding mothers, in person or on-line (La Leche League can provide info on groups) can be really helpful. Reminding yourself about why you’ve chosen to continue breastfeeding, talking to others, and sharing your experiences are ways to nurture and fortify yourself, and maintain the emotional energy needed to do the best job of mothering that you can.

JM: How else can women who nurse toddlers get support?

VL: There are actually many places to get support for nursing toddlers. There may be a La Leche League group in your town or somewhere nearby. Even if you don’t know anyone else who’s breastfeeding, if you have access to the internet there are a lot of resources. Facebook has several groups where women share their experiences and offer support. Mothering Magazine, both on-line and the print magazine, is a wonderful resource.

There are great books: Ann Sinnott’s Breastfeeding Older Children, Norma Jane Bumgarner’s Mothering Your Nursing Toddler, and Kathleen Huggins’s The Nursing Mother’s Guide to Weaning.

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