Time Magazine’s “Are you MOM enough?” cover is brilliant marketing. It’s also a terrible disservice to women’s health.
In case you missed it, the magazine cover features a mother with her three-year-old son, standing on a chair, latched on to her breast. The photo had sparked disgust from readers who have expressed outrage at the “sick” and “deviant” behavior of breastfeeding a three-year-old.
In traditional human societies, Katherine Dettwyler has demonstrated that children wean between 2 and 5 years of age. Using data from non-human primates, evidence suggests that the biological age to stop breastfeeding is between 2.5 and 7. From an anthropological standpoint, therefore, nursing a three-year-old is not “sick,” “strange” or “deviant.” It is normal human physiology.
In traditional societies, weaning occurs between 2 and 5 years. (Used with permission from Lawrence and Lawrence, Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession, 7th edition, Modified from Dettwyler KA: A time to wean. In Stuart-MacAdam P, Dettwyler KA, editors: Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, New York, 1995, Aldine de Gruyter.)
Furthermore, extended breastfeeding is endorsed by major medical organizations. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently reaffirmed their position recommending “exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months, followed by continued breastfeeding as complementary foods are introduced, with continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.” The World Health Organization recommends continued breastfeeding up to two years or age or beyond. It’s also important for women’s health. Studies show that, compared with women who breastfeed for at least 1 year for each child, women who wean prematurely face increased risks of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart attacks.
In Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, Dettwyler makes a plea for thoughtful, considerate debate regarding the right time for weaning for each mother-child dyad. She writes:
The information that 3 or 4 years of breastfeeding, or even longer, is both normal and appropriate for human infants, should be disseminated to health care professionals and parents alike. It is to be hoped that people will stop criticizing mothers and suggesting that they need to wean because the child is “too old.” Above all, it is hoped that people will stop questioning the motives of mothers who nurse their children for several years. It is to be hoped that mothers who follow their own instincts to meet their children’s needs – not only their physiological needs for nutrition and immunological protection, but their cognitive and emotional needs for warmth, touching, social contact, and interaction through breastfeeding as long as the child expresses those needs – will be encouraged and supported, both by health care professionals and by their family and friends.
But rather than supporting mothers to follow their own instincts to meet their children’s needs, Time magazine put an enormous 3-year-old, dressed in very “big kid” clothes, on the cover with his mom dressed in a tank top and skinny jeans. Every aspect of the photo is engineered to evoke sexual undertones, and Time’s tabloid approach has (predictably) brought out a mob of people saying breastfeeding is “sick” and “perverted.”
The cover not only castigates mothers and children who practice extended nursing, but it also lends legitimacy to strangers who assail moms for nursing any infant in public as “nasty” and “indecent.” Recent stories of nursing mothers ejected from big box stores, courtrooms and churches demonstrate that it is not easy to be a breastfeeding mother in America. When you follow medical recommendations, you face public humiliation.
Time’s cover throws fuel on that fire, and it’s a slap in the face for the moms who are trying to do right for their own health and the health of their children. And that’s a very unhappy Mother’s Day present.
Alison Stuebe, MD, MSc, is a maternal-fetal medicine physician, breastfeeding researcher, and assistant professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. She is a member of the board of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine.