In the wake of a Time Magazine cover depicting a breastfeeding toddler in May of 2012, there has been a lot of discussion about the issue of extended breastfeeding. Interestingly, I think that much of the reaction to this cover is that it is that many people have never seen (or realized that they have seen) nursing toddlers. And if they have, it certainly wasn’t looking at a mother standing there nursing a 4-year old standing on a chair. I personally found the Time Magazine cover to portray and very non-representative picture of extended breastfeeding.
Between my two daughters, I have nursed for 5+ years (my older daughter until 18 months and my younger until just beyond 3 ½ years). Never once did we both stand there as though I were a bottled water dispenser. For me, nursing a toddler was about still and quiet moments. Toddlerhood is a busy time, and my daughter would have sooner laid down and taken a nap in the middle of playing as she would have walked up to me and latched on. Breastfeeding once my daughters walked was a time of connection that rarely came during out and about times when play and exploration were options.
Many nursing toddlers, because they are already receiving much of their nutrition through solid food choices, nurse primarily before and after night sleep and naps, just a few times a day. I have known nursing toddlers that continued to nurse through the day, but it generally becomes more common to nurse at home, as part of predictable routines. This is a big part of why not that many people are used to seeing nursing toddlers.
Another misrepresentation caused by the pose on the Time Magazine cover is how old and independent the nursing child appears. When we look at a picture of a nursing infant and then at the picture on the magazine cover, we are struck by how different they appear. But when you nurse the same child, day after day, the change is not as dramatic. If you’ve ever looked in on your child sleeping at night, curled up and dreamy, you may be struck by how much they still look like you remember them as a baby. A toddler nursling looks really very much the same as they look in infanthood. A three or four year old is actually still quite small and dependent – something that is easy to forget when we watch them play and explore. It’s certainly easy to forget when they are posted standing on a chair.
Overall, I found the Time Magazine cover to be a ridiculous representation of extended breastfeeding. The photographer for Time expressed that he was trying to show how unusual extended breastfeeding can seem. But the photograph is so far from a realistic image of extended breastfeeding as to create that impression regardless of truth. A true representation of extended breastfeeding might have shown people that it is not as unusual as they might have expected.