How to Handle Negative Comments About Breastfeeding

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

My son is 9 1/2 months old and I’m still breastfeeding him. I express at work and feed on demand wherever we are. Everyone in my life supported breastfeeding because I had an unbelievably rough time getting started due to poor medical advice. Now that he is getting older they’ve started asking about weaning, and I have told them that I plan on letting my son self-wean.

My question is how do AP/extended breastfeeding moms handle negative comments? For example, I have a coworker who said, “at least you aren’t one of those weirdos that breastfeed their three year old.” It upset me because I look up to those mothers. But I get weird comments all the time, like: “it’s time to stop when he has teeth” (he has 7); or “when he is pulling up your shirt” (he does it all the time to help himself). It is annoying and I need some guidance on how to succinctly tell people my outlook without needing to preach. Even my husband freaks if I feed at the mall or restaurant, and my mom (who stopped nursing at a year) looks down her nose on my breastfeeding relationship with my son.

Here’s what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Acacia: Have you tried asking your husband and mother why they feel that breastfeeding, in public or at all, is a problem? When you choose to talk to them, begin with a compliment, perhaps about how much your son loves spending time with his grandma or how supportive your husband has been in other ways. Then ask them what their specific concern is and address that. Also let them know how their lack of support feels to you.

With your mother, it may be that she actually feels your choice to breastfeed as long as your son wants is a criticism of how she chose to raise you. She may not even be aware of her true feelings. You might express how much you appreciate her mothering choices and that you are just trying to do what she did – make the best choices for your child. You could add something like, “Doctors are always changing what they recommend, and right now our pediatrician recommends breastfeeding until my son is ready to stop. As long as she recommends it and it’s working for us, this is what we will do.” If nothing gentle like this seems to work, consider making the topic out-of-bounds.

When it comes to strangers or acquaintances you might try a similar approach. For example, to the coworker who said something about “weirdos breastfeeding their three year olds” you might respond, “Huh. Why do you think that’s so weird?” It may take her aback and she’ll stop talking about it, or she may respond and you can address her specific concern. I also like to have one or two reasons for breastfeeding that are particularly important to me. One that is seasonally appropriate now is, “Well, you know how much people get sick during the Winter. Breastfeeding provides my son with an abundance of antibodies that protect him from getting sick. In fact, the American Academy of Family Physicians notes that children weaned before the age of two are at an increased risk of illness.” Otherwise, I make a general comment like, “I know breastfeeding is a personal choice. This is just the choice that works for us right now.”

Jennifer: Hello mama! Let me start by saying YAY to you for wanting to practice extended breastfeeding, especially as a working mother. I know that the physical commitment to this is difficult, so my hat is off to you! What a great mama you are for putting in so much effort.

Extended breastfeeding is an unfamiliar concept to a lot of people, both those who have never breastfed (men or women) and even to some who breastfed but stopped for whatever reason before their child was one year of age. A lot of the general population just doesn’t understand why a woman would want to “put herself through that” and see it as weird and unnatural. Honestly, there is going to be very little that you can say or do that will change their mind and really, does it matter to you what strangers or casual acquaintances think? I understand that you would like some suggestions on appropriate responses and I will give you some, but I just want you to take a moment and consider if it is worth your time and effort, or whether can you simply ignore the comments and move on. If the comments come from a mother-to-be or a mother who is currently breastfeeding an under-one year old, then yes, it might be worth the effort to try to educate that woman so that she can perhaps reconsider her own position on extended breastfeeding. I wish that the rest of the world was interested in and on board with something as natural as extended breastfeeding, but I have come to realize that I have a limited amount of time in my day, and although I have a strong inner drive to help open people’s mis/uninformed minds, I refuse to do so at the expense of precious time with my family.

Now – onto some responses that you might consider using for casual acquaintances or strangers. Please keep in mind that I am a pretty direct, unruffled person, so my responses may be a bit more “curt” than you would like.

  • “I’m sorry that you feel that way. Personally, I am thrilled to be able to provide continued nutrition and health benefits to my child. This is a decision that is right for our family.”
  • “Yes, I am one of those woman you consider a weirdo! Do you think any less of me? I would be happy to share some of the reasons that I am passionate about continuing a breastfeeding relationship with my toddler, if you are truly interested. If not, let’s just agree that our outlook on this topic is different.”
  • “It’s unfortunate that you have not been exposed to the plethora of research which all supports extended breastfeeding. If you were, I think that you would recognize how important it is to continue breastfeeding to ensure the best possible health for my child.”
  • “I hear comments like yours all of the time and that really makes me sad. It’s upsetting to me that society does not support something as natural and healthful as breastfeeding. It really should not be something that mothers are made to feel shameful about. Perhaps someday you would be willing to open your mind and do some brief research on the benefits of breastfeeding so you would better understand why I have chosen to continue doing so once my child is past one year of age.”
  • “Does my decision to practice extended breastfeeding effect you or have a negative impact on your life? If not, then please do not comment on my decision to continue this relationship with my child. I sincerely thank you. As a mother, I have enough stress without having to wonder if my personal decision to provide breast milk to my child will negatively impact someone I barely know.”
  • “Personally, teeth don’t bother me. Therefore, I have no intention of ending our breastfeeding relationship.”

Sheryl: Firstly, congratulations on breastfeeding your son for 9.5 months (so far!). That is an accomplishment, especially after having a rough start. It is wonderful that you want to continue to breastfeed your son, despite receiving some negative feedback from friends and family. It can be hard and discouraging when those around us don’t support our decisions. Unfortunately, in our society, many people don’t understand all the wonderful benefits of breastfeeding a child past the age of one.

There are a number of different ways to handle the criticism. Different methods may work best for you depending on the situation or your mood. Some women find it helpful to diffuse negative remarks with humour. For example, if while nursing your son, someone asks you how long you plan on doing it for, you can say: “I will be done in about 10 minutes,” or “He probably won’t be nursing by the time he goes to college.” Other mothers find it helpful to educate their audience. For example, when questioned about breastfeeding your toddler, you can say that the World Health Organization suggests breastfeeding at least until the age of two. Or you can mention that breastfeeding past a year has numerous health benefits to both mom and child. Some moms, when questioned about breastfeeding, find it most effective to provide a short answer and change the topic. This can be done by saying: “It is a personal choice that I don’t want to discuss. So, all the snow we’ve been getting this year is crazy, isn’t it?”

Kelly Bonyata, an international board certified lactation consultant, has a wonderful website that provides breastfeeding and parenting information to parents and professionals. She has a great page on Handling Criticism about Breastfeeding Past a Year. Check it out for more tips!

Finally, you might find it helpful to surround yourself with other moms that have chosen to breastfeed past a year. Going to a local La Leche League meeting is a great way to find other like-minded mothers. Meeting others who have made a similar decision to you can provide you with great encouragement and support!

Photo credit: Dionna at Code Name Mama

3 Responses to How to Handle Negative Comments About Breastfeeding

  1. BirthingService  

    I am so thrilled that more and more mothers are going for extended breastfeeding. I think a lot of times non breastfeeders think that the boob works like formula and there for after a year the child doesnt need all the extras stuff in there. When in reality a little education and love and understanding goes a long way in helping how outsiders understand why one is still breastfeeding.
    I am a doula, but I also work full time in a daycare, so I get the privilege of working with many different families and with many different parenting styles and I am blessed to be able to help encourage my nursing mama’s to stick it out as long as they are comfortable.

  2. Dena

    I, too, congratulate you for extended breastfeeding. Way to go mama! Thanks for all the suggestions. My son just turned a year and I plan to continue breastfeeding as long as he wants. I breastfeed everywhere and have been surprised that I have never received a negative comment. As he gets older though, that may change. Thanks for helping me feel prepared!

  3. Suzi  

    Congrats on breastfeeding in general, it is a huge accomplishment no matter how long you go! THank you for posting this, we mothers need all of the support we can get. I think the mainstream support tends to quit after 1 year of nursing, which is so sad because the benefits only increase. We need more mothers like the ones who gave you encouragement to speak up and promote how normal breastfeeding is!