12 May 2012

Staying abreast of the debate

As a mother breastfeeding her four-year-old son on the cover of Time magazine sparks a furious debate on “attachment parenting”, Channel 4 News brings together a champion and sceptic.

Picturing her son standing on a chair to reach her breast to suckle on, Los Angeles stay-at-home mother, Jamie Lynne Grumet, 26, said that she had posed for the photograph to raise the benefits of extended breastfeeding.

The picture has raised questions over the social norms governing breastfeeding – how long for, in public or in private, and whether it is still taboo or not.

Proponents frequently speak of the health, social and emotional benefits breastfeeding is said to bring, and point to cultures in the non-western world in which children are breastfed well into their pre-school years.

But it has also fuelled concerns that it is a sensationalist publicity stunt produced by the magazine.

The image of a blonde, young and attractive Ms Grumet under studio lights next to the headline, Are You Mom Enough? has been criticised for brandishing the impression that breastfeeding is the ultimate expression of perfect, maternal dedication, driven by government bodies, scientific and medical communities, and now the media.

Views are strong on either side, with science being used to justify both or neither.

Time magazine features Jamie Lynne Grumet breastfeeding her four year old son (Image: Time magazine)

Channel 4 News spoke to Denise Sumpter, who goes by the Twitter handle, @LactoClassicist, and to Dr Charlotte Faircloth, of the University of Kent’s Centre for Parenting Studies.

“I think the article out there is wonderful,” Ms Sumpter said. “All the attachment parent mothers I know are celebrating. In terms of attachment parenting, breastfeeding is one aspect of it. It is just looking after your child in a way we’ve done since human beings walked the planet.”

For Dr Faircloth, “what the debate we’re having shows is how the way in which we feed our children has become a very moralised issue.”

But, she said, there is “no evidence to say attachment parenting is damaging, and there is no evidence to say non-attachment parenting is damaging”.

She added: “What I don’t like is that it pits individual people’s decisions against each other, when how you sleep with your baby is a broader question about maternity leave, or flexible working.

“A lot of evidence in the UK is overplayed, when it’s a lot more ambiguous than is suggested.”

For Ms Sumpter, the image raised important questions of the visual portrayal of women. “People are happy to look at a picture of a scantily clad woman in her underwear.”

She added: “It takes a whole society to breastfeed a child.”