Embarrassed: Children Taken Away for Breastfeeding

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I vividly remember a story that circulated in the news in 2000 about an Illinois woman whose son had been removed from her home & taken into state custody because she was breastfeeding him. A babysitter reported the mother to CPS and they promptly took him into custody, citing abuse by the mother.
At the time, I had just given birth to Justin, my second child, and my heart was broken for this mother. My oldest child, Gabe, was also still breastfeeding at the age of 2.5. I kept running the unimaginable scenario of what I would do & how I would possibly cope should Child Protective Services declare me an unfit or abusive mother because I was breastfeeding. I was 21 and single with little money, a very modest (and by modest I mean a 30 year old, 2 bedroom trailer with a leaky roof & appliances that only worked only 35% of the time) home, and extremely limited support. It was a very real possibility, given that I lived in small-town Mississippi where the views on breastfeeding are skewed, to say the least, and bottle feeding is “the only way to go ’cause breastfeeding is gross & perverse”.

Yes, people (plural) really say that regularly here.

The extraordinary part of the story is that the child was six years old, and when questioned by police had seemed embarrassed about it and allegedly told them that he didn’t want to breastfeed anymore, which was the basis of their case with no other claims of abuse by the mother. It was solely because she was breastfeeding him. They were under the impression that she was force-breastfeeding him against his will and, according to investigators, that it constituted abuse.

Yea, right.

Have you EVER tried to breastfeed a child that didn’t want to be breastfed? Clearly the investigators had not!

Of course he seemed embarrassed…he was being drilled by police officers! If policeman came and drilled me just about some of the normal, everyday things that I do (or don’t), I’d be embarrassed too!

I can see it going something like this:

“Ma’am, how do you feel about leaving your family’s laundry in a basket for an entire week?”

“So you’re telling us that you only dust once every six months, on good years?”

“Tell us about your vacuuming routine…”

“What do you mean, you only take a shower and wash your hair every few days???”

“How many times a month do you put off washing diapers until you are down to the very last one?”

I’d be embarrassed as hell.

We are talking about a six year old, who has been yanked out of his home and interrogated about something that was normal to him.

Had they questioned the way that he stacked Legos, he would probably have been embarrassed about that, as well.
My sons are embarrassed when I hug them in public or even wave to them as they are hanging out with their friends at football games. That doesn’t mean that I’m abusing them when I do it.

The mother stood her ground and told the press that the only reason that he was taken is because she was expected to parent according to American society’s views of parenting rather what is biologically normal.

Research by Katherine Duttwyler, PhD, an anthropology professor who has researched at Texas A&M and the University of Delaware & is also a well known advocate for breastfeeding, shows that the natural weaning age of humans is between 2.5 and 7 years of age. See her paper “A Natural Age of Weaning” here.

So, it’s not an issue of biological norm, but rather an issue of the way that mothers who choose to let their children self-wean are viewed by society, and presumptions that society is right. They are not.

Many mothers choose to parent this way, although many do it secretly because of possible negativity from family members & friends, and it is not only completely normal, but according to Duttwyler, carries significant benefits.

“In terms of the benefits of extended breastfeeding, there have been a number of studies comparing breastfed and bottlefed babies in terms of the frequency of various diseases, and also IQ achievement. In every case, the breastfed babies had lower risk of disease and higher IQs than the bottle-fed babies. In those studies that divided breastfed babies into categories based on length of breastfeeding, the babies breastfed the longest did better in terms of both lower disease and higher IQ. In other words, if the categories were 0-6 months of breastfeeding, 6-12 months, 12-18 months and 18-24+ months, then the 18-24+ month babies did the best, and the 12-18 month babies did the next best, and the 6-12 months babies did the next best, and the 0-6 months babies did the worst of the breastfed groups, but still much better than the bottlefeeding group. This has been shown for gastrointestinal illness, upper respiratory illness, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, heart disease, and on and on and on. Likewise, the babies nursed the longest scored the highest on the IQ tests. One important point to notice is that none of these studies looked at children who had nursed longer than 2 years. Anyone 18-24 month or longer was lumped into big category. Presumably, the benefits continue to accrue, as your body doesn’t *know* that the baby has had a birth day and suddenly start producing nutritionally and immunologically worthless milk.”

Ultimately, the child was returned to the mother, but only after a six month separation which some viewed as a state enforced weaning, even though reports from counselors who worked with the child stated that there was no evidence whatsoever of abuse from the mother.

In another disturbing case in 2011 in Spain, social workers removed a 15 month old from her mother because they were outraged that the mother breastfed her on demand and co-slept. The mother had left an abusive relationship & was living in a shelter that has a policy in place that requires residents to wean.
According to the story on Examiner.com

As a condition to living in the shelter, Habiba and other mothers had to complete these therapies which involved abandoning extended and on demand breastfeeding, as they consider it to be ‘chaotic and prejudicial for boys and girls.’ To help accomplish the goals of the shelter, mothers are forced to take a medication to dry their milk supply.

Her “chaotic” breastfeeding patterns caused the child’s removal for three weeks, and was returned to the mother after an international campaign ignited, according to one account of the story seen here.

“She uses breastfeeding as a pacifier and a toy , offering her breast any time the girl cries and letting her take it anywhere, no matter the time and context,” says an edited version of the report produced by supporters of the 21-year-old mother, known as Habiba.

Wait…WHAT?

I know all too well about the ignorance surrounding full-term breastfeeding and child led weaning. I had CPS called on me by a “family member” (I use that term loosely) when Justin was around 2 years old and still breastfeeding. Thankfully the social workers who came to my house recognized right away that my children were well taken care of (despite my living in not much more than a chozo) & was far from abused, so they never came back.

Back when the boys were born, there were no Facebook groups or pages, no Instagram circles of supportive moms, no Google to check my level of “normalcy”. I was basically alone in my breastfeeding journey except for a couple of moms in my La Leche League group who breastfed their toddlers. They were supportive, but we weren’t particularly close, so I felt very isolated and sometimes unsure of if what I was doing was the right thing.

Almost all of the time I was embarrassed.

Not because I thought what I was doing was wrong, deep down I couldn’t imagine not giving my babies the one thing that brought them comfort in my chaotic life, but because everyone around me made me feel that way.

I am so thankful for the conversations that mothers like attachment & gentle mama advocate the Badass Breastfeeder, child star turned genius, attachment parenting advocate Mayim Bialik and attachment parenting, adoption, and Waves for Water advocate Jamie Lynne Grumet have started.
Mothers who breastfed their toddlers & pre-schoolers flocked together via social media after the Time Magazine cover of Jamie breastfeeding her almost four year old.
When Jamie was featured on the cover of Time magazine, I had just had my fourth child.
My daughter Kynli.
I had endured so much NON-support when I breastfed my sons until they self weaned at 3.5, 2.5 (actually that was more me than him, but that’s for a separate post altogether) and youngest son Bryson self-weaned at 4 years of age.
I was sick of defending myself and MY choices.
So when I saw that cover, I literally burst into tears. “Thank God!”, I thought, “there ARE people like me!”
A wave of relief came over me & I suddenly felt not ashamed or embarrassed, but EMPOWERED!
There was no doubt in my mind that I would let my daughter self-wean also, but already at only one month old I was getting the “You’re not going to nurse her until she goes to kindergarten, are you?” questions from family members.
My youngest son, who was 8 at the time, came home one day and told me that my mother in law had told him that he should have weaned at a year old.
Now why in the hell would she tell him that except to shame him for breastfeeding for so long???

Unbelievable.

Of course, in the weeks after the magazine came out, I’d stumble across the nasty and ignorant comments about the cover. I’d see Jamie holding her head high, unapologetic about her parenting choices in interviews and I read her blog only to find out that she was not only an amazing mother, but also a humanitarian who was on a mission to bring clean water to those not fortunate enough to have access to it in Ethiopia.
What an amazing role model to have!
I chose to ignore the negativity and “controversy” surrounding the magazine cover and focused instead on the immense support I felt from an amazing mother, and so many others like her, that I didn’t even know, but felt a kindred spirit with. Her courage to speak out has given so many women the courage to parent on their own terms, and without shame.

It was a game changer for me.

I would never be embarrassed again.
…and you shouldn’t be either.

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5 responses »

  1. Actually this isn’t true. DCFS spoke directly with the child and he stated he no longer wanted to breastfeed. He stated he told his mother this. The mother held their breastfeeding sessions in private which made the 6 year old boy feel uncomfortable as if what they were doing was wrong. Furthermore he also stated they slept together. For apparently a long while the boy didn’t have his own bed so they slept together. Thing is she would sometimes sleep naked with him which also made him uncomfortable. So much so her son asked her to put clothes on when he was 3. It’s irresponsible of u to not include these very important details. I’m assuming my comment will be blocked or deleted. If so that’s very telling of your character.

    • Jena,
      Thanks for you comment.
      I did mention in the post that the child allegedly was breastfed “against his will”. The mother stated that the child had never told her that. I have a sneaking suspicion that the child was telling them what he thought they wanted to hear…If I were a six year old child who had been taken from my mother, that’s what I would probably do. He probably felt that HE was in trouble.
      As far as her breastfeeding in private, that’s up for interpretation on what “private” means…clearly it wasn’t too private or else the babysitter who reported her wouldn’t have known about it. There’s a different in doing something privately & doing something in secret, which is what you’re suggesting. I don’t remember reading that part in the story but I will go back.
      With the bed sharing, this is not at all an uncommon thing with parents who practice child led weaning, as is in no way harmful to the child as shown by research. Many times this also entails sleeping topless for the vital skin to skin contact, which releases the “milk-making” hormone & encourages milk production & bonding. It’s in no way “abusive”. Coming from a mother who has breastfed well into toddlerhood, I’m almost certain that her sleeping “naked” with the child had to do with easy access to the breast & not having to pull up her shirt whenever the child wanted to nurse at night. I’ve been there, and am there now. Either way, the child didn’t sleep naked, so clearly it wasn’t a ploy on the mothers part to abuse her child..
      As far as your statement that it was “irresponsible” for me to leave out these details, all-in-all, the whole case revolved around & focused on the fact that she was still breastfeeding her child past what the age considered to be normal by society’s standards.
      It all boiled down to the breastfeeding.
      As I stated & as the article states, counselors who worked with the child (not CPS or investigators who were interrogating the child) stated in their report that there was absolutely no indication of abuse.

  2. This was a great article, and as a third time mother, but a first time breastfeeder, these sorts of things are extremely encouraging and liberating. My son is five months and I adore breastfeeding and bed-sharing. I don’t plan to stop it any time soon. I’ll breastfeed my son as long as he’d like.

    I’ve seen how police and CPS workers often talk to children they think have been “abused”. It tends to be very leading, intense, frightening, and deeply confusing. Things that were normal at home and happened without stigma are suddenly questioned by strangers that seem to be acting with authority. These scary people remove you from your home (and I know if the cops and CPS came into MY house to take away my children, I would be FREAKING OUT AND WOULD HAVE TO BE DETAINED) and begin drilling you, who knows what a child will say. My kids will lie right to my face after getting caught in the act of something because they are afraid of being grounded from television for a few days (and I don’t even let them watch it often). A child will say whatever they think will keep them out of trouble and will return them to their parents.

  3. I’m a nursing mom of a 27 month old whose fathers family made up lies about me so now cps took her and she cries for me every night. I’m in so much pain. I haven’t seen my baby girl for 3 days. She had never even spent the night away from me before this.

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