When it comes to a woman breastfeeding, there are varying opinions and no shortage of people willing to share their opinions. I have recently discovered that there is also no shortage of opinions when it comes to children pretending to be breastfeeding.
"Children who breastfeed baby dolls are going to become too sexualized and obsessed with sex or breasts."
"Children who breastfeed baby dolls face long-term health implications that could be detrimental to their mental health."
"A child breastfeeding a baby doll is just wrong or gross."
When I hear or read these comments, I am often taken aback. Isn't it natural for a child to play with baby dolls or mimic what they see others do? Has anyone ever said something in front of a child, only to later hear that word or phrase repeated several hundred times? Does anyone have children who like to play dress up, cook food in a play kitchen, and pretend to be a princess or superhero? Wouldn't it be completely natural for children to mimic what they see their parents do and want to reenact those scenarios?
Children have an incredibly imaginative mind, and they are able to take pieces of daily life and use those experiences in role-playing and pretend play. It is only natural for young children to mimic what they see occurring in their daily lives. If a mother usually feeds her baby with bottles, it is only natural that an older sibling will mimic the behavior by bottle-feeding baby dolls. If an older child sees a mother breastfeeding an infant every day, then he or she is more likely to mimic that behavior.
Is it normal for children to mimic their parents behavior?
A study published in Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that children begin to mimic their parent's choices at a young age. The study was mainly covering what types of food choices children would make when allowed to select items from a pretend grocery store, but what they found was that children would often select the same types of foods and beverages that their parent's usually purchase or consume. (Sutherland, Beavers, and et al) This shows that even at a young age, children start to mimic their parent's behaviors. Whether it comes to making food choices or pretending to feed a baby doll or by pretending to dress up as a doctor, children use not only their imagination, but also parts of what they see occurring in their lives to participate in role-playing and pretend play.
What are the benefits of role-playing and pretend play?
Although researchers are continuously trying to explain what role pretend play has on a child's development, they have found that there are several benefits of role-playing and pretend play.
Building Social and Emotional Skills: When children use their imagination for pretend play, they are able to understand the emotions and feelings of others. While many children are not developed enough to fully understand how another person feels, role-playing allows the child to put themselves in another person's shoes. They are able to understand why someone feels a certain way or how that person would react to a situation, which helps the child develop empathy and an understanding of another person's thoughts or feelings.
Role-Playing: Some researchers have concluded that role-playing is especially critical for a child to develop social and emotional skills. They state that when children engage in role-playing, they are able to take into account the way another person would react to a situation, versus how they themselves would react.
Language and Communication Skills: When a child is able to sit and use his or her imagination through creative play, the child will explore his or her vocabulary and may use words that they have overheard from parents or peers. Children are able to reenact situations that have occurred, and they are also able to build stronger language skills as they learn how to communicate effectively. When more children are playing together, they learn how to communicate with another one and how to problem solve together, which relates to social development, as well.
Problem-Solving: When children use pretend play, they are able to create scenarios and problems during the course of playtime. They are also able to build crucial problem solving skills when they try to fix the problem or work out a different scenario. From pretending to build a castle out of blocks to pretending they are a mommy caring for a crying baby, they are focusing on problem solving, which helps cognitive development.
How does this all relate to a child pretending to breastfeed a baby doll?
The above benefits explain how role-playing and pretend play benefits the child developmentally, and if a child pretends to breastfeed a baby doll, then he or she is engaged in role-playing. In our modern culture, breastfeeding has not become the norm and is often unaccepted by others. There are many women who will not breastfeed in public, because they fear being asked to leave or being judged. There are women who are not even willing to try to breastfeed, because they think it would be too weird to have a baby nursing from their breasts, since they view breasts as sexual objects. Our society has made it easy to view breasts as only sexual objects, with numerous magazines and catalogs being covered with "sexy" women in revealing clothing, or even nothing at all.
While there are websites and campaigns designated to spreading awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding, there are still women that face difficulties. Women are asked to leave public places or have to deal with family members, friends, and even doctors not being supportive of their decision to breastfeed. I know many breastfeeding mothers who have been asked to not breastfeed in front of company and never to do it in public, while others are told to just give the baby a bottle, as it would be easier. All of this does nothing to help support the breastfeeding mother, and these things also do not help a child understand that breastfeeding is the normal way to feed a baby.
Of course there are situations when a mother absolutely cannot breastfeed, and there are women who simply choose not to do it. I am not saying that anyone should be criticized for the choices they make on how to feed their baby, as I understand from my experience why a woman may choose formula over breast milk. Yet, I think it is crucial that children are shown that breastfeeding is the normal way to feed a baby. If children are shown from the beginning that breastfeeding a baby is normal, and not something disgusting or obscene, then they are less likely to view breasts as only sexual objects. While I do not deny that breasts have become sexual objects, they can serve two purposes. The normal, natural function of breasts is to feed an infant, and that is something that children should know. If a child mimics that act of breastfeeding a baby doll, then he or she understands that is simply a way to feed a baby.
A few points to consider:
A study published in the Bouremouth University Journal found that many children were unaware of "breastfeeding terminology or imagery." The children also associated formula and bottles with breastfeeding. Researchers concluded that "It appeared difficult for children to view breastfeeding as normal, perhaps because it is rarely seen or discussed, and formula milk feeding is so prevalent." (Angell) They also noted that the children seemed interested in breastfeeding, and it would be beneficial to teach them more about it.
Another study was done to see what experiences children had with breastfeeding. While many children did know that they had been breastfed or that their siblings had been breastfed, they had not seen their father close to their mother while she breastfed and few had never seen their mother breastfeed. Even though many girls stated that they would like to breastfeed and boys stated they would like their wives to breastfeed, many of the children said that would be embarrassed to breastfeed in public.
"Furthermore, when playing with their dolls, most girls did not pretend to breastfeed, and 771 (71.5%) reported their dolls had bottles, or pacifiers, and pretended to feed their dolls with a bottle. They say they would enjoy breastfeeding, but where embarrassed of doing that in public. The books and cartoons that these children usually read and watch do not show women breastfeeding. Many children consider breast milk to be the best food for the baby, but they have several misconceptions, and not all the children knew what breastfeeding was."(Galvão and Aparecida)
What I take from these studies is that children need to be exposed to breastfeeding as the normal way to feed babies. Many children are unaware of breastfeeding, and even if they do know what it is, they do not think it is OK to do it public. This is not only an issue in the US, as there are reports of this across the globe. Breastfeeding is the natural and normal way to feed a baby, and children should become better educated about breastfeeding. If children are able to learn that breastfeeding is normal and natural at an early age, they will be more accepting of breastfeeding as adults. No matter what choice children make when they are adults on how to feed their children, if they are educated about breastfeeding, they will be more accepting of others, whether they breastfeed or not. If children are more accepting and better educated about breastfeeding, they may make the choice to breastfeed as adults, which could help increase breastfeeding rates across the US and in other countries. There are numerous benefits to breastfeeding, so wouldn't it be beneficial for everyone if more women choose to breastfeed their babies?
For children that pretend to breastfeed baby dolls, they are simply engaging in role-playing and are also accepting breastfeeding as the natural and normal way to feed a baby. Why let children decide that breasts are purely sexual, as that is what most people grow to understand from watching television or reading magazines. Instead, why not let them understand the natural purpose of breasts, which is to nourish and comfort a baby.
For some great pictures of children pretending to breastfeed their baby dolls, visit The Leaky Boob.
Angell, C. "Primary school children's perceptions of infant feeding: exploring their awareness using an adapted'draw and write' method.." Bournemouth University Publications. (2009): n. page. Web. 13 Jan. 2012. <http://eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk/12898/>.
Azar, Beth. "The power of pretending." Monitor on Psychology-American Psychological Association. 33.3 (2002): 46. Web. 13 Jan. 2012. <http://www.apa.org/monitor/mar02/pretend.aspx>
Galvão Dulce Maria Pereira Garcia, Silva Isília Aparecida. "Portuguese school children breastfeeding experiences." Rev. esc. enferm. USP Journal of SauPaulo School of Nursing. 45.5 (2011): 1055-1062. Web. 13 Jan. 2012. <http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?pid=S0080-62342011000500004&script=sci_arttext&tlng=en>.
"The Importance of Pretend Play." Scholastic. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Jan 2012. <http://www.scholastic.com/resources/article/the-importance-of-pretend-play>.
Sutherland, Lisa, Daniel Beavers, et al. "Like Parent, Like Child Child Food and Beverage Choices During Role Playing ." Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. 162.11 (2008): n. page. Web. 13 Jan. 2012. <http://archpedi.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/short/162/11/1063>.