Single mom Lynn Stuckey thought she was doing the right thing by letting her son Kyle wean himself on his own schedule.
But his babysitter thought differently and called a child-abuse hotline after Kyle — then 5 years old and in the first grade — allegedly said he wanted to stop breast-feeding but "Mommy wouldn't let me."
Although Stuckey denied she forced her son to nurse, Illinois child-welfare officials put her son in foster care. Now, a little over two years later, Kyle is back with his mom,and still nursing occasionally, although he is 8 years old. And his mother is speaking out about the controversy.
"I did nothing wrong with nursing him for an extended period of time," Stuckey, 32, a part-time store clerk, said today on Good Morning America. "Kyle is my only son and he's very important to me … and he's going to be allowed to nurse until he decides to finish weaning himself."
Do Americans Have Hang-Ups?
Back in 2000, Stuckey went on Good Morning America, although she chose to appear in shadow, and maintained there is nothing abnormal about breast-feeding an older child. Stuckey said she did not make Kyle keep breast-feeding; she wanted him to decide when the time was right to stop.
"I never forced my child to nurse," Stuckey said. "I did not nurse because I was gaining any sort of sexual pleasure out of this. The [Illinois] state's attorney's office and the Department of Children and Family Services are very incorrect and are greatly misstating my motives."
The state claimed that breast-feeding a first-grader was "sexual molestation," but a family court judge disagreed. Nevertheless, the judge refused to return the boy to his mother.
"Even though Kyle is a bright, sunny boy, he is also embarrassed and faces enormous potential emotional harm," the judge wrote.
His mother says the only harm to Kyle came from the six months and six days he had spent in foster care. She maintains that she was also a victim. Now, after six months of separation that included counseling and evaluations, mother and son have been reunited for a year and a half.
Stuckey says her son, now 8, still chooses to nurse occasionally. She says he does so every 10 to 14 days, just for a few moments each time.
Although she is not certain she is producing milk, her son says she still does occasionally, Stuckey said. And she says she sees nothing inappropriate about breast-feeding unless the child is "maybe into their teens."
Americans are just uncomfortable about breast-feeding, Stuckey suggested.
"Around the world, they commonly nurse until 5, 6, sometimes even 7 and 8 years old," she said.
Just Like Carrying a Blankie?
The American Academy of Pediatrics says all but 18 percent of mothers in the U.S. have weaned their child by age 1. The World Health Organization says that children breast-feeding at 2, and even 3 years old, can be seen around the world. Neither of the health organizations give a cutoff date as to when a child should be weaned.
Diane Sanford, president of Women's Healthcare Partnership, said that in other cultures it is not uncommon for children to nurse until they are 3 to 6 years of age.
Sanford said Stuckey is confronting the same problem other parents have faced in different forms: Her son does not want to give up something he is used to.
"Like with many practices, like allowing your child to suck her thumb or carry a blanket around, there reaches an age at which we really need to help our children develop more mature means for comforting themselves," Sanford said. "However, it's clear that Lynn is a very caring parent, who, like many parents, doesn't want to force her child into giving up something which means so much to him."
Is Mother Thinking About Her Own Needs?
Critics have said Stuckey is really serving her own needs, not Kyle's, and should find other ways to reassure her son.
Stuckey says that's not the case at all.
"You don't nurse to serve your own needs when you've got a small child clawing at you because he's so upset and wants to nurse," she said today. "It's not about your needs, it's about putting your child first."
And she said that if the state had not gotten involved, the boy would not feel at all embarrassed.
"I don't think the embarrassment came in until he was taken from me and interviewed by numerous people about it because before he was taken, hardly anyone knew he was nursing," she said.
At the time, he nursed for about 10 minutes at night, and a little more on the weekends, she said.
Other Ways to Make Kids Feel Secure
Although Stuckey's son is back in her custody, there's still a lot of controversy about when a child should be weaned. Stuckey said she decided to go public now because she wants people to see her and her child, and realize that breast-feeding is a perfectly normal practice.
"We are your standard, middle-class American family, and we're not doing anything wrong," she said. "And he's a wonderful child. He gets along so well with his classmates at school, his teachers adore him. He's got so many friends around our neighborhood and at our church."
Kyle is not teased as far as she knows, his mother said.
Sanford said there is often a push for kids to grow up too soon, and that Stuckey is helping her son feel secure in many ways. But, said Sanford, there are alternatives.
She said parents should have their child find other ways of relating to them, such as cuddling or reading together, or helping the child develop his own ways to relieve stress and comfort himself.
That is all happening in good time, Stuckey contends.
"Kyle is finding his own ways to comfort himself," Stuckey said. "But occasionally, he still wants to nurse, and that's fine with me."