Parenting • Jun 15, 2011

Talking to Toddlers about Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Breastfeeding

My 3-year-old’s pre-school teacher pulled me aside one day after school.  My daughter and a friend had been putting dolls in their dresses, pretending to be pregnant, then pulling the dolls out from between their legs, and then pretending to breastfeed.  “We weren’t sure what to do!” the perplexed teacher laughed.  Eventually, she said, the teachers decided to redirect the girls into a different activity.
Our American society has exceptionally varied approaches towards talking to young children about pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding.  As a pediatrician who frequently attends infant deliveries, I have seen toddlers, tweens, and teens present at vaginal deliveries.  I have also met parents who request that I not discuss the body changes of puberty with a girl who has started her menstrual cycle.
Even I dreaded that classic big brother/big sister question, “But Mommy, how does the baby come out?”  When my six year-old asked at the dinner table in front of our four and two year old, I was relieved by the spontaneous answer of my husband, “Through mommy’s vagina.”  “How does the baby fit,” he asked?  My husband had an even better answer for this one—“It’s just like a pulling a turtle neck over your head.  The vagina stretches.”  My three children were surprisingly fine with this answer.  Satisfied, they switched to a different topic of conversation.
I thought back to all the children I have seen present during vaginal deliveries.  They never seem upset or traumatized.  As a breastfeeding mother, I have become accustomed to the stares of young children when I nurse a newborn in public.  They are intrigued, and some have even gone so far as peak under my nursing cover.  They never seem upset by what they find.
So if young children do so well with the concepts of pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding, why are we, as a society, often so averse to the topic?  I suspect it is in part due to the close proximity of these topics to sexuality.
Some early childhood experts have started to suggest discussion of intercourse and adult sexuality with toddlers.  There are even toddler picture books in publication that describe intercourse.  I feel it is almost never necessary to try to discuss adult sexuality with toddlers.  But young children happily desire to learn about pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding.  This information is infrequently upsetting.  Perhaps it may even be easier to joyfully understand these topics when learned as a young child compared to an older child.
What do you think?  When is it appropriate to discuss pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding with a young child?  How have you introduced these topics?