“Do you remember,” asked my friend Alex as we both indulged in Margheritas two weeks ago, “how you used to say women who did it for more than a year were weirdoes and by that stage were only doing it ‘for themselves’?” I flushed with some shame because that’s exactly what I’d said, and thought, just a year previously. Like a lot of people, I’d thought women who breastfed toddlers were needy and, quite frankly, a bit odd: forcing their poor children to the breast all because they couldn’t let go.
Yet there I was, with a fourteen month old daughter safely tucked up in bed at home, who was breastfed and who I had no intention of weaning before she was ready. My friend Alex’s little boy was also tucked up in bed and also still breastfed at 25 months. Earlier that day I’d attended a meeting at UCLH – the hospital where my daughter was born – to discuss their breastfeeding policies. I counselled women on breastfeeding; I’d started up a website about it, was planning to write a book and train as a La Leche League Leader. I was, by my own pre-motherhood definition, a weirdo. Moreover a born-again breastfeeder. How did it happen?
Our entré into breastfeeding was neither easy nor did it seem very natural. After 36 hours in labour, induction, three epidurals, pushing, forceps and a spinal I was given an emergency Caesarian. I’d wanted an entirely natural labour. As soon as she was born my daughter was whisked away for a lumbar puncture and I was put on oxygen. I didn’t see her again for three hours, by which time we were both on IV drips. Very far from the ideal (it is recommended babies are latched on immediately after birth). Feeding was complicated – all those tubes to circumvent, more painful than labour and quite frankly, I hated it. We got into a mess of mixed feeding but eventually – after ten weeks of almost suicidal misery – I had two crucial problems diagnosed by the world wide charity La Leche League (never rely on midwives or health visitors to know about breastfeeding!) – an incorrect latch and breast thrush. The latter is like having broken glass in your nipples. After a long, long haul my daughter was exclusively breastfed, something I’d always planned for her.
If things had been easy I may very well have stopped after six months (as I’d originally planned but only because I thought that’s what one did). Even at my meeting with the LLL counsellor at week ten, when she told me that the world average was to breastfeed your child for four and a half years I thought “yeah right you weirdoes; I’m not going on for that long”. But I just kept on going because here’s something not commonly know: breast feeding past six months gets so easy, past twelve it’s easier still (my daughter can now take a full feed in under a minute, the total time I spend breastfeeding in 24hrs is less than thirty minutes). Why stop? Why introduce any other type of milk when my milk is uniquely made for her and it’s easier for lazy types like me? In the morning I can snuggle down with my daughter and she can feed in bed, both of us still half asleep. If she wakes at night I can resettle her in minutes, ditto if we are out and about and she gets fractious. There is no pacing up and down the floor with her for hours. Because breastmilk tastes of what I’ve eaten, ie different each time, she is much more open to the taste of new foods (formula, or full fat cow’s milk which you can give after a year, tastes the same every time). If I come in from work late, I can breastfeed my baby in her sleep. A breastfed baby is less likely to get ill but if they do then breastmilk can become one of the only things they can keep down. When you breastfeed for a year or more your milk supply is so adaptable that you can go away for the night (or as my friend breastfeeding a three year old does, for the entire weekend) and just resume when you get back. There are even more important reasons why breastmilk should be given beyond twelve months (see Extended Breastfeeding Facts, below).
In the world of extended breastfeeders (defined as breastfeeding beyond twelve months) I’m a relative rookie. Some of my circle are tandem feeding (feeding a newborn and a toddler), breastfeeding through pregnancy, still breastfeeding their 40 month old. None of them are remotely strange and, unless they told you, you wouldn’t even know they were still nursing. Almost all work, too. None of them wear dirndl skirts. One of them actually frequently wears a Diane von Furstenberg dress and heels. Oh wait, that’s me. We don’t judge those that don’t want to breastfeed but neither do we expect to be judged.
But the extended breastfeeder seems to make a lot of people uncomfortable. Whilst no-one dare comment on a baby sucking on a bottle filled with milk or (much worse) sugar-filled juice, or a toddler eating any number of additive filled snacks, everyone thinks they have the right to comment on a baby sucking on what is entirely natural: a breast. It’s partly because we sexualise breasts that feeding a toddler from them seems odd. And partly because breastfeeding is a hugely emotive subject. My boyfriend even admitted that a friend of ours routinely asks why I’m “still” doing it, as if I were a crack cocaine addict.
The first myth to dispel is that no-one can make a baby or child breast feed if they don’t want to. Babies aren’t socially conditioned to be ‘polite’. So there’s no ‘forcing’ a baby to the breast. Nursing a baby beyond a year is not just for comfort (although what is wrong with wanting to comfort your child!?), breast milk changes post twelve months so that it contains even more antibodies, in recognition of the fact that toddlers, being more mobile and curious, come into contact with more germs. The World Health Organisation actually recommends exclusively breastfeeding your baby for six months and to continue breastfeeding for a minimum of two years.
Another myth perpetuated is that my daughter will remain dependant on me longer if I breastfeed her. I did originally have plans to send her up chimneys aged two but she is so independent, self possessed and calm that I think she will have other ideas. The truth is, the more secure any of us feel the more independent we actually are.
Breastmilk is, actually, unbelievably magical. Each mother’s milk is tailored for her baby – no two women’s breastmilk is the same – and its environment. If a child starts to get ill they will ‘inject’ their germs into their mother’s breast whilst feeding. The mother’s body will make the antibodies and will feed them back to the baby over the next few feeds. Beats the pharmacy counter at Boots any day!
Some years ago in Toronto I went to an art gallery to see a Rubens exhibition. There was a very large crowd gathered around one painting and a tangible air of disgust. I fought my way to the front to see Roman Charity, a picture of a grown woman breastfeeding a grown man. On closer inspection the man was shackled to the wall, obviously imprisoned. I read the wall-notes. The couple were daughter and father. Yeurch, freakier still! The father had been imprisoned and sentenced to death by starvation. Oh. The woman had just had a baby and was lactating and it was the only way she could stop her father from dying. It completely blew my mind. If she’d carried food in her mouth and regurgitated it for her father we’d have thought that was a slightly disgusting but loving act. But this involved breasts…
Breasts are lovely things. They have a place in sexy practises, of course they do. But their original use was for feeding babies for a relatively short space of time in the grand scheme of things. Now I realise that judging long term breastfeeding as weird is in the eye of the beholder. From where I’m sitting it’s really quite beautiful.
FACTS ABOUT EXTENDED BREASTFEEDING
Breast milk provides valuable nutrition beyond the first year of a baby’s life: nearly a third of its energy requirements, half its protein needs, over a third of its calcium and almost all of a baby’s vitamin B12 needs.
The antibodies in human milk increase after twelve months to coincide with a toddler’s mobility.
Toddlers who are still breastfed have been found to have fewer illnesses and those they do have are shorter. They are also less likely to have allergies as breast milk lines the gut to protect it against allergens.
Breast milk has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties. It can also be used topically on a child’s (or adult’s!) eczema, on conjunctivitis, dripped into an ear to counteract ear infections. If it were sold people would pay hundreds for a few fluid ounces!
A 1987 study found that babies breastfed for longer than a year were more socially adjusted than those that weren’t.
Breastfeeding reduces the risk of a woman getting breast cancer by 4.3% for every 12 months that she breastfeeds, this benefit passes onto your child and would have been passed onto you by your mother if you and she, were breastfed. Breast cancer is decreased by 26-31% in women who had been breastfed. Extended breastfeeding can also protect against ovarian cancer, uterine cancer and endometrial cancer.
Extended breastfeeding protects against osteoporosis, contrary to popular belief! EBFs have a lower risk of hip fractures in later life.
Originally published in The Independent, on 14 December 2004.