Writer and broadcaster

Why I still breastfeed my four year old. The Independent.

In December 2004, I wrote in these pages about how I found myself “still breastfeeding” a 14-month-old, when previously I had viewed “extended breastfeeders” as a bit odd, needy and, frankly, freaky. When I first became a mother, I had envisaged myself as a mother with a clipboard, with me in charge, not the baby. I never expected to be the sort of mother I am now, breastfeeding a four-year-old on demand. I thought I knew myself, but motherhood introduced me to a self I never even knew was lurking.

To pick up where I left off three years ago: at just over a year old, my daughter seemed to be losing interest in breastfeeding. But as it turned out, that was the lull before the storm. Just as she started walking, at 18 months, she started to feed intensively. This is normal: as babies reach major developmental stages, they need to feed more. Whereas she had never been able to tell me when she was hungry as a baby, now she beat her chest with her fists – like Tarzan’s Cheetah – to tell me that she wanted milk. And she wanted milk a lot. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when I wished I’d weaned her. I found it hard, but I was lucky. Far from being isolated, I co-run a pro-breastfeeding website that has lots of long-term breastfeeders as members. I wasn’t going through anything others hadn’t previously.

From the age of two, my daughter started to switch breasts – that is to say, she would no longer feed on one breast, then sedately take the other. She would switch, sometimes manically, between the two, because she had learnt that the let-down (the flow of milk) is faster if you stimulate the breasts in this way. It was also about this time that she started a habit I find extremely annoying to this day: twiddling. While she fed off one breast she would twiddle the other nipple, as if trying to tune in to a short wave radio station. Again, this was to stimulate the milk so that when she did latch on to the second breast, it was all ready to go.

I found feeding between the ages of two and four quite hard at times. She needed to feed a lot, sometimes 50 feeds a day, although they were quick. When we moved house, her feeding became almost frenzied, as if she thought I would leave her. Docking on to the “mothership” became vitally important. I’m not sure how I would have met her needs so quickly during this time without breastfeeding. And I’m not sure I could have parented during the terrible twos without it: it was like having an entire cavalry at your beck and call. Breasts are a powerful parenting tool.

Despite this, breastfeeding is often blamed for many childhood malaises. Your baby is hungry/ sleepy/won’t sleep/colicky/you’re tired? Give up breastfeeding! The very thing that can make life easier is jettisoned, purely out of ignorance. Imagine if every time you said you found parenting a little bit hard, someone said, “Put your child up for adoption.” It’d be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?

No matter how hard I found breastfeeding, however, I couldn’t stop, for two reasons. The more knowledgeable I became, the more vital I knew sustained breastfeeding to be. And, second, because it is obvious how much breastfeeding means to my daughter. There’s the beauty in feeding an older child: there is no second guessing – she tells me just how important my milk is to her, how it “makes everything better”. When she gets a cold, she tells me that she needs my milk to “kill the cough”. One night, she started to run a desperately high fever (104) and I had no medicine or way of getting any. I fed her all night; she injected her germs into me while my body made the antibodies she needed and fed them back to her. We both worked through the night and, by morning, she was better, as if the fever had never happened. Knowing that you have the wherewithal to comfort and cure your child within your own body is hugely magical and empowering. The bonuses that breastfeeding gifts you make the not-so-easy times fade into nothing.

Because we don’t have a habit of feeding walking, talking children in this country, I stopped feeding my child in public when she got to be about two. I didn’t want anyone else’s ignorance to negate something she found so comforting. Now, there’s a word: comfort. I remember, pre-motherhood, challenging a friend of mine who was breastfeeding her 18-month-old child. “But isn’t it just for comfort?” I said. “What’s wrong with wanting to comfort my child?” she said. Now, this is what I tell people, too. We – or rather, not me; not any longer – seem to be terribly afraid of comforting children. Sometimes it seems as if the more hands-off you are as a parent, the more of a success you are deemed to be.

Breastfeeding is about comfort, but it’s also about nutrition, and that continues for as long as you breastfeed your child, whatever age they are. My milk is a living fluid – full of enzymes, macronutrients, minerals, vitamins, essential fatty acids, T-cells and at least 200 types of immunoglobin. And that’s just what’s known – there are ingredients in breast milk that we don’t even know about yet. My milk changes, hour by hour, to meet the needs of my child. It isn’t like any other woman’s milk, anywhere on the planet, because my daughter isn’t like any other child in the world.

In September, just as my child was about to turn four, I went to Italy with her. I’d been the year before and had encountered gentle curiosity about us still feeding. This time was different. “It’s a tragedy,” said one aged cousin, “that she’s still feeding.” “Who,” I asked, “is it a tragedy for? Not me and not my daughter.”

I smiled and offered tea, but she wasn’t able to answer. Breastfeeding is an emotive subject – the most emotive I’ve written about. It brings up all sorts of stuff in people; even friends that have hitherto been supportive probably think I’m in freak territory now, even though I’m just doing what Mother Nature intended – humans are the only mammals that don’t let their offspring feed to term. I can’t deny that I like to normalise breastfeeding in a world that sees it as increasingly alien, and I’m also aware that some women don’t have the support network I do and feel they need to feed in secret or enforce weaning when they don’t really want to, because family and friends put pressure on them.

Naomi Stadlen, a psychotherapist, breastfeeding counsellor and author of What Mothers Do, Especially When it Looks Like Nothing, once told me that she thought people might feel threatened by the intimacy between a mother and her breastfeeding child. An uncomplicated response to the information “Yes, I’m still breastfeeding”, might be curiosity; any stronger reaction was likely to be the other person projecting their problem on to you. It was a useful piece of information.

My child turned four at the end of September; her need to breastfeed seems to have dramatically declined, although, yet again, this may change. Feeding her is a wonderful time we have together and no matter how busy I think I am, it makes me sit down and be with her. She has lots of skin-to-skin contact with me, which I now know is important for neurological development. I’ve learnt that the natural age of weaning is closer to six years – when the first permanent molars appear – than six months. If I have another baby, my daughter may wean during pregnancy as milk supply can dip at that time. But if she continues to feed during pregnancy and beyond – called tandem feeding and perfectly possible – or if I don’t have another baby, then she’s in charge. She will wean when she is, uniquely to her, developmentally and immunologically ready (a child’s immune system doesn’t mature until they are about seven); she will then lose the ability to suckle. I’m interested to see where this goes and how much more I can surprise myself. All I know is that I’m glad I’ve got this far.

Annalisa Barbieri is co-founder of www.iwantmymum.com
Further reading: www.artofchange.co.uk, www.kathydettwyler.org, www.llli.org.

Why mother’s milk is best

* No scientific study has ever been carried out in the UK on breastmilk or breastfeeding beyond two years of age, despite strong anecdotal evidence of its benefits.

* Jack Newman, a paediatrician and world authority on breastfeeding, has this to say about breastfeeding an older child: “Possibly the most important aspect of nursing a toddler is not the nutritional or immunologic benefits, important as they are. I believe the most important aspect of nursing a toddler is the special relationship between child and mother. Breastfeeding is a life-affirming act of love. This continues when the baby becomes a toddler. Anyone without prejudices, who has ever observed an older baby or toddler nursing, can testify that there is something almost magical, something special, something far beyond food going on.”

* The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding for at least two years.

* Breast milk has 70kcal per millilitre.

* Beyond 18 months, breast milk can provide as much as 31 per cent of calories and 38 per cent of all dietary protein.

* The iron in breastmilk is much more readily absorbed – a child may get as much as 50 per cent of its iron from his or her mother’s milk.

* By the 20th month of lactation, levels of igG and igA (two immunoglobulins) are still as high as in the second week.

* “Independence, not dependence, is one outstanding trait that breastfed children who self-wean have in common,” one study found (Ferguson, 1987).

* Last week, new research was published that showed breastfeeding protected against heart disease and high cholesterol. Children with a particular gene who were also breastfed were shown in the majority of cases to have a higher IQ.

* Breastfeeding has already been shown to protect both mother and baby against diabetes and certain cancers.