"Are you still doing that?" commented an acquaintance some months ago when my three-year-old daughter clambered onto my lap and demanded "booby!" What, until that time, had been a normal, nurturing part of raising a baby, suddenly became an offensive act of which to be ashamed. I found myself justifying my reasons for feeding a walking, talking toddler, as though I were somehow continuing to nurse my daughter for my own gratification and not because my daughter had chosen not to want to be weaned off the breast. Nobody can force an unwilling child to breastfeed and more often than not a child will wean itself or simply lose interest in taking the breast, so the previous argument immediately becomes invalid.
Unfortunately, in this country, although the message about "breast is best" is forever being bandied about, the support available for new mums during the early days of breastfeeding is minimal. The attitude still seems to be, "If it hurts, give up", or "Pain is not normal, so there must be something wrong." If mothers were told, "Yes, you will feel uncomfortable. Yes, this may happen and that may happen - but it's completely normal", more women would persevere and realise that once feeding is established, it becomes easy, pain-free and very, very gratifying. After all, unless you've had your nipples permanently suctioned to the end of a vacuum cleaner hose for the past few years, of course they'll be tender. The attitude seems to be "breast is best for a couple of months", after which it is apparently objectionable and any mother feeding a child who can actually say "da-da" will be greeted by disapproving shakes of the head.
The above misconception that breastfeeding should be pain-free from day one, leads the majority of women to switch to the bottle before breastfeeding has really become established. Therefore, the idea that breastfeeding for a few weeks is the norm, explains why so many people believe that feeding a child past the age of one is, somehow, peculiar and deserving of a sly call to the Social Services.
I recently read a scathing article by a so-called humour writer who openly branded women who breastfed their babies for prolonged periods as paedophiles. I feel very sorry for this misguided woman and her bottle-fed babies. She has obviously been sucked in (forgive the pun) by the male notion that a woman's breasts are merely sexual objects, bestowed upon us to satisfy the most basic urges of men and thereby leading her to falsely believe that any contact between mouth and breast is sexual.
This narrow-minded attitude towards performing one of the most natural functions of mothering, has not been helped by much of western society's attitude in general towards breastfeeding mothers. A few stores provide nursing facilities for mothers, but the message that this conveys is that whilst they recognise that mothers need to feed their babies, it is a repulsive performance that should be conducted in private. I suppose the critics would argue that emptying your bowels is a natural function and yet it is not something that you would wish to witness others doing in full public view. Yes, it is totally different, but I am trying to highlight the ridiculousness of some of the arguments against breastfeeding.
The one and only reason women were given breasts to nurture their children. Naturally men are fascinated by the shapely mounds on the front of a woman's body because, firstly, their own nipples are on a level with the rest of their body and, secondly, a woman's breasts fulfil a function, whereas theirs are just like inactive and decorative press studs. However, just because a woman chooses not to have children or chooses not to breastfeed, does not automatically mean her breasts become an object for sexual gratification.
It's only the western culture that considers early weaning to be the norm in fact. In many parts of the world babies are breastfed up to the age of five and beyond. In poorer areas of the world the cost and availability of formula milk means that most women have no other choice than to breastfeed their children. There is also no medical reason why a child should stop breastfeeding at a specified time, but many women concede to social pressures and maybe insensitive remarks and suggestions from friends and family. In fact, research suggests that not only do breastfed children become more independent, but that extended breastfeeding can help to reduce a woman's chances of developing breast cancer.
1Dr Jack Newman, MD, FCRCP says, "Some immune factors in breastmilk which protect the baby against infection are present in greater amounts in the second year of life than in the first. This is, of course as it should be, since children older than a year are generally exposed to more infection. Breastmilk still contains factors which help the immune system to mature, and which help the brain, gut and other organs to develop and mature.
It has been well shown that children in daycare who are still breastfeeding have far fewer and less severe infections than the children who are not breastfeeding. The mother thus loses less work time if she continues nursing her baby once she is back at her paid work."
There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that children who are breastfed for extended periods develop Oedipus complexes, become gay or develop an abnormal fixation with breasts. If that were the case, then a huge proportion of the world's population would fall into these categories, thereby redefining the parameters of "normal".
I did not make the personal choice to feed my daughter for this length of time. She has chosen not to want to stop nursing. My other three children effectively weaned themselves at around a year of age. However, my youngest daughter clearly derives comfort from sucking, not to mention nourishment, but has always refused a bottle and pacifiers, although she does occasionally suck her thumb as a substitute if I am unavailable. She is an extremely robust little girl, which I attribute to having been afforded excellent protection against illness as a direct result of extended nursing.
Other children form attachments to comfort rags, toys, dummies and even a bottle, objects that can all be mislaid, forgotten or lost. The beauty of breastfeeding is that my daughter's source of comfort is permanently attached to me and, besides, as far as I am concerned, anything that has the ability to pacify a restless child in the evening, and particularly at 2am, is a blessing! She falls asleep within a couple of minutes of latching on, whereas I have heard friends complain about having to spend long periods of time performing bribing rituals in order to get their children to go to sleep.
Lauren was 3 in November 2002 and I shall continue nursing her for as long as she feels the need to do so.
So, how does my partner feel about this? Whilst I admit that he is a red-blooded male who does view a pair of naked breasts with sexual lust and is sometimes envious that they are "on loan" to our daughter, he relishes the fact that I have to hoist them out several times a day. He is no longer confined to a quick preview before they disappear beneath the duvet and marvels, "Who needs men's magazines when I have the real thing to look at?"
Naturally, breastfeeding a toddler is not without its problems. I have had to teach my daughter that if I sit down, it is not an automatic invitation for a comfort suck and this particularly applies when we are in situations when it would not be prudent to feed her, such us in public for example. Although I have no problem with breastfeeding in front of other people, I am also sensitive to others' feelings and I would not wish to offend the more prejudiced with an open display of nursing a fully mobile, verbally communicative child.
Finally, the most important factor in any choice that a woman makes with regard to breastfeeding is that it has to be her decision and no one else's. Forget social pressures, forget "well-meaning" advice from friends and family and ignore insensitive or callous comments. A mother has to do what she feels is right for herself and her baby. If she is feeling ambivalent and is coerced into doing something against her will simply to please others, she will inevitably end up feeling guilty, resentful and unhappy and what benefit is that to a baby?
1Jack Newman, MD, FRCPC is Graduate of the University of Toronto Medical School (1970), has worked in Central America, Southern Africa and New Zealand and established the first hospital based breastfeeding clinic in Canada in 1984. Jack Newman regularly contributes fabulous articles to Jane's Breastfeeding Resources, the UK's premier breastfeeding site.
Footnote: I finally stopped breastfeeding Lauren as she was approaching her fourth birthday.