How long is long enough?
Here is an adaptation of an article I originally published at Huffington Post when my daughter was two years old, she’s now three and a half.
Other than wondering what it felt like, and why you want to have your nipples gnawed by a toothy toddler I’d never thought much about breastfeeding, let alone how long women carried on for?
Then I had a baby.
Older than most first time mothers, and with my daughter delivered prematurely by caesarean section, I found breastfeeding difficult. We couldn’t get the knack, I held her all wrong, her mouth seemed too tiny, it was so much harder than I’d expected.
I didn’t feel the sense of judgement many women seem to, but nursing was something I wanted to do if at all possible, for her health, for mine, for our bond, and because it seemed that it should be (and of course is) the most natural thing in the world. But it was hard. She had a nasal gastric tube to start with, and I shed tears of frustration as I lay there, pressing the buzzer to ask for advice on re-latching my unhappy infant.
With help from one of the volunteer lactation consultants who walked unobtrusively around the maternity ward, we got through the first few days. My daughter was born a month early, with complications, and also fed via a nasal tube, I struggled to express and never got along with the peacefully sighing milking machine, we carried on with our unsatisfactory attempts at nursing topped up with little bottles of formula.
Then one of the midwives spotted a tongue tie. Our hospital didn’t offer the required division procedure, so we had to wait until we were discharged before taking our 10-day-old daughter an hour away to a consultant in Bedford. Her tongue tie was snipped, and when she came back to me everything was different, within seconds she got her mouth around my nipple and started to feed successfully. Many hospitals in the UK don’t seem to recognise the issues that tongue ties can cause, 3% of babies are born with them.
The SCBU community midwife suggested we go to a breastfeeding ‘lesson’. It was daunting, walking into a room of women nursing babies (with a few harassed looking fathers who weren’t sure where to look), but any anxiety I felt melted away as it became evident that we were all in the same situation. The techniques I was shown worked wonders, from then on my voracious little girl has sought out my breasts, “mine milky” as she now calls them.
She continued to have formula from time to time; as back up to my limited pumping skills, to allow other people to feed her and give me a break. Then at four and a half months, she started refusing bottles and cups. Then it was down to me to sustain her, that scared me initially, but she thrived on breastmilk alone until she was 10 months old and starting solids.
I have spoken to women who wanted to nurse their babies but couldn’t, or decided enough was enough after a few weeks. Many women have perfectly healthy infants and decided right at the start that breastfeeding just wasn’t for them, and others are still feeding six or seven-year-olds (yes I was surprised too, initially, but there are more natural term breastfeeders out there than you’d think if you read the tabloid press). I was lucky in that I decided to nurse and, with help, was able to. Everyone’s situation is different. Ultimately it’s important that women respect and recognise each others’ choices, there is too much polarisation in the breastfeeding debate which isn’t helpful. If you need to mix and match, like we did, to get started, then that’s OK. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing and after hearing from many women it seems that this is where the pressure comes and they give up. WHO guidelines are to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and then they discuss the benefits until at least 2 years and then ‘beyond’.
I thought we’d carry on until her first tooth appeared, or she was able to ask for it. In reality I scarcely noticed the arrival of teeth. As for asking for it, that happened long before she could speak, nuzzling at my breast, then lifting up my top or prodding my chest with her finger, then one day she reached up and said, “Milky”. It was a tremendously life affirming moment, far from making me want to stop, it made me want to carry on as long as it works for us both. The playgroup we go to, and the school she’s taken classes at both are filled with nursing mothers, almost all who started and made it to two months seem to have carried on until at least 18 months, many others still continuing with their children three and four years of age, as and when they feel the need.
The notorious Time magazine cover fuelled the debate; the picture of a young mother breastfeeding her three-year-old son. He was standing on a stool beside her. “Are you Mom enough?” taunted the headline? My daughter was five months old at the time and exclusively breastfed, I didn’t think then I’d still be nursing when she was three and a half, but I am. I’ve not been made to feel uncomfortable, and there have been no negative comments, quite the opposite, “I wish I’d been able to”, “Best thing for her”, “good on you for carrying on”, “my wife’s still nursing our five-year-old” (the latter from a tree surgeon who came to cut down a tree in the garden). The response has been supportive, if there’s been a response at all. In public, we’re discreet and generally seem to go unnoticed, and I’ve never shied away from feeding her if she asks for it, though occasionally I’ve suggested she wait until we’re somewhere more comfortable.
Terminology is important … the phrase ‘extended breastfeeding’ is not one I feel happy with, I prefer natural term breastfeeding. I also think showing breastfeeding in books, on TV and in the media is important, particularly for children as they grow up (hence the reason I wrote Milky Moments, which depicts babies, toddlers and children breastfeeding as a very normal part of their daily life, the book sold out its first print run in under a month and I have had emails and Facebook messages from around the world saying how families love seeing their familiar days shown in a children’s book).
Breastfeeding is about far more than nourishment, it is about intimacy, about building the bond between mother and child, it’s (I’ve found) much easier than the faff of bottles or getting up in the night to fetch a cup of warm milk, and offers (once you’ve got the hang of it) some of the most peaceful personal times a mother can have with her child. My favourite start to the day is when she wakes up and smiles, then rubs her eyes and shouts “Yay milky” before diving across the bed for her early morning feed. Co-dependent? Hell yeah.
A friend asked how long we were going to carry on. I joked, “oh until she’s 18”. He looked horrified! Of course I was kidding, but for now, we have no plans to stop. Why would we when we’re so fortunate that it works well for us. The decision as to when to call time on breastfeeding is hers … next week, next month, next year? We’ll just wait and see.
and thanks for clicking the link from the lovely Mum in a Nutshell blog, and welcome if you are a regular reader, or simply stumbled upon this post!)
If you’re having trouble breastfeeding, ask for help, and get your midwife or health care professional to check for a tongue tie, and check out local nursing support groups. The La Leche League are absolutely not the breastapo they have in the past been made out to be, they’re amazing and committed women who give of their time freely, and they offer a wealth of calm and non judgemental experience in supporting new mothers. http://www.laleche.org.uk/content/tongue-tie-and-breastfeeding-la-leche-league-gb-19-february-2014