'Pressure to breastfeed? There's more pressure to stop'
Irish society is completely unable to handle nursing mums who choose to keep feeding their toddlers, writes Chrissie Russell, who feels judged for feeding her two-year-old
'When do you think you'll stop?", "How long are you going to keep going?", "Oh! Are you still doing that?" The questions are asked with a mix of intrigue, incredulity and confusion and they come on a regular basis. You would think I was engaged in some record-breaking attempt - perhaps creating the world's longest knitted scarf or running, Forrest Gump-style, back and forth across Ireland. But the reality is both more mundane and yet also, to many, more bewildering: I'm breastfeeding a toddler.
This week is World Breastfeeding week, and a good time - perhaps the breast… I mean best time - to address the issue of 'the other bressure'. There's been plenty of debate on 'bressure' (the pressure to breastfeed) supposedly heaped on new mums when baby first arrives. But there's little or no recognition of the massive pressure often placed on breastfeeding mums to turn off the mammy milk supply once a child is up and walking.
My family and friends have always been hugely supportive of my decision to breastfeed but even those closest to me have now started to question when it might be time to stop feeding Tom, who turns two next week.
Their issues range from the atheistic "he's too big", "it just looks wrong" to concern for me "isn't it time to give you a break?", "sure you couldn't have another child while he's still on the boob".
Their concerns are well meaning but they're also wrong. The WHO advises breastfeeding until two years and beyond. The nutritional benefits of breast milk don't disappear after reaching some arbitrary age and the immunity properties actually increase in concentration after the first year.
We live in a health-obsessed era, endlessly chasing the next superfood and cutting out gluten, dairy, sugar - whatever it takes to improve our well-being. And yet, when it comes to breastfeeding, arguably the best superfood of the lot, many find feeding anything larger than a small baby utterly unpalatable.
I'm part of a huge Facebook breastfeeding support group (who have been invaluable to me every time I've wondered 'is this normal?' and have doubtless been a key factor in drowning out the negative voices and helping me follow my instincts on feeding my son). Recently I put up a post asking if anyone else had felt under pressure to stop and was instantly inundated with replies.
"The assumption, from some family members, that we were going to stop 'soon' started when my son was six months," says Claire O'Looney (29) from Dublin, whose son, Oliver, turns three in October. Comments like 'when will you start feeding him normally (ie formula)', 'when are you going to give that up?' and references to the 'Little Britain' 'Bitty' scene have all been thrown at me.
"I often feel like there's a big pink elephant in the room when I nurse my son. Sometimes people avert their eyes and twist uncomfortably in their chairs… these small things all add up. They're unlikely to impact on my continuing to breastfeed, but it does hurt," she adds.
"It knocks my confidence and makes me feel like an outsider. Luckily I know that the nursing relationship I have with my son is worth more than these remarks, but I'd be lying if I said they didn't sting a little."
The negativity in the media is draining for many, where natural term breastfeeding is often presented as something sensationalist. Many had it levelled at them that their choice to follow their child's lead and let them self wean was tantamount to abuse or stunting their development - when in fact research suggests that such attachment parenting actually creates better independence in the long term.
"Some members of my family think that breastfeeding is disgusting - yes, they've used that word - and the fact that Tessa (two and five months) is still feeding is ridiculous in their eyes," says freelance journalist and blogger Aine Bonner (33) from Donegal.
"Just this week, myself and my husband got chatting about breastfeeding and, despite him being so supportive of breastfeeding and an advocate for it, even he said that he'd prefer it if Tessa was weaned at this stage," she continues.
"He has grown up in a society where bottle feeding is the norm, where kids are expected to have a 'routine' and be sleeping through the night from six-weeks-old. So of course it's pretty normal to think the way he does.
"He piped down a little when I reminded him that breastfeeding is the reason he never had any sleepless nights, never had to worry about night feeds, mixing bottles or any of that other stuff I've heard other men complain about."
I'll hold my hands up, pre-baby, I was one of the 'if he's old enough to ask for it, he shouldn't be getting it' brigade. But I'll happily admit that my attitude was borne out of ignorance. I'd rarely seen a baby breastfed, let alone an older child - I just assumed it couldn't, and shouldn't happen.
"I think it is a cultural issue," explains Wendy English, a leader with the breastfeeding support organisation, La Leche League. "In many countries it is common to see children being breastfed beyond infancy. But in Ireland I think the WHO recommendation to exclusively breastfeed for six months gets misinterpreted as, 'that's when you stop', when in fact that WHO says to continue breastfeeding with solids to two years and beyond.
"There's no need to 'move on' from breastfeeding unless mum wants to. This would be clearer if Ireland fully implemented the WHO code on the marketing of breastmilk substitutes."
Ah yes, the F word. Even a GP told me I would 'have to' move on to formula eventually. Nutrition aside, there are a host of other reasons why it's a positive to feed an older child. From a selfish point of view, I like that it means I can eat copious amounts of food, and also, the longer I breastfeed, the more I'm lowering my chances of developing breast cancer. It's also a great way to calm Tom, send him over to sleep, and nurture him when he's ill.
"Breastfeeding is about so much more than just nutrition," agrees Wendy. "I often liken breastfeeding an older child to a hug with extra nutrition thrown in. No one would ever question a mum hugging her child."
Anecdotally, the La Leche League leader feels that more mums are now feeding older children. Certainly there's a growing number of celebrities joining the ranks of 'extended' or 'full-term' feeding, like Tamara Ecclestone and Australian actress Teresa Palmer, whose children are both over two and who both are passionate about advocating the benefits of nursing a toddler.
But we're still a minority, which often makes pulling up your top for a NIP (nurse in public) a vulnerable, isolating and anxious experience. Just one in 40 Irish mums breastfeed beyond six or seven months and 80pc of those who stop breastfeeding report they did so before they wanted to. Social stigma is often cited as a factor.
"It's never nice being exposed to negativity and in some cases this has resulted in mums stopping breastfeeding before they, or their nurslings, were ready," says Wendy. "The only 'right' time to stop is when mum and baby are ready to. Breastfeeding is a relationship and both parties need to be happy to continue. Ideally the breastfeeding relationship will continue until the child outgrows the need."
La Leche League provides great support for mums (see lalecheleague.com) and also has a book on the subject of nursing an older child and there's another publication, 'Breastfeeding Older Children' by Ann Sinnott with excellent information.
I don't feel I, or any mum, should have to justify how I feed my child - but combating ignorance is often best done with information.
It's ridiculous that we're letting cultural squeamishness about a pair of mammary glands get in the way of good sense. Purely from an economical point of view, breastfeeding is a good thing - a Lancet study earlier this year estimated that low breastfeeding rates cost the economy 0.53pc of GNP, which in Ireland equates to €800m.
No one is saying that every mum should breastfeed. Nor am I saying that every breastfeeding mum should do it as long as I have.
I also know plenty of people have only had positive feedback and often surprising levels of support for breastfeeding a toddler. I just wish we could get rid of all the bressure around breastfeeding. Because feeling judged for still doing it is every bit as horrible as feeling judged for not doing it at all.