Thursday 14 November 2019

'Breastfeeding my 4-year-old is about meeting her needs, not worrying about what other people think'

Sarah breastfeeding Matilda (4) and Maebel (16 months) at home in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers
Sarah breastfeeding Matilda (4) and Maebel (16 months) at home in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers

Chrissie Russell

Experts encourage it, but there's a stigma attached to feeding anything bigger than a tiny baby, writes nursing mum Chrissie Russell

'If he's old enough to ask for it then he probably shouldn't be getting it." That was my attitude when it came to babies and breastfeeding. Then my son started calling my breasts 'nene' and helping himself. It's forced me to reconsider my viewpoint somewhat.

Next week Tom turns one and I've no idea when we'll stop breastfeeding, only that when we do it'll be because he wants to.

That's what my heart says anyway, but my head needs to catch up, because the fact is I feel quite socially awkward about the fact that we're 'still' breastfeeding. It's one thing nursing a tiny, pink newborn in public but it's another thing entirely when your child can walk over and whip a breast out himself, often pausing mid-feed for people watching and chat.

Six months ago I would have happily sat in a busy cafe nursing the baby with one hand and a coffee in another. But now, if I'm on my own, I often find myself scuttling back to the underground car park or. I'm delighted to still be breastfeeding - proud even - so why do I feel this need to hide away?

Part of it is that I'm very much part of a minority. A study released this week (which, coincidentally, is World Breastfeeding Week, a World Health Organisation-backed initiative to encourage breastfeeding around the world) by the school of nursing and midwifery in Trinity College Dublin revealed that just one in 40 mothers is still exclusively breastfeeding by the time the baby is six or seven-months-old. There are no comparable statistics for how many Irish women feed even longer.

Nicole Trunfio breastfeeds on the cover of Elle Australia
Nicole Trunfio breastfeeds on the cover of Elle Australia

This is despite the fact that the Department of Health and the WHO urges breastfeeding until "at least two years". Globally the average age for weaning is three-years-old and in purely physiological terms, the 'normal' age for humans to wean is anywhere between two and seven-years-old.

Studies show long-term breastfeeding continues to provide an excellent source of essential fats, vitamins and infection fighting properties. In short, it's normal.

Except, culturally in Western society it's not. "Breastfeeding a child past infancy is often frowned upon, with even health professionals often having negative reactions, although it is the biological norm," says Elizabeth Quinn a PhD researcher at the School of Nursing and Midwifery at TCD.

"Some researchers believe that weaning is now 'socially coerced' rather than happening naturally," she days. She cites studies that suggest some 80pc of women stop breastfeeding before they want to, with social pressure often a reason. "The word 'should' comes up," she says. "Women aren't necessarily weaning because they want to, but because they feel it's what they should be doing.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there and society needs educated," she adds. "The emphasis on what mothers need to do when it's actually a societal issue - mums need to feel comfortable breastfeeding in public."

But ignorance breeds hostility. Recently Australian mum, Maha Al Musa, faced a vitriolic backlash over a newspaper article on her feeding her six-year-old. The infamous Time magazine 'Are You Mom Enough?' cover featuring a mum breastfeeding her three-year-old generated a frenzy of complaints with people labelling the image 'obscene', 'inappropriate' and 'creepy'.

MPs have called for greater public tolerance of breastfeeding
MPs have called for greater public tolerance of breastfeeding

"I think some people seem to think it's sexual when there's nothing sexual about it at all," says Kellie Sweeney, a 25-year-old nurse from Lucan who breastfeeds her two-and-a-half-year-old Madison.

"There are a lot of cyber-bullies online ready to attack you who would never dare say anything to your face, but once you hit them with evidence-based research they tend to crawl away!"

Nicola O'Byrne, PRO for the Association of Lactation Consultants in Ireland, agrees that the sexualisation of women's bodies helps fuel the awkwardness around feeding, particularly when it's an older child.

"It's such a cultural thing and we need to step back and realise a breast is just a breast, it's not going to hurt anybody," she says. "I also think a lot of people don't understand the non-health related side of breastfeeding. Yes there are health benefits - and they don't just 'go away' after six months - but breastfeeding also becomes part of your tool kit for comforting and sleep."

"People don't know how great a quick fix it is for a tantrum," laughs Kellie. "It also gets thrown at you that you're making the child too attached, when the reality is my little girl is so independent. She's also never been in a doctor's surgery for anything other than vaccinations".

Like me, she's never actually experienced any face-to-face criticism but it doesn't mean she's not braced to defend herself.

"I would be quite anxious about people saying something in front of Madison," says Kellie. "Not for me, but I'd hate someone to upset her."

Public breastfeeding (Stock)
Public breastfeeding (Stock)

Two other women I approached for the feature, who are happily feeding their five-year-olds, declined to take part, being "reluctant to expose myself to the inevitable negative reaction". I understand their concerns, I feel the trepidation even writing this.

But with so much focus on 'bressure' and fears over making formula-feeding mums feel guilty, is it not just as sad that any mother should feel subject to abuse simply because of how she cares for her child?

Surely what's needed is support. Support for whatever choice a mother makes and if that choice is breastfeeding, then more support in the beginning to address that shocking statistic of 80pc stopping before they're ready.

If I hadn't had the support of my husband, family, friends, online groups and a breastfeeding support group I visited when Tom was three days old, I doubt I'd have lasted one week.

"I think we'd see more mums feeding long term if there was more help available in the beginning," says Elizabeth. "It's not about making everyone breastfeed but there needs to be greater support out there for the women who want to do it.

"Because if you can get over those early weeks that can be challenging, just like any aspect of having a baby can be challenging, then breastfeeding can be very enjoyable."

Perhaps if we could make sure all mums felt comfortable feeding outside of the carpark, it would be even more enjoyable still.

'Breastfeeding my 4-year-old is about meeting her needs, not worrying about what other people think'

Dublin-based stay-at-home mum, Sarah Byrne, has a daughter starting school in September, Matilda (four) and a 16-month-old, Mabel - she's breastfeeding them both.

Like many 'extended breastfeeding' mums, it wasn't something she set out to do.

"I started breastfeeding Matilda with a 'try and see' attitude and probably at the beginning might have thought the idea of feeding a much older child a bit odd," she explains.

"But your child is only ever a day older than the day before, they're still your baby."

She now tandem feeds both children as and when they need it, even if that means stopping for feeds when out and about.

Sarah breastfeeding Matilda (4) and Maebel (16 months) at home in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers
Sarah breastfeeding Matilda (4) and Maebel (16 months) at home in Dublin. Photo: Damien Eagers

Reassuringly she's never found herself on the other side of abuse such as that faced by some mums who've made headlines for the negative reaction to them feeding an older child. "I can honestly say I've never had one bad comment from anyone when I've fed in public," says Sarah. "But I don't know if that's just because I'm 100pc confident in what I'm doing.

"Also I don't tend to look around when I'm feeding. It's not that I'm shying away from catching anyone's eye, it's just that I'm happy looking and chatting with her and anyway, what's more important: one person's opinion or my child?

She finds it a shame that long-term breastfeeding tends to provoke such a negative response when discussed in a public arena. "I think a lot of it comes down to women's bodies being sexualised," she says. "I think people are just more familiar with seeing them in that way than breastfeeding."

But she disagrees with many of the arguments often levelled at long-term breastfeeding, such as the idea that it makes the child overly dependent or it's more for the mother's needs.

"Matilda turns five in November and she's been through crèche, pre-school and starts school this year. She's extremely independent and totally able to comfort herself when I'm not around, so that's never worried me," she says.

"If she goes to daddy she might look for a cuddle, with me it might be the breast - it's the same thing, she's looking for a certain level of comfort. If she told me she was stopping in the morning I would maybe feel a bit sad that it happened so abruptly, but I'd be happy that it was her decision. As a family, this is what works for us. Other people are entitled to their opinion but it won't ever change the way I parent.

"Maybe it wasn't my plan initially but now, I feel if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Irish Independent

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