World Breastfeeding Week: A Perspective on Extended Feeding

 Artwork by http://www.wirewallart.com

Artwork by http://www.wirewallart.com

Ladies, there ain’t no shame in the (extended) boobilicious feeding game.

So, do you like my title? Come on… you know it made you giggle lol!  All jokes aside, however, I approached writing this post with mixed emotions: firstly, part shame (yep shame. I have had a lot of opinions and comments from others throughout my breastfeeding journey, and to open up and write that I have only just stopped feeding my two-and-a-half-year-old comes with some misplaced shame attached).

Secondly, a fierce sense of protection for women and their right to make the choice to breastfeed or not to breastfeed; to breastfeed extendedly or not to, and for us as a society not to question, judge or attach any stigma to the choice made.

And thirdly, I write this with a profound sadness as I am currently mourning the end of a beautiful mother/child breastfeeding experience that lasted just over two and a half years. Our current weaning routine seems to be pretty easy-going for my daughter, although she has taken to licking me like a dog in the past couple of weeks, but as I type this I am welling up. I don’t think I was ready.  she certainly wasn’t initially, but I have now seen an improvement in her daily solid food intake and less of a reliance on me to soothe her or put her to sleep (her father now feels that burden).

What is extended breastfeeding?

There’s a lot of stigma attached to breastfeeding, full stop. If you decide not to feed, or are physically unable to feed, you are judged and regarded as being selfish or an unfit mother - yes really!   If you do decide to breastfeed, then depending on how long you feed for, you are still judged: either you have not fed for long enough or in my case have fed beyond what is deemed as developmentally healthy.

Extended breastfeeding, as the term would suggest, is feeding beyond the recommended age of six months (at which a child is weaned) and further, beyond the recommended age to stop giving baby milk as the main part of its diet (which is one year). Extended Breastfeeding is therefore feeding from one year onwards (sometimes to the age of four or five.)

Although no official studies have been conducted, it is suggested that one third of mothers that feed solely on breast milk up until the age of one will continue to breastfeed until age two/three. This statistic might sound hopeful, but according to UNICEF, out of the 81% of women in the UK that start off breast feeding, only 24% of these are still doing so at six weeks and this is further reduced to 1% continuing to exclusively feed at recommended age of Six months.  This obvious lack of breastfeeding and subsequent lack of extended feeding is very much a westernised phenomenon. In fact, in some cultures it is such the norm that the term ‘extended feeding’ doesn’t even exist.

Unfortunately, there’s conflicting information and advice given to women from child health care providers in the UK with some being strong advocates for extended breastfeeding due to the great benefits it provides to mother and child, to those who simply see it doing more harm for a child than any good- in that it creates developmental and attachment issues for a child.  The World Health Organisation (WHO), however, recommends that the age to stop breastfeeding your child is two and beyond. WHO certainly gets my vote! Further, there are many recent studies that suggest that extended feeding and stopping when both mother and child are ready (whether that means at 6 months if the child loses interest, or at four and a half etc.) means the child is far more socially confident, happier and secure within themselves.  

My Feeding Journey

I didn’t intentionally set out to feed my daughter for as long as I did but I did know I wanted to feed her for as long as it both suited us. I wasn’t really worried about the aesthetic effects, which is one of the reasons given for the UK’s low rate to breastfeed up until the recommended age of six months, and one of the issues addressed in what seems to be an initiative by healthcare providers to combat it.

In all honestly, extended breastfeeding has been quite difficult at times. I must admit that there have been times where I’ve gone to turn around and my boobs have followed on behind about five minutes later…casually popping up (or not) and saying “Hi.” I felt restricted because my daughter relied on me to soothe her, get her to sleep, or just as a source of comfort. It can also be very annoying when you’re in public and a toddler grabs your top up and tries to yank your boob out. Also, two and a half sleep deprived years has had an impact and for the past two weeks since weaning I have felt more rested and am actually in a positive mood.

However, I would opt to feed a thousand times over. The bond created is unexplainable. I was her sole source of food and was able to nurture and watch her grow. I feel I have witnessed the health benefits first hand because she is such a healthy, intelligent and thriving child. When she was sick I was able to soothe her; when, through illness she lost her appetite, I was still able to feed her and keep her strong. Breastfeeding is such a blessing and is one of our most basic intrinsic functions that we as mothers are able to perform. On this basis there are times I question my choice to stop and if it was due to social pressure, opinions regarding her developmental wellbeing or if we were simply ready to transition into a new mother/child phase.

The London factor

I feel pretty fortunate to live in an area that appears to welcome breastfeeding up until six months and beyond with open arms.  My healthcare adviser was very supportive and constantly advised that feeding my child was entirely my decision, she encouraged extended breastfeeding and defended women’s rights to make that choice. I think I was lucky as so many women do not have the same experience. Furthermore, South East London is over occupied with coffee shops where it is the complete norm to see kids feeding and then running off to play again. I felt totally at ease to feed in and around my area.

Venturing into the Capital's center in amongst the unforgiving gaze of the inner-city dwellers, with a breastfed baby or toddler, was an entirely different story. Firstly, I generally try not to head into central London and secondly when I did (whilst still feeding) I tried my hardest not to feed in public. It was just too uncomfortable and felt unnatural in the setting.  I have had a few toddler melt-downs on the tube too but there was no way I felt comfortable feeding in that situation.

Tips and advice

  • If you’re currently contemplating feeding or are contemplating extended feeding I would advise you make your choice based around your and your child’s needs only, and once made (either way) own it! Not even your husband/partner should have a say.  It’s your body. It is an utterly extraordinary primal function that works on the demands and needs of your child- when your child is ill your body creates antibodies to help fight infection. How incredible is that?

  • Ignore the hate.  With all the problems that exist in our world today, do we really need to throw shade at women because they choose to feed beyond the age of two and love the bond feeding creates? Because it makes them feel amazing to know that they can comfort their toddler through breastfeeding. Because a mother also gains a sense of satisfaction from it.  What sort of society do we live in that deems this as wrong? A society that attaches such a strong sense of shame and stigma causing many mothers turn away from doing what should come so naturally.

  • Let it all flow naturally- don’t force anything or allow other people’s opinions to push you into decisions you're not 100% comfortable with.

  • And finally, simply enjoy it. When feeding your child oxytocin is released which will naturally make you feel good, and you can rest in the knowledge that you are providing nutrition and wellbeing to your child, and in turn yourself.

Shauna headshot.jpg

Shauna Lyttle is a mother, post-grad student and a lover of reading and attempting to write (when managing to find the time) based in London. She writes, when she feels compelled to, short poems and posts them up on her Instagram or you can find her attempt of yet another ‘Mummy Blog’ over at Rasingmimix.wordpress.com