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When I first became pregnant, I assumed I would breastfeed for at least 12 months. Most people I knew had breastfeed about that long (or less), I had been breastfeed for 14 months alongside my twin. I grew up with stories of how we would ‘drive by feed’, as my mum would be feeding one of us, and the other would come along for the other side. So feeding a walking toddler was an image that seemed normal. But I thought you HAD to wean at some point.
So as my journey into breastfeeding approached 12 months, and the intensity of “when are you going to stop that?” came coupled with “there is no value beyond one, your milk turns to water”. But it became very apparent ending breastfeeding was not something me, or my baby, wanted to do. To end breastfeeding would have been a very stressful thing to do. So it was at this point I sort more information. I found the Australian Breastfeeding article on feeding beyond one very reassuring. One key piece of information as that it is actually recommended by WHO that breastfeeding continues to two years old. Brilliant! I just bought myself another year. So I thought. At about the 18 mth mark, the next challenge was breastfeeding whilst pregnant, again, ABA provided the reassuring evidence that said it is okay to carry on and that you can tandem feed an older child alongside a newborn. So we did.
My first born had her last breastfeed soon after her 4th birthday. It was the right time for both of us.
Another key piece of information that I ‘discovered ‘ in my quest, was the natural age of weaning by Prof. Katherine Dettwyler. She states that the natural age of weaning is between 2 and 7, and for some children, beyond 7.
I would like to introduce you to a woman who has experienced the upper end of this natural process. Amy is a mother, doula and breastfeeding educator.
This is her journey:
When you set out on your mothering journey, what did you understand about breastfeeding?
Did you have a goal for how long you would breastfeed?
Before becoming a mother I had very little exposure to birth, breastfeeding or parenting. I myself had never received a drop of breastmilk as a baby, and I was quite naive and rather ‘mainstream’. While pregnant with my first, a visiting medical epidemiologist friend told me breastfeeding to 6 months made a huge difference to the child’s life, so I went with that. When the baby was born, I went to a breastfeeding seminar run by the hospital, which was actually so negative (focussing on breastfeeding problems) that when it finished I thought a) if I make it to 6 weeks I’ll be happy, and b) they really should let us new mothers bring our babies along to an hour+ long seminar. We were living in a new country, with no friends or family there, no support network (no MACH type follow-ups or mother’s groups), and I only had 8 weeks of maternity leave before going back to a 6 day/week full-on full-time job. Sheer persistence got us through the first 6 weeks, which soon became 6 months. By then, I had discovered breastfeeding information on the internet, which led me to attachment parenting. While avidly reading up on co-sleeping and baby wearing, I came across terms such as “extended breastfeeding” and “self-weaning” and “tandem nursing” which resonated with me strongly. I decided to let the child be the one to determine when they would stop.
I never imagined I would be a mother that breastfed an older child. I know it's a big mental leap, I remember when I was breastfeeding a toddler and a friend told me she had latched on her 6 yr old, I thought that I would never be able to do that! But my children didn't seem so big by the time they were 6 themselves because it was a gradual happening. We took it one day or one week at a time, and it just happened this way.
Did all your children follow a similar pattern, or were there noticeable differences with each breastfeeding experience?
My four children have all fed pretty similarly, i.e. I used to joke that for the first month or so they breastfed every hour for an hour. Then for the first year they breastfed every 2-hourly, this stretched out to 3, then 4 hourly as they got older. Their favourite, most important session of each day was the waking up one, so each morning I had a lovely excuse to sleep in. By the time they were about 4 or 5 years old, they were breastfeeding infrequently, only a few times a week. My first three have breastfed to 7+ years. Each one of them got a huge breastmilk quantity boost when the next sibling came along, so it will be interesting to see if my fourth and youngest will also go to 7 years without the extra boost from a new baby in the middle.
An older child does not feed in the same way as a baby, what are the most notable differences when feeding beyond preschool age?
The main difference between feeding children of different ages is that my babies suckled for long times, whereas the older children are generally over and done with much faster. Of course the mouth size and therefore the latch is different. For my babies, breastfeeding was pretty much their entire world, they were wholly dependant on my arms and breasts for survival and happiness. For the toddlers, breastfeeding was much more of a comfort thing and feeling grounded, as well as all the nutrition and other health factors. Past toddler-hood, breastfeeding became more about touching base and reconnecting.
Other big differences were the gymnastic nursing positions and compliments - “Mummy I love having nai nai it’s so yummy”, or “It tastes like ice cream / roast chicken / babycino” (or whatever was their ‘favourite food’ at the time). Also, the older ones liked to do their own breast compression to get the milk flowing.
I remember the first time I breastfed my #1 child after #2 was born, his head was so large in comparison it reminded me of a cow’s head. (If you’ve ever been up close to a cow, they have HUGE heads). I was starting to get engorged and asked him to breastfeed to help out. He latched on for a few seconds and then let go saying “too big”. I remember thinking “I breastfed you all the way through pregnancy and now I get “too big”?!?”. LOL.
Have your older children ever asked to feed in public, how did you approach this?
Generally the public breastfeeding stopped at around 4 or 5 years old. A notable exception was when I breastfed #2, at 6-¾ years old. There were lots of people around, most of them knew who I was and they were school parents as opposed to like-minded mummy group friends. Nobody said anything then or after, although one grandmother gave me an evil stare so I just smiled at her. Normally I would have asked a child that age to wait until we got home, but she was thirsty/hungry and I had forgotten their afternoon snack, so I figured if I wanted to stay and chat for longer, I would have to assuage her hunger for a bit.
An interesting observation for me was that once the children reached about 2 years, people no longer noticed they were breastfeeding. I assume people thought that I was just cuddling the child, and the fact that they were latched on just wouldn’t enter their minds so they wouldn’t think to look for it. Although this did not apply for the times I was tandem nursing in public, as that is pretty obvious.
Has there been times/moments where you have refused or restricted feeding?
As they got older, the nursing sessions were mutual - that is, I had to be happy about the time and place as well. They definitely became easier to distract or divert, and would be happy with an alternative drink or snack if I was too busy to sit down for a nursing session.
The main time I got antsy feelings were when I was pregnant, primarily because my nipples became very sensitive. I found limiting the length of the nursing session to be the most helpful for both the child and myself, for instance I would say they could breastfeed for as long as I sang the ‘Alphabet song’ twice. Since they had their time on the breast, but also knew when the end was coming, the would always willingly detatch AND they would get to learn their letters. Sometimes I would offer a drink or snack instead. Although this can be different for different people, a good friend who had bad morning sickness and the only time her nausea abated was when she was breastfeeding the older children. Sometimes I get touched out or antsy when I have my period or when I’m ovulating, so I either distract them or just do it, and find it is not that bad after all after the initial latch on.
Tell us more about breastfeeding through pregnancy. Did breastfeeding affect the spacing of your pregnancies?
Breastfeeding through pregnancy meant that I could lie down still with my eyes closed and know that my active toddler was being fully looked after, nurtured, entertained and happy. Lactational ammenorhea was fabulous, for each child I was had between 2 to 2.5 years period free. I fondly remember Sue Cox (author of 'Breastfeeding with Confidence') telling me how healthy this was for my body, let alone for my childrens'. I loved being able to say to the midwife when I was pregnant with my second, that my last menstrual period was over 3 years ago. I read that if ecologically breastfed, the spacing of children would be around 3 or more likely 4 years (‘Breastfeeding and Natural Child Spacing' by Sheila Kippley).
The other fantastic bonus I never imagined when I started this journey when my first was born, was that I have basically not stopped breastfeeding for 17 years, since I have overlapped each subsequent pair. This has meant I could eat heartily without worrying too much about gaining too much, and I have always had a supply of breastmilk for cuts, scrapes, pink eye, sore ears, etc.
Was your husband supportive? What were his thoughts to begin with?
My husband has been extremely supportive, and has also been fully on board with regard to the full-term breastfeeding. When we started, breastfeeding was a given, but for how long had never crossed his mind. He was breastfed for a ‘standard’ amount of time (around 9 months) whereas I had never received a drop myself. He was naturally more attuned to Attachment Parenting than me to start with, having had different exposure and experiences, such as regarding co-sleeping, babywearing - while I had been brought up in a much more mainstream environment.
Do your older children have memories of breastfeeding? Do they plan on breastfeeding their own children to term?
I always thought one of the bonuses of breastfeeding full term was that the children would be able to remember it, to be comforted by this memory throughout their life, and to not have the societally deemed attitude towards breasts as ‘mere playthings’ or ‘sexual objects’. Funnily, it is not a strong conscious memory for them, apart from saying it was nice. I asked them how long they would feed their own children for, and their replies make me proud: the teenage boy said "it depends on my wife" and the teenage girl said "for as long as the child wants".
What resources do you recommend for mothers wanting to know more about breastfeeding older children?
A couple of the books that have been great for me were 'Mothering your nursing toddler' by Norma Jane Bumgarner and 'Adventures in Tandem Nursing' by Hilary Flower. The information from resources mentioned above (ABA, WHO, Dettwyler) have also been crucial, and to me, arming myself with the facts have been important for my own confidence and for answering any naysayers. The internet has also been invaluable, both for further information and for like-minded peer support.
Some Final Thoughts from Amy:
Once I decided that the children were going to self-wean, I took certain measures to enable them to truly self-wean - free from cultural or societal expectations regarding duration of breastfeeding. This meant having like-minded friends doing the same thing, so that they would see it was normal, and ensuring that the children were never exposed to negative talk, reactions or influences from family, friends or others. They understand that long-term breastfeeding is normal and desirable and they feel sorry for others that are weaned early. They are proud of their relationship, and proud of the photos that have been published in various books, magazines and calendars. They have never made an effort to hide the breastfeeding from anyone, they ask to breastfeed in front of their 'mainstream’ friends who don’t blink - children don't know any different because we act like it's normal.