In Australian society, most mums have stopped breastfeeding within the first months of their baby’s lives. There are many factors that lead to early weaning including lack of education, lack of support, early return to work, difficulty pumping and much more.
However, many cite around 4 years as an average, world-wide weaning age, although there isn’t a huge amount of data to back that up. It’s probably more accurate to say that the natural duration of breastfeeding is between 2.5 and 7 years. At around 5-7 years, humans lose the ability to latch and nurse anyway.
But for those living in a western society who choose to continue to breastfeed beyond infancy and well into toddlerhood, perhaps even into childhood, the lack of understanding and tolerance is frankly disturbing.
All you have to do is read any article about continued breastfeeding, like this one, and take a look at the comments when it’s shared on social media. That particular article is about an English mama who is still breastfeeding her 5 year old daughter. From what she says, her daughter feeds for comfort and she will be letting her self-wean.
I don’t know if I will be breastfeeding for 5 years. I have no current plans to actively wean, though I have night-weaned (and even that is subject to flexibility!) so I will probably leave it up to my little girl to make that decision for herself. There may come a point when I want my body to myself again; I might choose to actively wean. I don’t really know. What I will NOT do, though, now or in the future, is to suffer abuse and intolerance based on how I choose to feed my child. Standing up for breastfeeding rights is not something I’m a stranger to, so here are my top 6 answers to people who shame or abuse mums who feed past infancy:
1- There’s no nutritional benefit beyond the age of (insert arbitrary number here)- it’s unnecessary.
No food loses it’s nutritional value because you reach a certain age. The idea is a bit ludicrous, really. There is even evidence to suggest mature breast milk contains higher levels of fats and energy which may have a significant contribution to the diet of a growing child. So while it is obviously not necessary, in the strictest sense of the word, it’s not without benefit. I have seen children and babies being fed food and drink that has far less nutritional value- coke in a toddler’s bottle, anyone?
2- If a child can ask for it or has teeth- they are too old to be breastfed
By this logic, next time my tweenager asks for something to eat, I should say no. I actually remember feeling this way about breastfeeding several years ago- but after doing SO MUCH reading on the subject, I can now chuckle over the lack of reasoning behind that argument. Since when do we stop someone eating or drinking based on their ability to ask for it or their dental status? The funny thing is, both my daughters have asked to be fed since birth. The newborn rooting for the breast is asking for milk just as much as the little voice that now asks me for “Mook, mummy, want some of dis!” while little hands pat my chest or the bigger voice begging me to make lasagne for dinner.
3- She should just express if she wants her child to have the milk.
Why? What difference does that make? Breast milk is breast milk, whether it is in a bottle, a cup of straight from the breast. This one ties in closely with the next point.
4- It’s sexual/child abuse/paedophilia/incest/wrong/dirty/disgusting etc
No. It isn’t. the primary function of breasts is to make breast milk to feed our children. It’s really quite simple. The idea that breasts are only sexual is a man made construct that we are bombarded with constantly and the sad thing is that another consequence of this is that some mothers and their children are paying the price for that by early weaning or not breastfeeding at all. I remember reading a comment on social media on an article about “extended” breastfeeding (also called breastfeeding to natural term) from a woman who said her 17 month old would attempt to breastfeed in public and she would literally shake her off her with embarrassment. She said she would often refuse to hold her until she was weaned. Her comment just about broke my heart- she rejected her child’s attempt to be close to her, to seek comfort and food from her mother, due to what appears to be societal pressures. I found that so sad. The same woman also claimed women who breastfed got some sort of sexual satisfaction from it at some point. But the women that I know who breastfeed don’t have a sexual attachment to it at all. It’s not sexual. The pleasure most women associate with breastfeeding is generally in the closeness, the bond, with their child.
I don’t know where people get some of these ideas, truly. Why is the idea that a body part can serve more than one role so hard to grasp? Take for example- the humble backside. Many people list a nice bum as a desirable feature, there are songs devoted to it, pants available to enhance it- but what does it do? The muscle itself helps us to walk, stand, sit- and also protects the opening through which we pass waste. And wind. Hot, right? So we are ok with a sexy bum that has all those other purposes- but sexy breasts that also nourish a child? Nope. Gross.
5- The poor child might get bullied!
One way to prevent this is to raise your children not to bully others. Saying “Don’t feed your child that to avoid bullying” is akin to saying “Dye your child’s ginger hair or she might get teased for it”. I doubt many school aged kids are breastfed during school hours (ie- at school) and my guess is that it’s probably not really something they’d think to discuss. But if they did, I’d hope that any child of mine wouldn’t care in the slightest. My eldest, some time after the fact, learned that a couple of her kindy pals were still occasionally breastfed once starting school. She shrugged and went back to what she was doing before.
Kids are only horrified by something if they are taught to be, so teach them that being breastfed is nothing to clutch their pearls over and this problem goes away.
6- It will damage them psychologically, they might remember it!
Remembering being held, nurtured and nourished by your mother, how bloody terrible! The poor children! As for as psychological damage, nope, no evidence to suggest that. The research admittedly isn’t huge in this area- but what there is points to long-term breastfeeding being overall physiologically and psychologically beneficial for children.
Breastfeeding beyond infancy is pretty normal in some parts of the world. Mothers in Western societies who do it are speaking out in what seems to me to be an effort to normalise it- not to gain attention. Honestly, I don’t think anyone would invite the criticism and vitriolic abuse directed at mothers that I have seen online. It may not be for you, that’s ok. Totally fine. But others wouldn’t have it any other way; they want to let their child decide when to wean, allowing them to make that first big decision for themselves. There is no proven harm to the practice and available evidence says there are health benefits both physically and psychologically.
If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of breastfeeding a toddler, here’s an idea- don’t breastfeed your toddler! Or perhaps examine your reasoning, do some reading on the subject and reassess. This is the same as the debate over public breastfeeding- if you have a problem with it, recognise that it is your problem, stop projecting it on to others and expecting them to adjust their lifestyle to accommodate your prejudices and move on with your life.