‘That’s it, I’ve become one of those crazy ladies who breastfeeds their walking toddler!’ I said to myself (tongue in cheek) as we walked back from our first La Leche League (LLL) toddler meeting yesterday. LLL is a network of mum-to-mum breastfeeding support groups, which exist in many countries across the globe. We meet to have a chat about breastfeeding and other things in life, and it’s a great way to share experiences and tips, and generally feel like you’re not the only one breastfeeding your baby/toddler. Once every 2 months the meeting is specifically aimed at those mums who are feeding their child into the second year of his/her life, and yesterday was the first of these ‘toddler meetings’ since Andrew and I fell into that description.
When I first walked into an LLL coffee morning with my 4-week-old babe-in-arms, I admit I was surprised to see several mums breastfeeding toddlers who were 1 or 2 or even older. At that point I was really struggling with breastfeeding: Andrew was slow to gain weight, we were having to supplement with formula, and I was having a hard time reconciling in my head the fact that I desperately wanted to breastfeed him, I enjoyed having him so close and bonding with him in that way, but knew I wasn’t physically producing enough milk – the baby scales said it all. (If you haven’t read our breastfeeding story from the start, have a read of this previous post.) So I thought it would be amazing if we could make it to the NHS-recommended 6 months; it never even crossed my mind that we’d still be going beyond a year. I thought that I could never be, wouldn’t want to be, and wouldn’t even need to think about whether I should be, one of ‘those’ mums. How wrong I was. So it is with my tail between my legs that I come to write this post, looking back at how I judged others on that first LLL day.
In my defence though, I would say that I soon realised that these ladies were in fact lovely, intelligent, friendly and welcoming mums, and the initial feeling of surprise and awkwardness on my part soon faded. The vibes I was getting from the NHS, through contact with health professionals and reading the ‘Birth to Five’ book that everyone gets given, were that breast is best full stop, that formula feeding is OK if you’re a breastfeeding failure, and that mixed feeding is…no hang on, what on earth is that?! On the contrary, LLL immediately made me feel welcome, accepting me into the group with open arms, despite the fact that I brought formula to the meetings. It did help that I used a supplementer rather than bottles though (again, see previous post), so I was in fact breastfeeding, just with a little extra help.
(NOTE: one of the lovely LLL ladies has brought it to my attention though a nice comment that this last sentence could be misinterpreted from what I meant. I did not mean that LLL would not have welcomed me if I had turned up with formula and bottles. On the contrary, I knew after I’d been that this was not true. What I meant was that this was my (and maybe a general?) preconception about breastfeeding support groups. I felt awkward at first, but soon realised I was wrong. I meant it helped me that I didn’t have to go with bottles the first time until my preconceptions were gone. Hope I didn’t give the wrong impression on this in the meantime.)
Every month (unless we were away), Andrew and I turned up at the regular meetings twice a month. I got so much moral support and helpful advice, and I believe the LLL ladies have played a big part in helping me continue to breastfeed until now. Was there any guilt tripping involved, like would I have felt bad about giving up when these ladies are so pro breastfeeding? Not at all. In fact I would say I would have felt less guilty about giving up in front of them and less of a failure than I would have done in front of many other people, including my midwife, GP and health visitor. And the reason? Because the ladies there know just how hard it can be, just how emotionally exhausting it can be when things aren’t going right, and how there is way more to it than simply getting food from mum to baby. That’s where the health professionals got me down – for them breastfeeding was all about Andrew gaining weight. And that’s where I came to realise, through LLL, that I could still have all the other amazing bits of breastfeeding, alongside the physical act of getting calories from mum (or formula tin) to baby.
It was very clear to me from the start that my friends at LLL are all intelligent ladies, who want to do the best for their child(ren) and have read up on breastfeeding and related issues. They’re not just feeding their babies beyond 6 months for no reason, or to be deliberately provocative to their numerous critics (believe me, we would rather not have to deal with criticism). They know that breastfeeding until the child weans him- or herself is normal when you step out of our society for a minute and look at things from a more global or human evolutionary perspective.
Did you know that the World Health Organisation recomends ‘exclusive breastfeeding up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond‘? Somewhere in the NHS recommendation on breastfeeding the second part of the WHO’s statement has got lost. I suspect too that the large increase in bottle feeding a couple of generations ago also played a part in changing our society’s view on what is ‘normal’ when it comes to the age we should wean a child. As a researcher myself, I always look for references in peer-reviewed publications when anyone makes a claim about something that should be tested with ‘scientific’ methods, and that includes breastfeeding. As well as being a mum-to-mum support network, LLL has many publications about various aspects of breastfeeding, all of which are backed up by referenced research conducted by scientists and health professionals around the world. This makes me 🙂
A quick search on the LLL international website for what is a ‘natural’ age that a child weans from breastfeeding gives an interesting article citing various studies. Some have suggested that a natural age is to do with when the child triples or quadruples their birth weight (average 27-30 months); others have suggested it’s to do with attaining one third of their adult weight (4 to 7 years); others have suggested it’s to do with our gestation length (i.e. 9 months) (average 4.5 years); others have suggested it’s to do with the eruption of adult molar teeth (around 5.5 years). In other words, quite a while then.
That is not to say that I do not respect other mums’ decisions to either not breastfeed at all or to impose their own time-constraint on weaning. Every mum and baby pair is different, and believe me I know how hard it is to establish breastfeeding – it took us that first 6 months to really get going, so I totally understand why so many stop. (I think the words ‘give up’ sound too negative, and I don’t want to invoke feelings of failure because there is enough of that around as it is.) I also understand that not every mum enjoys breastfeeding so doesn’t want to carry on longer than she feels she has to, and that does not mean she is any less of a good mum. As I said we’re all different, with different personalities, different experiences, different situations and different ideas about what we think is the best thing to do at any given time.
In our case, one of the reasons why I love it so much now is that it was so hard back then – I appreciate good times more when I have a contrast with bad times. Ironically, if I hadn’t have had the problems at the start, I might not have gone to LLL and therefore might not have learnt that children self-wean when they are ready (this is often after when is generally acceptable in society), and I might have already weaned him. Every cloud has a silver lining. In a way, because it’s not always been for us just about ‘food’ for growth, it makes even more sense to me to carry on for as long as Andrew would like to get the comfort and pure mummy-time that he’s always got from it.
At the moment he feeds for about half an hour first thing in the morning (in bed with us so we all get to stay in bed longer – no bad thing all round), half an hour last thing in the evening before bed which sends him to sleep, sometimes in the night if he wakes (though he’s generally a very good sleeper), and sometimes in the day if he’s upset or tired. I know exactly when he wants to feed from me, because he’s very good at doing the milk ‘sign’ (we’ve done baby signing, I really must blog that one day) and pulling my top down! He must have a need for it, otherwise he wouldn’t ask for it. As a mum I want to meet that need for as long as necessary, because that’s my role in life, and I’m proud of it 🙂
And as it turns out, I’m not that crazy for feeling this way about toddler breastfeeding, when I talk with those who feel the same. Does anyone else have experience of breastfeeding beyond a year? Do you think it’s too old to still be breastfeeding? I’d love to hear what you think, whether you agree with me or think I’m crazy.