One thing you will learn very quickly as a parent is there are often two opposing sides on any one subject when it comes to rearing kids.
Whether it’s which parenting style you’ll adopt (attachment versus free-range) or what kind of education you’ll choose (public versus private), you’ll encounter plenty of conflicting opinions on how this parenting gig should be done.
It shouldn’t be surprising then, that when it comes to feeding your little one there are two definitive camps – ‘breast is best’ and ‘fed is best’.
What has surprised me though is that as my son has grown from an infant to a now 19-month-old toddler, the views on how I’ve chosen to sustain him have changed.
Pat on the back
In the first 12 months of his life, I was patted on the back for doing such a great job breastfeeding. I was very lucky that my baby took to the breast with gusto (those seven hour-long cluster feeds in the early days are testament to that!) and while the feeds progressively dropped off as he got older and increased his consumption of solid foods, he sailed through his first birthday without showing any signs of giving up the mama milk.
My own mother breastfed until I was nine months old and my mother-in-law until her son (my husband) was 12 months old. While they were both extremely supportive of my breastfeeding journey until my son turned one, they have since dropped several comments that it may be time to start weaning, and my husband, influenced by their experienced opinion, has started to echo this.
Breastfeeding counsellor with the Australian Breastfeeding Association, Renee Kam, reveals this is a common occurrence for women keen to try ‘extended’ breastfeeding.
“Even those close to you, like your spouse or mother, might think breastfeeding is normal, but they might not be encouraging or supportive if breastfeeding a toddler or older child.”
In Australia, we seem to have a funny relationship with breastfeeding. In the early days, we champion the breastfeeding mum and encourage her to always opt for breastfeeding over formula feeding if she can.
While a whopping 96 percent of mothers initiate breastfeeding when their child is born, the 2020 Australia’s Children report by the Australian Government indicates that this has dropped off to just 61 percent by four months of age and continues to drop afterwards.
This is well behind international standards, with the World Health Organization recommending that breastfeeding continues alongside suitable complementary foods until a child is two years of age. They state that “Breastmilk provides all the energy and nutrients that the infant needs for the first months of life, and it continues to provide up to half or more of a child’s nutritional needs during the second half of the first year, and up to one third during the second year of life.”
Barriers to extended breastfeeding include returning to the workforce, perceived supply issues, greater access to formula and a lack of support at home.
Most notable though is the social stigma attached to breastfeeding older children. In fact, Renee says more women might breastfeed for longer if it were culturally acceptable.
“In westernised cultures like ours, it is something that is not seen, and things that aren’t seen tend to make people feel a bit uncomfortable … It’s biologically normal, just not culturally,” she says.
Keeping the milk on tap
My reasons for wanting to pursue extended breastfeeding are threefold.
1. There is a raft of health benefits associated with prolonging breastfeeding. Breastfed toddlers between one and three years of age have been found to have fewer illnesses, illnesses of shorter duration and lower mortality rates.
Nutritionally, toddlers continue to benefit from the protein, calcium, fat, vitamin A and other nutrients in breastmilk. As any parent who’s battled with a fussy toddler at dinner time knows, ensuring they receive all of the vitamins and minerals from the right foods can sometimes be tricky, so it’s comforting to know breastmilk is doing some of the job.
It also seems counterintuitive to me to replace breastmilk with a cup or two of cow’s milk, which is the recommended advice when weaning a child. Why offer my child milk from an animal when I produce my very own supply?
2. I have found breastfeeding to be such a wonderful bonding experience between my son and me, and just because he’s no longer a baby, I don’t see why that should stop.
While we’re only down to three feeds a day (a mid-morning feed, naptime and a bedtime feed) these allow us to take some time to slow down, connect and take a breath during a busy day. This benefits me as well as my son, as I can have a moment to practice mindfulness while we take a ten-minute ‘feeding breather’.
Furthermore, “Children have described how breastfeeding can make them feel happy or loved or warm and cuddly,” says Renee. Every mother’s goal, right?
3. I’ll keep breastfeeding until he’s ready to wean. Just as my son reduced his feeds from the early days of seemingly constant demand feeding to the more manageable three feeds we do today, I’m confident that he’ll wind down feeding when he’s developmentally ready.
While I’m happy to be somewhat dictated by his needs, my thinking is that we’ll assess the situation once he turns two and most likely tackle weaning then.
Tips on cancelling out the naysayers
- Try to remember that you know what’s best for your own child. You’ll always be hit with differing opinions on how things should be done, but only you can choose what’s right for you, your child and your circumstances.
- While the common thinking is that breastfeeding past 12 months makes it more difficult to wean a child, age has much less to do with ease of weaning than does your child’s developmental readiness.
- The World Health Organization has estimated that a natural weaning age for humans is between two and seven years. If anyone questions your breastfeeding practices try silencing them with this fact!