The headlines in today’s newspaper scream, “Breastfeed until school book sparks debate and divides mums “
According to the article, ‘PAEDIATRICIANS have slammed a controversial new book, ‘Beyond The Sling’ by Big Bang Theory star Mayim Bialik, proclaiming the benefits of breastfeeding her three-and-a-half-year-old son.”
Paediatrician Dr Scott Dunlop says most in his field would recommend breastfeeding for between six and 12 months. “There are no medical benefits. My personal feeling is that children who breastfeed for that long tend to over-identify with their mother, and so can struggle to separate,” Dr Dunlop said.
I wonder if Dr Dunlop and colleagues who share his beliefs actually know any kids who have breastfed beyond 12 months – or even six months, seeing he seems so unsupportive to breastfeeding women. In my own personal experience, the two greatest gifts we can give children are ‘roots’ and ‘wings’ – when the roots ( bonding and attachment) are secure and strong, the wings (independence ) come naturally, whether mothers are ready or not!
While it may not be everybody’s cup of tea (or drink of milk) to breastfeed beyond babyhood, I would like to explain a thing or two to those ignorant health professionals and journalists who sensationalise and create fear about what is a normal, natural, biological need for infants. I would also like to offer support to women who choose to breastfeed their babies beyond that ‘acceptable’ six or twelve months that Dr Dunlop mentions. You see, I have been there, breastfed older babies (yes, a 3 year old is still an infant – they aren’t supposed to be ‘independent’ of their mothers, just yet!). I have also copped the sort of flak that these learned men are dishing out – and some of this flak came from women as well as men.
While I was breastfeeding my own toddlers, I was told:
‘You will make him gay’ (Interestingly nobody suggested I would make my daughters gay, but it certainly made them all happy!)
‘You will be going to school to give him lunch.’ (Only if I’m on tuckshop duty)
‘He will be wanting a breast on his 21st Birthday.’ (He might, but it won’t be mine!)
‘It’s taking too much out of you.’ ( Mostly just milk)
As well as being a mum of five, I am also an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. However, when I breastfed my first two babies, I wasn’t aware of the nutritional benefits of breastfeeding older babies and toddlers; with my first, I didn’t know anybody else who was breastfeeding beyond three months. I simply kept nursing them because it felt right. In fact, with each of our children, breastfeeding has been an integral part of my relationship with them and not just a matter of sustenance. As newborns, breastfeeding gave them a gentle beginning, and as toddlers, it soothed life’s little knocks, easing the discomfort of swollen teething gums and picking them up when they fell (or fell apart emotionally). Breastfeeding provided a quiet space in the day if they (or I) felt overwhelmed, no matter where we were. Even a few minutes ‘touching base’ at the breast seemed to nourish our toddlers at a deep, soulful level, reassuring them if they felt challenged. When he was three, my last baby told me, ‘Mummy, booby makes me feel brave when I get scared.’
Breastfeeding not only soothed my little ones but calmed me as well. Once, when our youngest was little and I was dealing less than coolly with a teenager, the youth in question looked at me with a grin and suggested, ‘Why don’t you go and feed the baby!’ I’m convinced that if prolactin could be bottled, pharmaceutical shares would skyrocket.
Although extended breastfeeding raises eyebrows in our culture, there are still many societies in the world where children are routinely breastfed until the age of four or five years or older. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding (that is, no fluids or food other than breast milk) for the first six months of life and that infants continue to be breastfed for up to two years of age and beyond. The nutritional and immunological benefits of breastfeeding last for as long as breastfeeding continues – as your baby grows, the composition of your breast milk changes to meet her growing needs. Some immune compounds in breast milk have been shown to increase at around six months (just when babies become mobile and are exposed to a greater range of germs), and as they get older and are breastfed less. In many instances, the long term protective effects of breastfeeding are related to its duration. Children breastfed for more than six months have one-third the number of middle-ear infections in the first three years of life than formula-fed babies, the incidence of allergies is reduced sevenfold, and they are also protected against bacterial meningitis in their first five years.
While the risk of a number of serious disorders (such as coeliac disease, insulin-dependent diabetes and leukaemia) increases when babies aren’t breastfed, your milk also protects your baby against childhood lymphoma, multiple sclerosis and chronic liver diseases. When you breastfeed your baby girl for at least six months, you reduce her risk of developing breast cancer later in life by 25 per cent. Mothers, too, benefit from natural term breastfeeding. Women who breastfeed for a lifetime total of two years have a reduced risk of developing breast cancer. The risk among mothers who breastfeed for a total of six years or more is reduced by two-thirds, and because maternal bone density increases with each child who is nursed, breastfeeding mothers experience less osteoporosis in later life.
Because brain development is incomplete for several years, there is particular interest in the role of breast milk and children’s intelligence levels. One study in New Zealand demonstrated that children who were breastfed as babies performed better in school and scored higher on standardised maths and reading tests – and that the longer they had been breastfed, the higher they scored. Although research into the effects of extended breastfeeding on psychological development is scarce, another New Zealand study, which dealt specifically with babies nursed longer than a year, showed fewer behavioural problems in six- to eight-year-olds. According to the test results, the longer the children had been breastfed, the better they tended to behave.
So you see dear learned men, there are sound scientific reasons to keep breastfeeding if mothers and babies are happy. How long mothers continue to breastfeed is a very personal choice between mother and child.It is also about much more than ‘the milk’- nurturing through breastfeeding is not just about immunity or nutrition or intelligence, it is also about communication, comfort, and pleasure. Above all, it is about love: Breastfeeding is a physical expression of the love between a mother and child and it should be respected and supported. Perhaps next time you make headlines about how babies are fed, you could consider that only 14% of Australian babies are fully breastfed to six months as recommended by the World Health Organisation and you could offer support so that all mothers who want to breastfeed get to enjoy the experience for as long as they choose without criticism, judgment or fear of screwing up their child if they dare to make a choice that’s outside your narrow perspective.