Before I became pregnant with my son, I hadn’t given a huge amount of thought to breastfeeding. It was something you would often see women doing when out for lunch and I knew that there were certainly many health benefits, but that was the extent of my knowledge. It was only after my son was born, and he refused to feed for the first two days that I realised how important it was to me that he did receive this “best start in life” and how passionate I actually was about wanting him to be breastfed.
I used every website that I could find to research about breastfeeding and inform myself about how best to get him started. I am so glad that I had this option, as the midwives in the hospital certainly did little to assist. On one occasion, I was warned that if my son didn’t feed for at least 20 minutes at each sitting, he would be at risk of cerebral palsy, and so should be supplemented with a bottle. In hindsight I can see how very wrong she was.
What nobody seems to prepare you for is that fact that most breastfed babies will want to feed almost every two hours for the first three to four weeks. This is normal. This is tiring. This will not last. Breast milk is easier to digest than formula milk, and so breastfed babies will feed more often. This also means they will probably take longer to sleep through the night. This will apply to some babies, not for all – there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to babies. Always remember that. On the flip side, breastfed babies will generally be more content, are at a reduced risk of colic, have stronger immune systems – the list goes on.
Anyway, once I really relaxed into the swing of breastfeeding, I found I really enjoyed it. Yes, there were times it was tiring, especially as I didn’t tend to express so I was responsible for all the feeds, but it also meant that my son always received fresh milk, there was never any worries about sterilising bottles and I felt that he could form a trust that I would always be there for him. Not all breastfeeding mothers need to do this. It’s a personal choice, as are most aspects of parenting.
Anyway, when I did finally settle into breastfeeding, I decided I would feed my son for the first six months, as recommended by the WHO (World Health Organisation) and would see how things were after that point. In the meantime, I kept informing myself further on the benefits of breastfeeding and I discovered that the WHO actually recommends exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months, followed by breast milk until the child is two and can receive cow’s milk as a drink. So if I was to give up breastfeeding, we would have to move onto formula instead. This didn’t sit well with me at all.
So I continued to breastfeed. But for some reason I found my support network got smaller. Society in general seems to have an issue with extended breastfeeding. The breast is sexualised and once the child is no longer a helpless baby, society deems it no longer appropriate to breastfeed. I’m not sure I understand why, but I found myself breastfeeding only when I was in the comfort of my own home. As if I was harbouring a dirty little secret.
But the benefits of extended breastfeeding are based on fact, and society’s lack of support is based on the opinion of uninformed members. Breast milk actually increases its immune factors in the second year of feeding, hence children who are weaned before that are at a higher risk of illness. Breastfed children are statistically smarter, and are at a lower risk of obesity. They are less likely to suffer from behaviour disorders and are more socially adjusted. Fact. And the benefits extend to the mother, as she will be at a reduced risk of many cancers.
Time magazine in the US this week sparked great controversy by putting an image of a four-year old boy being breastfed on the cover, with the caption “Are you Mom enough?”. Judging my social networking sites, there is very little support for this mother. Whilst she should be admired for her selfless act of caring for her child, instead she is ridiculed and shunned. She is labelled as being “weird”, “sick” and “wrong”, when in fact the global average for weaning a child is four. Most children will self-wean, when they are ready. Why are we in such a rush to do this? It is the most natural act in the world. We’re not talking a “Little Britain” skit of a man in his twenties continuing to breast feed, but if the health benefits extend into the second and third year of a child’s life, and they continue to enjoy it, why are we pushing them to stop?
Breast really is best – it is a functional part of the human body and it would do society no harm to consider that before making judgments about when a mother should stop breastfeeding. I am under no illusion that the breast will be desexualised anytime soon, but for a child, the two are not correlated. To an infant, the breast is for feeding and for comfort. Allowing them to extend this part of infancy past the first six months is to be applauded – the facts about the benefits speak for themselves. Maybe then women like me won’t feel we have to hide behind the comfort of our four walls once our babies pass the six month milestone. And maybe then we can celebrate our achievements instead. In Ireland, it is only 3 percent of women who see their breastfeeding journey last beyond the six month milestone. I’m proud to say I am part of that top 3 percent..