A couple of weeks ago, I asked my readers on a few websites one question: If you breastfed for over a year (the WHO recommends at least two, but we‘re flexible here), what do you think helped you to get that far?
For such a vague and unscientific question, I was grateful for all of the thoughtful and positive answers I received. In all, there were around thirty comments and emails from breastfeeding mothers (and one ad for a hands-free cup [?], and one enthusiastic husband who ‘Still enjoys breastfeeding’!). Long-term breastfeeders really got their teeth into this topic!
What struck me most was that many of the commenters did not find themselves taking to breastfeeding like a duck to water: Initial difficulties like caesarean delivery, sore nipples or a baby in neonatal care who was given bottles of formula in the first week, or a slow start with milk taking a while to come in, did not faze the determined mothers. It seemed that with first babies in particular, there were difficulties to overcome in the first weeks. “Number one was definitely the hardest” sighed one, although one mum who had an easy time with her first three and huge difficulties with her fourth wrote: “…would recommend to all to try, as the closeness and satisfaction it brings stays with you forever.”
What made these Mums keep at it, in spite of those exhausting first few weeks of soreness and milk supply issues?
“I just determined that I WOULD do this!” Several mums said that they absolutely wanted the best for their babies and refused to think of quitting early on. This determination saw them through the rough patches of infancy and once the issues were sorted out, it was smooth sailing for the next year or two. Research and information on the benefits of breastfeeding gathered beforehand seemed to fuel this determination.
“There is a difference between a baby surviving and thriving.” The health benefits for babies made many mums keep trying. And the continued benefits for toddlers, like greater resistance to allergies and a stronger immune system, made many continue for over a year.
“This too shall pass!” Sighed one tired, experienced mother, knowing that the early days of constant feeds soon settle down to a more predictable and relaxed routine.
Apart from determination, mothers talked about the support they got from their own mothers, their husbands or partners, and their friends. One mother was persuaded to stop breastfeeding her baby at age one, because of her own mother’s reaction: “I was made to feel like a freak… for my second, I decided to completely ignore any comments…” It’s interesting how much our own mothers’ opinions shape our parenting style!
Co-sleeping, now thought to be a factor in favour of a sufficient milk supply, was mentioned by some mums as being just too easy to ignore. “Get up to make a bottle?”… “I’m lazy, and couldn’t be bothered with the sterilizing and making formula.” In fact, lazy parenting got an all-round thumbs up: “Laziness is what got me through!” commented one mum, while another liked the flexibility: “Leaving the house involved diapers, wipes and boobs!”
“And selfishness!”, piped up another, reminding us that the chances of breast cancer are reduced by 63% when a woman breastfeeds for a total of 6 years – that’s three kids for two years each- a huge reduction! Imagine, if every woman breastfed an ‘average’ number of kids for the WHO-recommended time, breast cancer rates would be cut in half! Some findings suggest that breastfeeding may prove just as effective as Tamoxifen, a drug used in women to reduce breast cancer risk, in women with an immediate relative who had breast cancer.
Of the thirty women who wrote in, several returned to work early. They kept up breastfeeding by expressing their milk at work, and in one case having the baby in a nursery nearby. While returning to work made ‘Demand Feeding’ impossible during work hours, it did not seem to dampen the enthusiasm. For mothers who could stay at home, Demand Feeding certainly helped them: “As long and as often as the baby wanted,” said one mum.
I was certainly impressed with the enthusiasm that this topic generated. A few mums mentioned that “others find it odd to see a nursing toddler” and that if society’s perceptions were different, it would be easier to nurse for a longer period. Some mums defiantly defended their right to nurse a baby of any age in public: “I managed to feed my daughter in the bar after my husband played football, and not one of the 22 burly footballers made any comment whatsoever! Although even if they had, I wouldn’t have stopped.”
Those first two years are over so quickly and they are, developmentally, the most important in a baby’s life … as one mum said, “The time passes so quick – but the benefits last a lifetime.”
Amidst all of the self-congratulation, a few mums reminded us that not all mothers breastfeed with such success. There are many reasons for this, and a mother can formula-feed and still be a wonderful parent. But it’s fun to pat ourselves on our backs and talk about how, once you get used to it, long-term breastfeeding can be a beautiful gift to your children AND yourself.
Too often, mothers who nurse older babies are made to feel like weirdos, and it’s good to shout about it from the rooftops! And if we can persuade more parents (and grandparents) that “Breastfeeding for two years and beyond” is not only WHO-Recommended but Wonderful and Enjoyable, we may make the world a better, safer place for babies and mothers.
by Nan Sheppard
Photo graciously provided by Ronen’s Dad, through a Creative Commons license, some rights reserved