I would have laughed if anyone had told me a few years ago that I would be doing what I am now. I would have been surprised too. I mean, why would anybody choose to breastfeed a three-year-old child? At three they are a proper little walking, talking person. How bizarre, I used to think, to breastfeed a child at that age. I have never been one of those people who are strangely repulsed by breastfeeding, and had seen enough toddlers and children being breastfed for it not to be totally alien but I couldn’t have imagined doing it myself.
When I had my first child fourteen years ago, I was committed to breastfeeding her. I had just returned from a number of years living in the Caribbean where women were out and about feeding babies, toddlers and older children. It was a financial necessity and nobody really gave much thought to whether it was ‘normal’ or not; it was natural and ordinary and not particularly newsworthy.
Alyssa was born after a labour that I described afterwards as horrific. I felt like some kind of a failure; a woman who had struggled to do the most natural thing – give birth. I was overwhelmed by waves of powerful love, mixed with anxiety and worry about the thought of mothering this wonderful little baby.
I breastfed her for six weeks. I had tried hard, it was the most difficult thing I had ever done. I spent four weeks crying in pain at every feed; I was cracked and bleeding and turned to everyone around me for advice – mother, midwife, health visitor, other mothers – but all I got were quizzical looks and suggestions to give up. Eventually my doctor advised me to stop feeding and after a further few days of tears and upset I gave in and started to formula feed her.
The nipples healed but the emotional scars did not. Everywhere I turned I saw women breastfeeding their contented babies or advertisements and news stories telling me how I had failed my precious little girl. I developed a severe post natal depression that blighted the first two years of my daughters life. The voice in my head insisted that I had failed utterly as a woman. I hadn’t been able to birth her successfully and I hadn’t been able to feed her myself. Two occurrences, as natural as the sun rising in the morning; and both things women have been doing for thousands of years.
The whole experience had put me off having any more children: I couldn’t bear to go through the pain again but five years later I decided to face my fears. The birth was a more positive experience and I again committed myself to breastfeed my new daughter.
This time I tried not to place too much emotional attachment onto the idea of feeding; to protect myself from future pain. When my new daughter was six-days-old I got an agonising infection that required strong antibiotics. The doctor prescribed tablets suitable for ‘nursing mothers’ but I was sure that I could smell them on the milk and Ella was constantly howling and in obvious discomfort. Rather than try to get through it I made the decision to swap to formula milk. In my head breastfeeding had already failed so why put her through unnecessary discomfort?
I was pregnant again very soon after having Ella and twelve months after her birth I gave birth easily and almost without incident to my first son. Breastfeeding went well initially but within a couple of weeks I was experiencing the same problems I had with my first daughter. The pain was agonising and once again I turned to my health professionals for assistance. Again, nobody could really help. I was doing everything ‘right’ but for whatever reason one of my nipples was severely cracked, bleeding and started to become infected.
I desperately wanted it to work this time, and I started to drop feeds from the painful side and feed more from the one that was fine. By the time Finley was six-weeks-old I was entirely feeding him from one side. This caused many a raised eyebrow. “Are you sure that you are producing enough milk?” asked a well-meaning relative.
“Yes, he looks fine doesn’t he?” I replied defensively.
“For now yes, but surely you can’t do that when he gets bigger?”
My confidence was on the floor so I went to my doctor to check if I would be able to do it. He was very surprised and had obviously never been asked about this before but thought it might be alright for a little bit. Bolstered, I continued for another six weeks – all the while without support or any idea of whether this was sufficient for the baby.
Then Finley started to fuss at the breast and those niggling doubts came flooding back. I convinced myself he wasn’t getting enough milk and rather quickly he was moved onto formula milk. I couldn’t believe that I was unable to breastfeed again, but felt ecstatic that I had fed him for three months.
Knowledge is Power
When Finley was twelve-months-old I started training as an Antenatal Teacher for the National Childbirth Trust. During my training I came to know and understand so much more about breastfeeding and debriefed all my experiences to the nth degree. I came out the other side feeling rather philosophical about the whole thing, and had managed to get shot of all the emotional baggage I had been carrying around with me. Oh, and I was pregnant again.
This time I knew where to get good quality information and support. I spent a fair amount of the pregnancy getting information about my particular problems and ideas for things that would help. I spoke to a woman who had lost a breast due to cancer but had managed to breastfeed all six of her children. This feat included twins and a toddler at the same time! I thought that if she could sustain three children from one breast, then I could do the same for one baby.
I had a totally different birth, in water at a birth centre. There were no complications, it was a short and easy labour (not something I would have said at the time) and my new son was put to the breast within seconds of birth.
Sam was the most avid feeder of all of my children. He would merrily have sucked for 24hrs a day if he could. I levered him off occasionally but I fed him whenever he needed to be fed and we commenced our breastfeeding relationship, one that would continue for a long time. I gave up feeding him from my right breast within four weeks of birth and continued very happily feeding him from the other one.
I didn’t bother consulting anybody but trained breastfeeding counsellors if I had any questions or problems. I attended breastfeeding support groups to talk about issues with other experienced breastfeeding mothers and was overjoyed to be doing something that I really had thought I physically couldn’t do.
In the first year of feeding he continued to feed every two or three hours round the clock. Some people frowned and thought it was abnormal but I was unshakable in my belief that it was totally normal for an exclusively breastfed baby, and told them so. Sam was with me constantly and I was so full of those lovely breastfeeding hormones that I just didn’t care; this was my life for now and anything else could wait. I enjoyed watching him with his brother and sisters, and didn’t feel the need to ‘escape’ or become obsessed by my own need for independence. I felt that he would be small for such a short period of time that I should enjoy it. With such a negative breastfeeding history, I treasured this experience all the more.
When he was about one-year-old he developed a sudden infection on holiday that necessitated a visit to the local Accident and Emergency department. Here I had one of the more memorable of encounters with a health professional.
“Hello there. I am the admissions nurse and need to get some further information about Samuel”
“Ok, fire away”
Lots of standard questions about height/weight/vaccinations etc followed. Then the strangest of exchanges took place.
“Does Sam have any allergies?” she asked.
“Yes, he is allergic to egg and intolerant to cows’ milk” I said, while breastfeeding him.
“But you’re feeding him!” the nurse gasped.
“He’s allergic to milk! Are you allowed to feed him?” she looked very worried.
“He is allergic to COWS’ milk” I repeated.
“So he can have breast milk?”
“Yes. Luckily I am not a cow!” I replied in utter amazement.
I was amazed by the ignorance, especially given that she was a nurse. My amazement lessened over the following years when I came into contact with one after another health professionals whose only knowledge about breastfeeding included the ability to parrot ‘Breast is Best’ and to quote the World Health Organisation’s guidelines to anyone who asked. The volume of misinformation given freely by health professionals was astonishing.
Defending the normal
Lots of people wondered why he was still being fed, but I didn’t really have an answer. Why not? He was growing and developing, I was producing the perfect food for him and we were both happily getting on with it. I didn’t suddenly wake up feeding a toddler, I had fed him every day from being a baby and he never suddenly look too old to feed. He always looked a day older than he had the day before!
I couldn’t believe that the substance that at 364 days of age was highly beneficial and tailored just for him would be worthless the next day when he had turned one, as some doctors spouted. I never looked down at his little face while he fed and thought we looked weird. It looked like the most natural thing in the world, and any mention that it wasn’t was offensive and upsetting and I started to feel quite militant about it.
I joined the ‘yah… I’m STILL breastfeeding’ and the ‘I make milk, what’s your superpower?’ groups on the social networking site Facebook and wrote letters of complaint to any newspapers or television channels that put out incorrect information about breastfeeding. I found my blood boiling when I read of women being thrown out of restaurants for breastfeeding, or heard people making derogatory comments about women who breastfeed their children to full term or allow their children to wean themselves when they are ready.
Although Sam mainly stopped feeding in the day when he turned two, we didn’t ‘go underground’ as many mothers feel they have to. I continued to talk openly about the fact that I am still breastfeeding him – for goodness sake, I am bursting with pride about it! I have nursed Sam through some serious illnesses when breast milk was the only thing sustaining him and breastfed him through painful procedures. He is intolerant to cows’ milk and thanks to my milk he didn’t need any highly engineered soya formula milk, with the associated health and environmental problems. He hardly ate anything for eighteen months and yet he has grown into a normal and healthy boy because my breast milk is made just for him and has everything that he needs in it. What is there to be ashamed of?
He is coming up for three-and-a-half years old now and any mention of stopping breastfeeding brings forth cries of anguish. People seem to need to know when I intend to give up feeding, as if their lives depend on it, and I still don’t know the answer to that. In fact the only answer I can give is that Sam will stop feeding when Sam stops feeding. And that is that.
Gorgeous image is courtesy of Mama C-ta