So, there’s this women in the UK who’s breastfeeding her 5 year old. Her picture is all over social media. People have been commenting “That’s sick!” “There’s no nutritional value!” “Who is it for, the mum or the child?!” and so on.
My feelings on breastfeeding a 5 year old are a bit more like – “So what?”
It’s only really in our little corner of the world that breastfeeding beyond infancy is considered unusual. In many parts of the world continued breastfeeding is normal. Not just in tribal communities, or in poor living conditions, it’s not just because they don’t have access to clean water or safe food, but because breastfeeding is just normal. This is only news because she’s from the UK. Otherwise, nobody would know and nobody would care.
Did you have a coffee this morning? Can I ask what was in it? Mine actually contained soy milk because I’m currently trying to wean myself off milk at the tender age of 26 – I know I’m pretty old to still be drinking expressed breast milk, but like many people I’ve become pretty accustomed to the taste of milk from cows, especially on my cereal and in coffee. I also like cheese, yoghurt, ice-cream, butter and chocolate. I want to at least cut back, because I am WAY too old for milk.
There’s lots of arbitrary breastfeeding cut off points people keep suggesting – “they’re too old when they can ask for it”, “have teeth”, “walk” and “eat food”. All of those milestones would generally come before the age of two, and considering the World Health Organisation recommends “continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond”, those points in time are based only on personal opinion.
The other thing I see people writing on this topic, that really grinds my gears, is the “It’s for the mothers benefit”. There are two sides to this – firstly, no it’s not; and secondly, so what if it is? I enjoy breastfeeding! There! I said it! Lock me up, and throw away the key! How dare I enjoy the bonding experience of breastfeeding my toddler. How dare I experience an oxytocin rush, which is necessary for continued milk production, that’s responsible for bonding and those loving feelings? It’s actually okay to enjoy breastfeeding! That said, it’s not always sunshine, roses and a choir of angels singing hallelujah. Sometimes breastfeeding is difficult, painful, exhausting, overwhelming or extremely annoying. Anyone who’s breastfed a toddler can probably relate to occasionally copping a foot to the face or a finger up the nose, and the dreaded nipple twiddling. (Not to mention biting… ouch!) But most of the time breastfeeding feels like any part of our daily routine. Playing games with my children also a part of our daily routine, it is both enjoyable for me and positive for them; though not biologically necessary, it is pretty optimal for all of us.
The other thing I’d like to point out, you can’t make a child breastfeed! I can’t make 5 year old eat his vegetables – I can’t imagine getting him to latch and nurse properly! If they don’t want to breastfeed, they just won’t breastfeed. I find it really bizarre that anyone would say that the mother could be the only person who benefits from breastfeeding.
What about the suggestion that there is no benefit breastfeeding for the child beyond a certain age?
Here’s where I think this topic can get a bit tense, because we all want to do what is best for our children, so as parents we have a tendency to be a little emotional in the defence of our own choices!
So, even if human breast milk is not “the best” nutrition for human children before they reach a natural weaning age, let’s say hypothetically consuming human breast milk is only equal to the consumption of cow’s milk (or formula); why would a mother who’s happy and able to breastfeed, wean a child who’s happy and able to be breastfed, to then give them the expressed breast milk of another species? If it makes no difference – why change anything? When demanding that someone else stops breastfeeding their child, the question should not be “Why breastfeed?” the question should be “Why stop?”
But, while we’re here, what are the benefits of breastfeeding?
Breast milk is the ultimate “superfood”. I think of breast milk for my toddler as a naturally derived dietary supplement. Breast milk contains water, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins (including vitamins a, c and d) minerals (including calcium and iron), trace elements, healthy fats like essential fatty acids, and well as antimicrobial factors, digestive enzymes, hormones and growth factors. Source.
The other benefit to breastfeeding for the child is comfort. A few weeks ago we ended up in hospital emergency room with our 2 year old in the evening after an incident involving her finger nail and her brothers bike (I’ll spare you the gory details) but because she breastdfeeds I was able to settle her off to sleep in a busy hospital waiting room. Breast milk contains hormones which have a sedative effect, I love how Pinky Mckay says “Your baby isn’t actually milk drunk, he’s actually milk stoned.” but this was especially helpful having access to a safe and free sedative when in hospital with a toddler with a messed up nail and fractured finger bone.
The other point people make, which I find really interesting, is the one about raising independent children. People suggesting left, right and centre that breastfeeding beyond a certain age (usually 1 or 2) will create emotional, social or academic problems for the child. But then I’ve asked people for studies or research, they baulk at the suggestion that they should have to back up their opinion with any kind of evidence. If breastfeeding beyond infancy is so harmful, then surely there would be some kind of measurable negative outcomes to show that. Without any actual proof of harm, breastfeeding beyond infancy is purely a parenting choice; its cloth or disposable nappies, a bassinet or cot, bright plastic toys or wooden toys. It’s a bit whatever works for you and your family.
S0, how old is too old? There’s not an exact age, every child is different, but the natural weaning age is believed to be somewhere between 2.5 and 7 years.
I don’t think I would breastfeed much beyond 3 years of age – which is perfectly fine too – but I won’t say for sure, I’m currently breastfeeding my 2 year old, with no plans to wean any time soon. Someone said while I was breastfeeding my son, “They are only ever a few hours older than their last feed.” which has really resonated with me, because it’s so profoundly true.
How long have you/would you breastfeed your own children for?