As my breastfeeding journey reaches its 18th month, I find myself reflecting on my time nursing. From those earlier days of confusion and struggle, to the realisation that I didn’t want to wean, and into the transition of nursing a toddler. So here I share my personal ten things I wish I had known earlier about breastfeeding.
1. It doesn’t come easily.
Breastfeeding is one of the most natural things in the world, and yet it can feel completely overwhelming. A tiny baby crying and so much confusion and opportunity for challenges, those early days can feel disorienting and a million miles away from the Instagram squares of artful breastfeeding photography. It’s hard, demanding, draining. Which is exactly why it should be encouraged, celebrated and applauded at every opportunity. I’m well aware that not everyone has a positive breastfeeding experience, and it’s certainly not all rainbows and roses, but for me breastfeeding has proved to be one of the most poignant and uplifting parts of my motherhood journey and one that I want to promote and share. There is something very special about the moments I hold with my daughter as she nurses, something I had never anticipated when pregnant and thinking about feeding choices. It was hard in the early days, and it is still hard at times. Nursing a newborn left me shattered, nursing a toddler can leave me feeling touched out. As my daughter continues to feed through the night, there are times when I feel totally worn out. But I cherish those moments nonetheless and I know it will come to an end one day. It’s hard, yes, but I love to breastfeed.
2. Breastfeeding is feeding on demand.
There’s a really powerful saying from one of my lactation legends The Milk Meg – ‘Don’t watch your clock, watch your baby’. Babies breastfeed for many reasons, and sometimes it’s not always clear to us. I know my personal experience was that I was expecting to feed my baby at set intervals, every three hours or something like that. When she was crying I would go through that newborn checklist that you get told about and think ‘well she’s just fed so she can’t want milk again’. It took me a wee while to realise that I could whip my boobs out anytime baby cried and 9/10 they would solve the problem for me. Of course this meant a baby on my boob 90% of the day, but actually I understand now that this is exactly what breastfeeding a newborn can look like.
3. Breast milk is magical stuff.
The magicalness (is that a word?) of breast milk is still being discovered today, but what we already do know is pretty amazing.
Breast milk adapts as your baby grows. In the beginning it essentially acts as your baby’s first vaccination and provides them with all their nutritional needs. As baby becomes toddler the volume of milk reduces as solids are eaten more consistently, and your milk becomes higher in fat content and develops more antibodies. And it’s ever changing nature doesn’t stop there, your breast milk is personalised further to meet other needs. When your child is unwell, your breast milk adapts to help fight infections, and mum’s breast can detect if her baby’s body temperature fluctuates even a degree and will warm or cool as needed. Breastfeeding also works to prevent risk of infections as well as treat, and reduces risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), childhood leukaemia, type 2 diabetes and obesity. It also had a positive impact on teeth and reduces the risk of cavities later on in life. Nursing and making breast milk also has health benefits for the mum. Breastfeeding lowers your risk of illnesses such as breast and ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and obesity and the longer you breastfeed, the greater the benefits. This is all scientifically proven and another reason to be in awe of our incredible bodies.
4. It’s not ‘just food’.
Ooooooh no, it’s not. It’s so much more than that.
Yes breast milk is incredibly nutritious but it’s not just about filling the belly up and feeding your baby. Breastfeeding is also comfort, it is a connection, it’s a mothering tool. Toddler having a tantrum? Breastfeeding soothes by touch and calms the tears. Teething? Breastfeeding provides pain relief. Upset tummy? When a toddler won’t eat they will still nurse and therefore stay hydrated and nourished. Tired? Breastfeeding is an easy way to get a tired baby to sleep. It’s not 100% guaranteed and seamless (nothing in life is surely?) but it is always on hand and quick to relieve distress. I experienced this first hand myself when I took my daughter to playgroup at 9 months old. Off she would crawl to play and explore, then back she would come for a little milky cuddle, then back off she went. She used breastfeeding to ’touch base’ and feel secure. If we understand the significance of moments like these then we will understand in greater depth the bigger picture of breastfeeding and it’s connecting qualities.
5. It’s ok if you don’t want to leave your breastfed baby.
With the above in mind, it’s easy to understand why some breastfeeding mothers don’t want to leave their baby. It’s not quite as simple as ‘right well she just fed so I have three hours until I need to feed her again’. Newborns and young babies particularly are unpredictable with nursing. My daughter could go for five hours asleep without milk, and other times when awake she would cluster feed or basically constantly be at my breast. I felt pressure* to leave her with family for even half an hour but I could just never allow it. (*Pressure inflicted on myself by myself, from thinking it’s what I should be able to do.). I also felt a similar pressure to try and get her to nap away from me, rather than on me on my breast in a so called ‘nipple nap’. Needless to say I look back and my only wish is I had been more informed and felt confident to mother how I wanted, which was with my baby close to me and happily napping on me. Now my daughter is a toddler and at 18 months is just beginning to eat solid foods more reliably (yes, just, that’s another blog piece, don’t sweat the solid foods either mama, wish I’d known that too…) I am able to comfortably leave her with family while I work and run errands. And whilst she can now fall asleep nursing and be successfully transferred to a bed, she also still naps on me and I still enjoy it. It’s ok if you don’t want to leave your breastfed baby, that moment will naturally ripen in its own time.
6. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.
Like, a lot.
Myths that breastfeeding is bad for your baby’s teeth, that feeding to sleep is a prop and bad habit, that breast milk has no nutritional value past one year. It’s hard to sift through the fear mongering and old wives tales to find absolute truth, particularly when some of the codswallop comes directly from (some poorly advised, not all) health visitors, doctors and other medical professionals. I have experienced this first hand when a doctor suggested I should now be giving cows milk to my daughter in place of breast milk, to which I replied that milk meant for a baby cow would not meet my toddlers needs as efficiently as milk tailored exactly for her. My advice is to inform yourself wisely, follow your instincts and question any ‘facts’ that do not feel right. I have included two very trustworthy sources at the end of this blog.
7. It doesn’t have to stop by adult led weaning.
Of course some families choose to wean from the breast, and that is very much a personal choice and I am fully supportive of that. And there are also many families who decide to continue until the child self weans. I actually didn’t know this was even an option when I began breastfeeding. In the western world there is much taboo around breastfeeding toddlers and children, but in the wider world it’s common practice and not considered unusual in any way all. In fact the term ‘extended breastfeeding’ that was coined over here in the west is simply misleading, we are not actively extending nursing, you cannot force a child to continue, we are just more used to seeing it cut short. ‘Natural term breastfeeding’ as it is appropriately called, is the continuation of breastfeeding into toddlerhood and beyond. The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding to at least 2 years. Worldwide research has shown that the estimated age of a child self weaning is anywhere between 2-7years old, and most commonly around 4 years old. Whilst we westerners may see this as ‘weird’, it is actually as natural as breastfeeding itself. In fact breastfeeding toddlers and children is simply the biological norm.
8. There’s lots of mothers breastfeeding toddlers and children.
So. Many. More. Than. You. Think.
I imagine many mothers who are nursing beyond babyhood did not expect to still be breastfeeding when their child is 2,3,4,5,6 even 7. Once we hit the magical marker of ONE WHOLE YEAR (or even six months) we can feel the tide of support turning. It seems to switch from ‘well done you’re breastfeeding!’ to ‘wait, you’re still breastfeeding?’. It can seem as though people are desperate for you to start, then desperate for you to stop, like we have this allocated time in our minds that is acceptable and anything beyond that is alien. But what many women who breastfeed find (myself included) is that we end up not wanting to stop, because, well, countless reasons. I have listed some of these in a previous point above, yannow, the ‘all problem solving magic boobies’. If I have something that gently gets my baby to sleep, nourishes her when she’s ill, brings comfort when she’s in pain and soothes her when she’s anxious… then why am I going to stop? We are both happy and enjoying our nursing journey, it’s really a matter of personal choices. When I began to talk openly about continuing to nurse my daughter into toddlerhood, I received unprecedented amounts of messages saying ‘me too’, often with mothers too ashamed or afraid to speak of it openly. I think it’s time for that to change.
9. Lots of people will have negative opinions about this.
Whilst there is now more and more support for breastfeeding beyond babyhood, there is still also a whole lot of stigma. Negativity towards continued breastfeeding comes from misinformation and the western culture of sexualising breasts. I am part of a wonderful forum for breastfeeding mothers who uplift and encourage each other every day, and the most common problems from members are from a negative view of natural term breastfeeding from peers or relatives, husbands included. So engrained is the misled notion that breastfeeding is just for babies, it can even cause families to split. We are told we must stop nursing when baby reaches one year / has teeth / can walk / can talk. The question really is, why? None of those development milestones has any bearing whatsoever on breastfeeding. It continues to be nutritious, comforting and a positive connection for the child. Just as we are sold the idea that we can eat a pig but not a cat, we have been sold the idea that nursing is for babies and not beyond that. What we do know, is that natural term breastfeeding is the biological norm and no amount of negative opinion can alter that truth.
10. Talking about breastfeeding is an emotive topic.
Mothering is wild. It is hard work, ongoing, confusing and with a constant tide of decisions and choices. And of course it is a journey where we all love our children and we are all doing our best. Feeding our babies proves to be one of the most emotive motherhood topics out there. As a breastfeeding and motherhood blogger myself, I have had to work hard to find the balance to promote the benefits of breastfeeding without excluding those who are unable or choose not to. Sadly the continued debate of breast vs formula often remains heated and divisive. My stance is this, I am pro breastfeeding but that does not equate to me being anti formula. I don’t agree with ‘breast is best’ because with a ‘best’ there is a polar of ‘worst’ and we all know that formula is absolutely not the worst thing you can do for your baby. There are many mothers who wish to breastfeed but are unable due to lactation struggles, poor support, mental health, financial pressures forcing them to work away or medications that don’t compliment nursing. Implying that they are not doing their ‘best’ is really quite damaging. I also don’t agree with ‘fed is best’ because feeding isn’t a choice, it is a necessity. I personally prefer ‘informed is best’, because making such a huge decision for our babies is easier with knowledge. That is exactly why I have written this blog piece. Breastfeeding is in the minority and sharing information empowers mothers. And regardless of debates, if you are a breastfeeding mother then you are allowed to talk positively of breastfeeding, as you are allowed to talk positively of any of your own motherhood experiences. We share our struggles and so we can also share our successes, we are all on our own journeys.
For support and trusted knowledge, search The Milk Meg and Facebook group page – ‘Breastfeeding Older Babies and Beyond’