I wrote about the first ten months of breastfeeding my son in March 2011. My closing comments were: ‘I am looking forward to continuing to breastfeed Ewan as he grows into a toddler [… ] Like all journeys I am not aiming for the destination but the experience along the way. This journey so far has taught me more than I ever imagined, about myself, my baby, our amazing bodies, our culture, and opened me up to new ways of seeing’.
I am now a little further along this remarkable journey. As I write these words my eighteen month old son toddles happily into the room, tugs on my sleeve, says ‘na na’ in his adorable little voice, thoroughly expecting to be picked up and nursed. So I do, as his face beams with pleasure, delighted chuckles as he waits in anticipation. I type with one hand as he grips onto my hair, making contented little humming noises as he suckles. I glance adoringly down at his bright blonde mop of hair and shining blue eyes, as we begin what is now second nature to us both. He then unlatches, lowers himself to the floor and wanders off into his mesmerising new world; I know he’ll return when he needs to. I like to think of our breastfeeding relationship as a sophisticated dance of joining and parting, which varies in length and intensity from the short but intense feeds in the day to the long, lazy dream feeds in the evening and early morning.
For me there are two words which stand out in this relationship; confidence and communication. Ewan is confident his mother will provide him with the nursing he expects, as long as he desires it. Why would it be any different? He is unaware of the complex, multiple reasons why most mothers in the UK stop breastfeeding before their children are biologically ready. He is also increasingly confident in latching on quickly and adeptly in the most interesting of positions, including standing up and feeding upside down in what can only be described as breastfeeding gymnastics! He happily feeds at any time in almost any situation. I have developed the confidence to read his emotions and his needs, to trust him to communicate to me those needs, in effect allowing our instincts to rule. I have also developed confidence in my body and its ability to provide such a huge amount to my son through breastfeeding, far beyond its nutritional properties to the countless other benefits of this ‘magic’ milk. So too am I feeling empowered enough to step out of the box, to cease practising ‘closeted nursing’ hidden from view. Instead I nurse my toddler with pride and awareness of its benefits, confident to nurse almost anywhere, anytime, until my son communicates to me he is ready to wean.
I like to call breastfeeding past one year ‘sustained breastfeeding’, a term Anne Sinnott uses in her book ‘Breastfeeding Older Children’. Other terms, such as extended or long-term breastfeeding carry the assumption it isn’t ‘normal’ to breastfeed past age one. I have learnt a little about the wisdom developed over millennia, of the nursing habits of other cultures past and present of our own species and that of other mammals, as well as valuable insights from scientific research. These reveal how nursing children into toddlerhood and beyond is perfectly normal in a biological as well as psychological sense. It is our culture which labels sustained breastfeeding a marginal activity. The older the child gets, the stronger the social taboo against nursing becomes, the more invisible and hidden away it is. By talking to other women about their experiences of breastfeeding or otherwise, I have realised how much of a battle we have on our hands to support and normalise sustained breastfeeding. To affirm and celebrate breastfeeding we require a massive change in the way we regard infants, food and women’s bodies, in a political, commercial and a social sense. We have a long way to go…
There are many advantages to sustained breastfeeding; I could write an essay on this topic, below is a summary! Breast milk is nature’s medicine. When Ewan is ill and refusing food, I do not need to worry about his nutritional intake, as he will nurse more in order to sustain himself. He is also receiving all those excellent antibodies to help fight off infection. As Ewan ventures out more and more into the world, coming into contact with a far wider range of people, I know my breast milk is protecting him. It becomes more concentrated, more packed with antibodies as he grows, in effect growing with him, his own personalised medicine. For this reason, I have given minimal conventional medicines to Ewan. He has rarely been ill since he turned one, which is wonderful.
Sustained breastfeeding also fits perfectly with baby-led weaning, which we continue to practise with Ewan. Family mealtimes are relaxed affairs, where Ewan selects whatever food he’d like from what we are eating and feeds himself, now with far more expertise and not as much mess! Along with this relaxed attitude to food is a more relaxed attitude to sleeping. We bed-share, which makes night nursing far easier for us all; Ewan nurses on and off throughout the night without much interruption to my sleep, then snuggles up next to me for warmth and comfort. This is a very special time. The ‘is he sleeping through the night question’ is no longer even considered, as I’ve learnt to accept his sleeping habits and let go; he will one day sleep through, whether that is next year or in three years, it will come naturally and it isn’t a problem.
When Ewan gets the inevitable bumps and scrapes, which goes with the territory of an active toddler, he comes running to me crying, desperate to be soothed. I nurse him, it almost always instantly calms him and then he wanders off again. When we’re both exhausted from a busy day we can sit or lie-down and relax for a few minutes as he suckles, taking valuable time out together. This time reconnects us after time apart, increasing our bond. I can really feel the prolactin, the mothering hormone, and oxytocin, the love hormone, working their magic on Ewan and I, as a sense of wellbeing oozes from us, both of us calmer and more content. I still feel there is an invisible thread between my son and I, as strong as it ever was, only now it is longer and thicker than ever before because he ventures further afield without me, and because my love for him grows by the day.
Breastfeeding has also made travelling far easier and more flexible. This is along with the many advantages of baby-wearing and bed-sharing which have also eased the experience of travelling no end. We travel a lot, in both this country and abroad. We have been on two big family holidays this year, to the Shetland Isles and to Canada. Some of the food we eat when travelling is strange tasting to Ewan, especially pre-prepared food, so he doesn’t always eat it. Popping him on the breast as such times, in restaurants with limited menus and no home-cooked food, means we can both relax. On a night flight Ewan fell to sleep nursing and then hardly stirred all night apart from when he suckled a little more. When in an unfamiliar environment he nursed in order to feel more secure. He took new places and people in his stride because he turned to me when he needed to, to be instantly calmed with the familiar nursing experience. These trips have encouraged us to set our sights on further afield, in anticipation of my husband taking parental leave next year so we can travel in Asia.
When out and about we find it far easier to wear Ewan in a sling than use a pushchair; we have an excellent soft carrier in which I have nursed Ewan countless times, whilst on walks and out and about. I didn’t discover the many merits of breastfeeding whilst baby-wearing until quite recently, primarily being mobile whilst nursing, although if we have another child it is something I shall do from day one. It is so liberating!
Because sustained breastfeeding is quite a marginal activity, I have had to seek out groups who approve of and are able to support me on this journey. I continue to attend my local La Leche group in Wirksworth, Derbyshire, where I meet likeminded mothers who are parenting in similar ways. This group is soul-affirming and vital to me, as here I really feel what I am doing is totally understood. I also weekly meet up with ‘mum friends’, some of whom are also feeding their toddlers, others who aren’t but are totally supportive of and interested in my choices. This is another form of valuable support. I talk to my family, who are on the whole very supportive of my continuing to breastfeed, and gain tremendous support from my husband and parents. Research has also enlightened me no end into the many benefits of breastfeeding and how normal it is in many other cultures.
I will end by saying that Ewan continues to rely upon and enjoy his ‘snuggles’. This is the code word we use so Ewan can ask for breast-milk more discreetly as he gets older. It also reveals how snugly and cuddly nursing is. When I see Ewan’s happy, smiley face, tummy full of milk, his eyes content, when he gives me a big hug and kiss to say thank you, I know it is all worthwhile. Nursing is still my primary way of mothering, one which I hope and anticipate it will be for many more months, even years, to come. The journey continues, watch this space…