It's still a taboo subject, but Sue Leonard discovers why many mothers give children time to self-wean
Tuesday January 19 2010
We're getting used to the sight of young mums breastfeeding in public, but how would you react if the 'baby' being fed was five -- or even older? Should limits be set on breastfeeding?
Ann Sinnott, from Cambridge, breastfed her daughter until she was six and a half years old. Believing that all children should, ideally, be allowed to choose when breastfeeding ceases, Ann set out to explore international attitudes to this somewhat taboo practice.
In her book, Breast-feeding Older Children, she questioned women, men and children from 48 countries via the internet, and she found that breastfeeding until a child is three, six, nine, or even 11 is a growing phenomenon.
Why, though, did she write her book?
"My aim was to support mums who are long-term breastfeeding, and to show them they are not alone," she says.
"I'd like to educate health professionals, because the damage their negative comments can do is incalculable.
"If, as a result of my book, more mums breastfeed their babies for a year, I'll be happy. If they breastfeed until the child is two I'll be happier still, and if they allow they child to self-wean I'll be happiest of all."
Ann aimed to challenge the negative perceptions of many psychologists who contend that breastfed older children are emotionally damaged.
"Breastfed children are happy. They rarely cry because their needs are being met. My daughter, at six, was serene and incredibly independent, yet she had the need to continue breastfeeding. I went along with her until she was ready to stop."
Pointing out that an older child rarely breastfeeds in public; that it's something done behind closed doors, Sinnott says the reasons most mums gave for long-term breastfeeding, was that it was what their child wanted.
The World Health Organisation recommends that mothers breastfeed until their child is two years old, and beyond.
Yet, in Ireland, only 2.4pc of women are still breastfeeding when their babies are six to seven months old -- according to a national study on infant feeding, carried out for the HSE by Trinity College Dublin.
"We would recommend that mothers follow the WHO guidelines and feed until two or beyond. But it must be a mutual decision. At that stage, breastfeeding is more for comfort than anything else.
"If it's mutually beneficial, it is the mother's and the child's business, and it's not for anyone else to intrude upon."
When Krysia Lynch first saw a walking, talking child breastfeeding, her eyes almost popped out of her head.
She was at a La Leche League meeting with her first child Naoise at the time, and had not realised long-term breastfeeding was possible.
"It was wow! I didn't know my body was capable of that," says Krysia, who is now a mum of three. "I'd never been exposed to it before."
Krysia had always intended to breastfeed.
"My mother breastfed all of us until we were around six or seven months old," she says, "and all the women in my family breastfed. I knew I would do it, but I had no idea how long I would continue.
"I was naive. I thought when your baby took real food you stopped breastfeeding. I didn't realise there was a process called weaning."
When Naoise reached six months, Krysia started to introduce solids, but the baby wasn't too interested. And, realising that breast milk provided all the nutrients Naoise needed, Krysia relaxed, and stopped worrying about what he was eating.
'I'd imagined I'd have finished breastfeeding him by the time he was a year old, but when his first birthday came, he still seemed so small.
"It had taken time to get breastfeeding properly established, and it seemed crazy to stop something that was going so well. By then I'd learned to follow Naoise's needs, so I carried on. And before I knew it he was two, and I was still breastfeeding. I just carried on until he didn't seem to have a need for it."
Were there ever any embarrassing moments in public?
"No. With an older child you can set limits on breastfeeding," she says. "You can say 'we'll only feed at night-time', or 'only first thing in the morning'. You can say, 'It's not acceptable to walk up to me in the shopping centre and to pull my top up'."
Krysia breastfed her second son Fionn, beyond his second birthday, too, and she is currently breastfeeding her daughter, Siabhra, who is 15 months old. But she wouldn't describe herself as radical.
"I'm just following my child, and mothering through breastfeeding," she says.
"I know loads of mums who long-term breastfeed. I met some of them at the local mother and toddler group. I don't think these mums breastfeed older children by design, I think they end up doing so because they see the benefits to their child."
Many mums, though, keep quiet about the practice.
"It's just not culturally acceptable in Ireland," says Krysia. "Other cultures are different. I was breastfeeding Naoise in Portugal when he was around 21 months old. We were at a truck stop on a motorway and I thought, 'this is the worst possible place'. But a lorry driver gave me the thumbs up. Three others shouted encouraging comments. They were saying, 'sup it up baby!' They were telling me about their children, and the late age they had been weaned."
Monica O'Connor, a mum of six -- who recently fostered four more children -- breastfed all her children long term. Some of them weaned themselves at three -- one, the most resistant, at five years and four months. Monica is still breastfeeding Eamon, at 23 months. To her, it is entirely natural.
'When I was 16 I met a family with a new baby. He was breastfed into toddlerhood. It was the first time I'd seen that. I liked the family's healthy lifestyle, and felt theirs was my parenting ideal.
"Darragh was born 23 years ago when I was 18. Breastfeeding was relatively rare back then. Out of the 24 women in and out of the postnatal ward the week I was there, only four breastfed. Yet I breastfed on planes and trains; in the church and the cinema and in supermarkets, and have never, ever, received a negative comment."
Monica doesn't believe people are aware when she's feeding an older child. "Up to two I'd have them in a sling, and most people presume the child is asleep," she says. "By three it becomes a private thing first thing in the morning. Few people would know about it; even the grandparents might not be aware.
"I wish long-term breastfeeding was culturally acceptable, but I realise that it's not. And there are times when I have to distract an older child, because I know it will cause the people around us discomfort. Yet if I pulled out a soother, or a bottle for an older child, nobody would raise an eyebrow. That bothers me. Because by breastfeeding, I'm doing the very best that I can for my child."
Monica believes that many women are nursing older children, but are hiding it.
"They feel they have to. It's as if it's something shameful, which of course it isn't. And because it's hidden people are unaware that it's happening."
Breast-Feeding Older Children by Ann Sinnott is published by Free Association Books www.fabooks.com
- Sue Leonard