Breastfeeding until the age of four? Why not?

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  • Maternal bond: Breastfeeding should not stop solely on the basis of societal norms

    Maternal bond: Breastfeeding should not stop solely on the basis of societal norms


Society said it was time to end breastfeeding, but one two-year-old boy had the temerity to disagree. He screamed for a week, while his mother cried and his seven-year-old sister cried.

Finally, the mother, who did not wish to be named, took him to the doctor. The doctor said it was obvious that he just wasn’t ready.

“He advised me to avoid any further distress to him, and my daughter,” the mother said. “He told me to let him wean when he was ready.”

Her son did not wean until the age of four, one month before starting preschool. She has no regrets although she never intended to breastfeed for so long.

“In the end it was worth it,” she said. “He is a very healthy, intelligent boy.”

Societal pressures, work demands and family stress are all things that force many mothers to wean before their babies are ready, said breastfeeding experts Debora Oriol, Community Health Nurse with the Department of Health, and Melony Kendell, La Leche League leader and private lactation consultant.

“I find it common that people stop breastfeeding before they want to,” said Mrs Kendell. “It can be because their milk is drying up or they can’t pump at work. Many women don’t breastfeed long enough to even think about weaning.”

Mrs Kendell explained that a mother starts to wean as soon as they start to offer their child something else beside the breast.

“If the child is taking the bottle and it is flowing really fast, they will wean without you really wanting them to,” she said. “When they are six months old and starting to take solid food, that is what we call weaning. Weaning doesn’t necessarily mean stopping suddenly overnight. It is a slow gradual process of introducing something else besides breast milk so they are learning to eat in other ways.

“As the child eats more and more, over the months they will be taking less breast milk. If the mom wants to set a date as a target, it is not always an across the board recommendation. Some women are prone to plugged ducts or mastitis. (Mastitis is inflammation of tissue in one or both mammary glands inside the breast). You would eliminate one feed gradually over the course of weeks and months. The pace is dependent on the mother.”

Another unnamed mother said: “I weaned a little earlier than I had intended to, at approximately 15 months, but it was a gradual weaning and in response to my son’s cues. He was the one that decided he didn’t want to breastfeed anymore. I was under a lot of pressure from older family members and some acquaintances, who did not understand why I continued after 12 months. I was aiming for 18 to 24 months, but as my son gradually weaned himself, it was a non-traumatising situation, although I was sad for it to end.”

Mrs Kendell said it is probably easier to wean a tiny baby by substituting a bottle for the breast, but toddlers nurse for more reasons than just food.

“Sometimes they are wanting that closeness, whether they are calming themselves down or getting off to sleep,” she said. “It really should be something that is done gradually and with love. You are developing a relationship with your baby. If you just go cold turkey it is hard on mom emotionally and hard on baby. When I say with love, sometimes you have to substitute with something else, a book, kisses, cuddles, some other food maybe.”

Mrs Kendell has an 11-year-old daughter. She said starting breastfeeding was not a walk in the park for her so she can sympathise with other mothers who are having issues.

“I had challenges in the beginning,” she said. “It was painful and I was suffering from several rounds of mastitis in the first two weeks. You can have a whole range of difficulty from low milk supply; my issue was over supply.

“I just want to encourage moms to ask for help. Often you try to get advice from your friends, but what worked for them won’t necessarily work for you. Every baby is different.”

Ms Oriol said she would like for women to have the option to breast feed for as long as they want to and it is mutually beneficial.

“A lot of women stop breastfeeding because of work,” she said. “There may not be anywhere at work to breastfeed or they worry about how the child minder will manage, or they live in overcrowded situations, there are things going on at home.”

She believed that society expected children to separate from their parents too quickly. In other cultures it is more common for children to breastfeed to three or four years of age.

“That is sometimes taboo in our society,” she said.

One unnamed mother said she delayed weaning until her son was ready despite the raised eyebrows of other women.

“I gradually weaned him over a period of about three months,” she said, “and finally stopped altogether on his second birthday. This was three months ago and he does still ask to nurse about once a week, but of course there is nothing there to offer. I overheard a couple of mothers talking about weaning and was tempted to join in the conversation until I realised that they were talking about under one year olds and I felt a little embarrassed. I am incredibly proud of my son and myself for how well we did.”

For information about breastfeeding contact La Leche League at 236-1120, to speak to Mrs Kendell as a private lactation consultant call 541-6455.

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Published May 21, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated May 20, 2013 at 5:51 pm)

Breastfeeding until the age of four? Why not?

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