I recently shared an interesting article about extended breastfeeding with my facebook friends. I had unthinkingly clicked 'share' after reading and then gone to bed. When I woke at 6am and checked my notifications, I found a fierce debate had taken place on the post, one that had become really quite heated in places, and I was genuinely taken aback.
In all honesty, I don't know why I was surprised; extended breastfeeding is, by nature, a deeply controversial topic and incites a passionate response from both camps: those in favour of it and those that think it's downright creepy. I didn't really get involved with the debate (in fact, I found myself trying to smooth out the many ruffled feathers), as my own feelings about it are complex and not entirely clear even to me. However, after mulling it over for a couple of days, I decided that it's something I wanted to explore.
For those who aren't familiar with the term 'extended breastfeeding', it simply refers to continuing to nurse past the World Health Organisation's recommended two years, sometimes right up to school age and even beyond. I think that this is the part that makes people squeamish. The fact that, at this age, breast milk is no longer perceived to be essential to the child's nutrition and development means a shift in how comfortable people are with it. Extended breastfeeding is seen much more as the mother's choice, and is often regarded as an attempt to stunt the child's independence. I also think that, once a woman no longer has a small baby to nurse, her breasts are once more seen as a sexual organ that should be covered up and kept away from children.
Before having Blake, I too thought that extended breastfeeding was a bit creepy. I would cringe whenever I saw someone feeding a child older than about one, dismissing the entire act as completely unnecessary. However, since beginning to breastfeed my own child, my attitude to this enduring taboo has shifted enormously. I've developed an understanding for these women and children that I never would have had if I didn't have my own breastfeeding experience.
I've come to learn that extended breastfeeding often tends to happen by accident. It's not an active choice by the mother (who would probably quite like to start wearing normal bras again now, actually) to feed until a particular age, but rather a choice to allow their child to self-wean. Often this will happen before two, sometimes almost as soon as the child begins to take solids. However, a child will occasionally continue to nurse until a much older age, as in the case of the woman writing in the article I shared. It's only now that I can understand why a mother would want to indulge that desire. After all, once weaned, we acknowledge that they still require milk and encourage them to take dairy for their calcium needs; yet it actually makes more sense to continue giving them the milk that was not only designed for their species, but also tailor packaged to them individually.
The thing that I really loved about the article was that the mother in question was able to comfort her very unwell daughter in this uniquely special way. At the risk of repeating myself, this is something that is absolutely impossible to comprehend if you've never experienced breastfeeding first hand. Don't get me wrong, I've bottle fed babies and it comes close, the eye contact, hand-holding magic is still there for formula fed babies, but breastfeeding goes just a little further. Blake will sometimes nurse when I know for a fact that there's no milk to be had; it's a comfort thing, almost like a really connected, intense cuddle. The thing I took from the article was that her mother's nursing had helped the four year old to recover from major surgery on her skull, which seemed to negate the argument about whether the whole thing was appropriate or not. For this family and for this sick child, nursing was an absolutely necessary part of her healing process, which essentially takes away any right that society has to comment on it.
Here's the thing: like every element of breastfeeding, the age at which you stop is a deeply personal thing and influenced by a hundred different factors. Is it for me? Honestly, I don't know. I plan to nurse Blake until he's two, in line with WHO recommendations, although I find myself qualifying this decision with "but I'll probably express and bottle feed in public so as not to creep people out." I doubt that I will, I hate pumping with a passion and Blake isn't keen on waiting for a bottle, but I feel I have to say that to calm the horrified expressions I'm met with when I announce my goal. However, extended breastfeeding is rarely a planned path and if Blake wants to carry on, I know I'll be powerless to deprive him of his need.