Breastfeeding beyond a certain point may cause some people to regard you as an “extreme” mother when they are no longer supportive of your choice, says Barbara Higham.
The one and only certainty that exists as a parent is that it’s impossible ever to be sure that what you are doing is right. Mothers are criticized no matter how they choose to raise their children, so where your little ones are concerned, it is hard to feel confident in your particular choices about absolutely anything! I don’t remember anyone ever having said that parenting was easy, do you? And breastfeeding can be a danger zone.
If you are a breastfeeding mother, then you will know that there are times when life with your child becomes overwhelmingly intense. Even the happiest of relationships can sometimes be too much, especially when people are unsupportive of continued breastfeeding beyond that certain point, whenever that may be. Mothering is exhausting no matter how you feed your child, but breastfeeding all too often becomes the scapegoat when a mother is tired. Even if you mostly enjoy breastfeeding your child, you may be encouraged to believe that if you quit perhaps life may become easier.
In my own case, getting the hang of breastfeeding my first baby took months and as soon as things were going smoothly, people were already talking about when to quit. After investing so much time and effort into making breastfeeding work and enjoying its rewards at last, I wasn’t ready to stop at the magic six-month point that so many of my peers saw as the cut-off date. When the first year had passed—and 12 months is another magic developmental stage—breastfeeding was so simple and enjoyable, why would I think of stopping?
By the time I was entering the third year of breastfeeding, I was pretty much on my own in making such a choice. Although I was convinced it was a good thing, I had begun sometimes to feel the need to defend or even apologize for carrying on breastfeeding my son. Some years later, I was interviewed, when “still” breastfeeding my third child, by a journalist for Bella women’s magazine and then quoted in the article that appeared, under the title “Extreme Mums.” It’s hard not to feel out on a limb when this is how “normal” folk react to your “weird” behavior. I do like to make my own mind up about things rather than automatically accepting the status quo but breastfeeding is hardly an act of extremism, is it?
Breastfeeding worked well for us and I was fortunate not to be subjected to any pressure from family or friends to stop, though some people still gave me unwanted advice about how to go about quitting, as though I was suffering from a bad habit rather than doing what was right by my children.
Since my first experience of sustained breastfeeding (and my oldest is almost 20 now), I have had the privilege of listening to many mothers’ stories and know the real pressure mothers feel in a culture that does not understand breastfeeding and how this pressure, expressed through the attitudes of friends, family and society at large, can damage a mother’s self-esteem and rob her of a special time in her life that cannot be replaced.
If you are feeling pressured to give up breastfeeding at any point in your relationship, while knowing nothing of your personal circumstances, I’d like to reassure you on a few points.
No evidence exists that breastfeeding until a child stops of his own accord—and they all do stop—is in any way damaging mentally or physically. In fact, isn’t the opposite more likely? Nutritious tailor-made milk with immunologic qualities doesn’t suddenly turn into junk food. The child who feels secure because he hasn’t been pushed away finds it easier to move towards independence once his needs have been met. In one study of 2,900 mother-infant pairs, breastfeeding for one year was associated with better child mental health at every age up to 14 years and longer duration of breastfeeding was associated with better child mental health at every assessment point (Oddy et al., 2009). A recent study found that breastfeeding duration predicts greater maternal sensitivity over the next decade of the child’s life (Weaver, Schofield, & Papp, 2017). The early life experience of breastfeeding promotes physical and mental resilience and sets the stage for physical health in later life (Shonkoff, 2016).
You can handle the criticism once you recognize that you do not need to justify your behavior. This means you need not argue with anyone. It is kinder to assume that those who suggest you stop breastfeeding are doing so in the belief that quitting would be in your best interest. How you approach that depends on the circumstances. It might be possible to share information about breastfeeding or it may be better to steer clear of the subject. Sometimes simply acknowledging other people’s perspective or experience is enough, without any need to agree or disagree with them. If they see that how you parent your children is working well for your family, they may come to alter their opinion in time. Model the change you want to see.
Distraction and postponing feeds are a healthy part of natural weaning and a verbal child can understand and learn to respect your limits. This might include, for instance, putting off a feed until you are home, having a story instead of a feed, or only feeding for a set number of minutes. Using a gentle approach, you will soon discover what works for you to keep you both happy. It’s not good for either of you if you are feeling resentful. Take the time to talk to your child because showing that you respect her needs and being able to communicate yours will help build on the mutual trust you have.
Breastfeeding is more than just the milk. Your child’s need to be close to you, to feel comfort in your arms and reassurance in the familiar act of breastfeeding are appropriate behaviors and your responsiveness through continuing to breastfeed supports your child’s emotional and physical development as well as giving you some extra time to put your feet up.
Oddy, W. H., Kendall, G. E., Li, J., Jacoby, P., Robinson, M., de Klerk, N. H., . . . Stanley, F. J. (2009). The long-term effects of breastfeeding on child and adolescent mental health: A pregnancy cohort study followed for 14 years. Journal of Pediatrics, 156(4), 568–574. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2009.10.020
Shonkoff, J.P. (2016). Capitalizing on advances in science to reduce the health consequences of early childhood adversity. JAMA Pediatr, 170(10),1003–1007. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.1559
Weaver, J. M., Schofield, T. J., & Papp, L. M. (2017). Breastfeeding Duration Predicts Greater Maternal Sensitivity Over the Next Decade. Developmental Psychology. doi:10.1037/dev0000425