I live in a very breastfeeding-friendly community. Most mothers I know breastfed their babies. Until recently, I have felt supported in breastfeeding and never felt uncomfortable breastfeeding in public.  But shortly after Wren’s second birthday, I looked around me and found I am now the only person I know who is still breastfeeding a two year old. I feel I have entered new territory.

What I am doing feels quite natural to me. When Wren was born, I didn’t have any definite ideas about how long I would breastfeed him. There were times when it was hard and I would never have imagined I’d still be going now. But the thing I didn’t realise was how much the breastfeeding relationship changes over time. Breastfeeding a baby who is dependent on you as their only source of food is quite different from breastfeeding a toddler. Some things are more complicated, but mostly I find it less demanding.  If I had woken up one day and been required to breastfeed a small child, it would have seemed entirely weird, but the change is gradual and natural. For him, he is doing what he has always done; getting nourishment and comfort from his mother. To start denying him now feels cruel and artificial.

So why has everyone else stopped? Even mothers who I would consider ‘lactivists’ have weaned, or cut down to one (private) feed a day. In many cases it is related to pregnancy or the birth of a second child. Fair enough – I’m in no position to judge that choice. I don’t mean to judge anybody’s approach. I would just like to explore some of the reasons. If an individual mother (or child) makes a choice to wean, that’s their business – but if masses of women are feeling social pressure to wean (or are feeling unsupported in continuing to breastfeed) then that’s everybody’s business.

How much is early weaning due to social pressure? There is a high level of squeemishness and outright disgust in the general population about breastfeeding toddlers, even sometimes babies. Boobs are so ridiculously sexualised in our society, that people think there is something wrong with a child who can talk and walk still having a intimate relationship with their mother. This is not supported by WHO guidelines which recommend breastfeeding for two years and beyond if both mother and child still want it. Anthropological evidence suggests the average natural age of weaning is between 2.5 years and 7 years. I prefer the term ‘full-term breastfeeding’, which implies the normality of breastfeeding for a number of years,  to ‘extended breastfeeding’, which implies that this phase is being dragged out longer than it should.

I want to keep breastfeeding my son. Why?

  • Because breastmilk is the world’s most perfect food, the only true wholefood.
  • Because it supports his health while his own immune system is still developing. This is particularly important for us, because Wren has cystic fibrosis. Despite having a supposedly serious chronic illness, Wren is the healthiest toddler I know, and I can only put it down to the goodness of breastmilk.
  • Because it gives Wren a way to calm himself down when he get overexcited/frightened/angry, until he has developed the skills and emotional capacity to do that in other ways.
  • Because it’s  the easiest way to get him to lie down and have a nap during the day. I know several parents currently battling to get their wired two-year-olds to nap.
  • Because it means I always have a snack/drink on hand.
  • Because it is a convenient way to keep him quiet at crucial moments, such as when I am on the phone.
  • Because he LOVES it and it is a joy for me to see his happy face when a boob comes out. I know we won’t always be so close.
  • Because weaning would probably be hard work.

Having said all that, I don’t want to suggest that our breastfeeding relationship is always good and easy, or that I never say ‘no’.  There are times when he wants to stay attached for too long, or on and off all afternoon, and it is driving me nuts and I have to draw the line. There are times when I want my body back. If I can identify what he really wants, he will usually accept an alternative to breastfeeding – often he just wants my undivided attention or some quiet one-on-one time, and sitting down in my lap and reading a book is a pleasant alternative for both of us. I am teaching him that there are times and places which are not for breastfeeding, such as the supermarket and when I am eating a meal. He is accepting this easily in general, and so I know he is ready. I have also recently stopped breastfeeding during the night – separate post on this coming soon(ish)!

But back to the issue of social pressure. Despite all the very important reasons I have given for continuing to breastfeed, I am feeling social pressure to wean. By social pressure, I do not mean that people are actively telling me to wean, or ridiculing/punishing me for continuing to breastfeed. I know some people are unfortunate enough to have family or friends actively pressuring them to wean, but for me the effect is more subtle. Yet given the number of pro-breastfeeding women I know who are weaning, I believe these subtler pressures can be very powerful.

What do I mean, then, by social pressure?

  • When people keep asking ‘are you still breastfeeding?’ and ‘when do you plan to wean?’ Even without saying there is anything wrong with it, it makes me feel like my choice is under scrutiny.
  • The looks of surprise on strangers’ faces when I begin to breastfeed in public.
  • My partner is a big factor. He keeps asking questions about whether Wren really still needs it. I can convince him of it, but I still don’t feel as supported as I’d like.
  • When we are out – at playgroup, for example – and breastfeeding, the sight makes other toddlers ask their mother to breastfeed too. I feel apologetic, because my choice to continue breastfeeding is making their choice to cutback more difficult. I feel like I am breaking some sort of unspoken social contract to wean.
  • Having nobody to talk to about the challenges and joys of breastfeeding a toddler, at least nobody who is going through the same things.

In some ways, I find these subtle pressures more difficult to deal with than outright pressure. The rebel in me wishes those shocked strangers in cafes would be brave enough to express their ignorant views, so that I could defend myself. There is a part of me which definitely enjoys pushing boundaries, challenging conservative social norms, but I don’t want to do it all on my own. If I had someone to share my breastfeeding battles and triumphs, it would be much easier, much more fun.

I am finding myself becoming increasingly irritated with Wren’s requests to breastfeed, particularly in public. At times I think that perhaps this is a natural/biological response to trigger weaning, something coming from inside of me. But more likely, it is a response to the external pressures eroding my confidence. This is why I am spelling it out here. To confront it head on, and stop it eating away at me, invisible, un-named.

I will continue to breastfeed beyond two, beyond three, who knows? I would love to hear from others who are doing the same. What social pressures have you encountered to wean? How have you dealth with it?

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