Breastfeeding was always something I was determined to do with my babies, and for as long as possible. I remember a few hours after my first baby was born: the midwife came and asked me if he had suckled yet. When I replied no, she gave his head a firm push in the direction of the nipple, he immediately latched on, and it was the beginning of my breastfeeding career!
I’ve since had four more children, and have breastfed each of them for at least two years, but my first was the longest: three years and three months. I had two main reasons for choosing to practise extended breastfeeding – for the health and immunity given to babies through breastfeeding, and for bonding and healthy emotional attachment.
Breastfeeding has not always been easy for me. I have, at times, experienced mastitis, blocked ducts, engorgement, and oversupply. I have sometimes felt trapped by breastfeeding and needing space from it, especially as my babies have grown into toddlers and the amount of months and years I have spent breastfeeding has lengthened.
I have had some random and unusual breastfeeding moments: at the beach, the movies, while grocery shopping, during special women’s ceremonies, and even in the water while swimming with dolphins!
I don’t really watch how often or how much I breastfeed my toddler – I just feed when he seems hungry or asks for it. Toddlers are different to feed – they squirm around and can be easily distracted by other things, leaving the breast exposed. Because breast milk is not my son’s main source of food anymore I can forget to feed him for hours if we are busy or out, leaving my breasts engorged. On the other hand, having an excuse to have an afternoon lie down is often welcome, and I love it that we get someone on one time through breastfeeding, enabling some little moments of connection amongst the busyness of a family of seven.
My older children report that strangers stare at me when I breastfeed in public, but I have never encountered any discrimination or negative comments in my ten years or so of breastfeeding. However, I have received many positive remarks, usually from older women! I feel that feeding in public is a positive act that normalises breastfeeding, especially when statistics say that less than 1% of babies are breastfed after their first birthday.
I had plans to let my first child self-wean, but after his third birthday, he was still going strong, while I was beginning to feel fed up with breastfeeding and I desired to have my body to myself again. One weekend we talked about finishing breastfeeding, and as he was over three he understood well and the transition was seamless. For my subsequent children, it felt right for me to initiate weaning soon after their second birthday – and for all, except one child it was a fairly easy exercise.
My current (fifth) baby had a serious illness as a newborn, and as a result, I have decided to breastfeed him as long as possible. He is nearing his second birthday and still gets much of his food and nutrition from breastfeeding, and he feeds at least three times a night. It is obvious in his case that extended breastfeeding will be highly beneficial. His immune system was compromised for a long time, and any extra strength or immunity he gains from breastfeeding going into the winter months will be sorely needed.
Looking back, I am so glad I have been able to give the gift of extended breastfeeding to my children. Long term breastfeeding is a big commitment, but have come to the other end of it feeling I did all I could to give them an optimal start to life.