Channel Four, February 1st, 2006
Written by Veronika Robinson, Editor, The Mother magazine ~ as seen on Richard and Judy, Channel Four, February 1st, 2006
On February 1st, Channel Four aired Extraordinary Breastfeeding. It was a sensitive portrayal of long term breastfeeding and showed the stories of four families. Sophie weaned her two year old twins. Dolores, who was breastfeeding four year old Tristan, adopted a Chinese girl who she hoped to breastfeed. Kirsty runs a breastfeeding support group called Little Angels which has doubled the local breastfeeding rate. Kirsty goes into the local hospital and teaches new mums to breastfeed.
My family's story is simple. We chose to let our daughters wean themselves when they were ready. They both weaned at a similar age. Bethany was seven (despite stating on the documentary that she was five) and Eliza was a couple of months shy of her eighth birthday. Bethany drew huge media attention by the fact she requested to breastfeed for a 9th birthday present. The media played on her statement that breastmilk is better than a million melons. Better than mango, even.
In the media frenzy around the publicity, there were many factual errors. The Daily Mail, to whom I gave an interview, fabricated quotes left, right and centre and in one particular quote, wrote the exact opposite of what I said. They hounded me for a family photo on the day of my mother in law's funeral. Not only was my story fabricated, but the other two women involved also had their stories altered in favour of how the Daily Mail thinks their stories should be! In Sophie's case, they stated (wrongly) that breastfeeding caused the break-up of her first marriage.
I also gave an exclusive interview to NOW magazine by email, but they too, sadly, managed to misquote and change the tone of what I said, despite it being written in black and white.
It was an honour to be a guest on the Richard and Judy show a few hours before the documentary went to air. They publicly stated that they could find no medical or psychology expert to come out against full term breastfeeding. Of course they couldn't! Studies show that it is psychologically beneficial to breastfeed this way.
Extraordinary Breastfeeding had 3.9 million viewers! More than the population of New Zealand.
So, for the record, here is what I really feel about extended breastfeeding. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth!
Firstly, let's get rid of the term extended breastfeeding, for it suggests that we are doing something beyond a normal or natural timescale. The appropriate words for describing a situation where a child is allowed to self-wean is called full term breastfeeding. This is regardless of whether a child weans at 2 years of age or later. From my perspective, the age is irrelevant. What is important is that the child is welcomed to the breast and that the relationship is mutually enjoyable for mother and child. Not all children would breastfeed beyond five or six years of age if allowed to self wean.
So why would a woman choose to breastfeed her child for years on end?
When I began breastfeeding I never gave it a thought as to when I would wean my child. I had an infant in my arms who needed my milk. I seriously didn't plan ahead to when she would stop having this milk. When Bethany was a year old, I was dining in a friend's café. The niece of this friend was heavily pregnant. Upon seeing me breastfeeding, she snapped, "I will be weaning my child when it is nine months old!"
It was the first time it occurred to me that I might be doing something a little unusual. Sadly, this woman never did breastfeed her child, but chose to raise it on goat's milk. She was proud that her child would be raised on goat's milk just like her mum had been.
When Bethany was fifteen months old, I became pregnant with my second daughter Eliza. Again, it didn't occur to me that I might be doing something odd because I was breastfeeding while pregnant. I even had one elderly lady suggest my breastmilk would be poisonous to my toddler! I can assure you, breastmilk made during pregnancy is NOT poisonous.
When I gave birth to Eliza, Bethany was 22 months of age. She breastfed during my labour and continued again after the birth in a practice known as tandem nursing.
Now, I can tell you, breastfeeding an infant and a toddler is rather a juggling act. In the early days I fed them both at the same time. One on each breast. Bethany stopped eating food altogether. She was in heaven with all this lush new breastmilk gushing forth. As they grew older, I tended to feed them one at a time.
It was about this time that a friend recommended I attend La Leche League (the international support group for breastfeeding families). When I went to the meetings I saw a woman breastfeeding a five year old girl. My eyes nearly fell out of my head! My goodness, I thought, look at that huge child ~ breastfeeding!! Despite my shock (NOT revulsion), something changed inside me that day. A door opened for which I will always be so grateful. My frame of reference widened. I began to study about breastmilk and breastfeeding. I was stunned by what I learnt, and trained to become a breastfeeding counsellor. It is impossible not to be passionate about breastmilk and breastfeeding when you truly know of its benefits. There is no other product on this Earth capable of nourishing our body, brain and immune system like mother's milk. But there was more! So much more to learn. And this is what led me and my family to the place we came to where we let our daughters self wean.
The human body biologically expects to breastfeed for up to about seven years of age ~ the universal age for losing the milk teeth. There is so much anthropological and scientific evidence to show that this is what our body needs and expects, regardless of the culture, climate, race or status we are born into.
People often wonder if full term breastfeeding is 'for the mother' as if we're being selfish. My experience couldn't be further from this way of thinking. If I was looking out for me, I'd have no doubt weaned them years ago. I put their needs first by allowing them to self wean. There is nothing selfish about putting your own needs to one side for a few years in order to give your child the best start in life.
However, there are huge benefits for women who breastfeed for many months and years. Studies have shown a significant decrease in ovarian and breast cancer in mothers who breastfeed long term. Now that's a reason to be selfish! :-) I can honestly say though, for me, this reason played no part in my decision.
There is also an assumption that mothers like me are smothering - forcing the child onto our breast. YOU CAN NOT FORCE A CHILD TO BREASTFEED.
Breastfeeding in children is initiated by the child. Because breastfeeding involves the sucking 'reflex' you cannot force it. And it is this same reflex that is responsible for self-weaning. As a child gets older, they are so busy with life, playing, running, and all the other adventurous things they get up to, that they simple aren't breastfeeding that often. It varies from child to child. Some will breastfeed once or twice a day, others may go for days without breastfeeding. Some will go weeks and then have a feeding frenzy. The reflex needs to be regularly used in order to work efficiently in extracting milk from the breast. ALL children will lose this reflex as some point, if allowed to self wean.
The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding well into and beyond the second year old life. This is a conservative organisation which is saying two years is the minimum we should breastfeed for, NOT the maximum!
The American Academy of Family Physicians (yet another very conservative organisation) states that weaning a child before two years of age leads to an increase in illness.
The worldwide average for weaning is 4 years and 2 months of age.
I'm no mathematician, but I can assure you that you don't get an average like that if the majority of people are weaning at 6 months of age.
There are so many benefits to breastfeeding and the consumption of breastmilk. I am all too aware that the average person on the street knows next to nothing about breastmilk, and that is why, in Britain, we have such appalling breastfeeding rates. Many people assume formula is an appropriate alternative to breastmilk, no different perhaps than if they were to choose Pepsi over Coke.
Breast milk is a living food. It is constantly changing as the mother's body scans the environment for dangerous pathogens. Her body adapts and produces milk to build her child's body in the way no other food can. No two mothers have the same breastmilk. No mother produces the same milk twice. It is constantly changing to suit the needs of the child.
Formula milk is static!! Formula is not a living food. It cannot build the brain or the immune system. When babies are fed from a bottle, they are denied their birthright to develop right and left hand/eye coordination; the building up of oro-facial muscles which can only happen when extracting milk from a breast; the warmth of giving and receiving from mother to child. A bottle, a dummy ~ these are no replacements for the love and comfort of a warm, comforting breast. The human needs to suck. But it needs to suck at the human breast to have this need met fully. The consequences of not doing this are many. It may be as simple as sucking a thumb, or could manifest later in the shape of cigarette smoking, food addictions, etc.
Animal milks are made for animal babies. Cow's milk is designed to build a calf's body very quickly. Goat's milk is designed for a kid.
In the past few weeks I've been asked many questions that people clearly want to know. I'll do my best to answer some of them here.
No, my sex life has not suffered because of breastfeeding. Nor has it for my husband. Many people suggest that it is difficult for men to be at the back of the queue when kids come along, and goodness me, how did my poor husband cope with not being first in line? Well, I am blessed with an emotionally and mentally mature husband. He has never felt jealous or needy. He knows I love and adore him. That doesn't change because I'm breastfeeding the two children who were created from our love! It is hardly beneficial to parenting if the partner is acting like a needy child.
NO, my nipples have never hurt. Sore nipples are the result of the baby not latching on properly. If a woman has sore nipples, she needs to get help immediately. Nature intended that breastfeeding be enjoyable. If your health visitor or midwife don't know how to help your baby latch on, then please, contact LLL (La Leche League) or the ABM (Association of Breastfeeding Mothers) or , better still, an experienced breastfeeding mother. Many women give up breastfeeding because of sore nipples. Latching on correctly is very easy to address.
I've been asked over and over if I'm concerned about my breasts changing shape because of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding does not change the shape of your breasts, PREGNANCY does! And how could a mother not value her breasts, regardless of their shape, when she has fully nourished her children through them? So what if they aren't a certain size or a certain shape? My kids and husband love them the way they are. Why should I care what the average man on the street thinks of them? I don't!!
Do I care if people think I'm weird for breastfeeding so long?
Nope. To be completely honest, from my perspective, I find it strange that people aren't breastfeeding their children as nature intended.
I was surprised at how many people recognised me on the streets after the documentary aired. Clearly the British public haven't learnt how to be discreet when they recognise someone from television. The pointing, staring, whispering, laughing .are all indications to me of people who just have NO IDEA what they're doing to their children by not breastfeeding.
I've been inundated by supportive emails and cards. I know that for every person struggling with the concept of full term breastfeeding, there are at least two people cheerleading the cause.
Fake milks are relatively recent in human history. A blip in time in the scheme of our evolution. If we continue raising children on fake milk or milk from another species, we will see not only a rapid decline in humanity's mental, emotional and physical health, but I believe humanity would die out if we were to all stop breastfeeding.
I appreciate this is a radical statement from which most people will immediately define me as a 'crank'. But when the scientists raise their heads above the horizon and start saying the same thing, then, I'm afraid, it may be too late to undo the damage we've done to our children. It may be two or three generations from now when we'll see the shocking problems, but they will happen. If we were meant to drink crap from a can, milk from the udder of a cow, goat, camel or horse, then we'd have been born to those animals rather than a mammalian human.
**A very special and heartfelt thank you to Katie Buchanan, Producer of Extraordinary Breastfeeding and a mother who breastfed, for staying true to your goal of a campaigning documentary for the right to breastfeed in public while skilfully grabbing the attention of mainstream Britain.