“Don’t worry,” I found myself saying a lot when my older son was a baby. “I won’t breastfeed forever. I’m not going to be like that creepy Moon-Door lady from Game of Thrones, still feeding her snivelling pre-pubescent son.”
From my own son’s newborn days, friends, family and strangers would react to my breastfeeding him the same way. First, they’d congratulate me. In the next breath, they’d ask when I was planning to stop and switch to formula.
I didn’t really know, to be honest. I hadn’t been breastfed, and I didn’t know much about breastfeeding (other than that it was “best” and also “free” and “less faff than sterilising bottles at 3am”). What I did know was that I didn’t want to be one of those weird, gross mums who insisted on breastfeeding their kids past infancy. I’d nod along with people who said these women probably had no boundaries, and were loading their kids up with psycho-sexual problems for years to come. I definitely didn’t want to be one of them.
Somehow, five years down the line, I’m quite clearly one of those mums.
My older son – now four – is snoring in the next room. He doesn’t breastfeed anymore, but he did until he was almost three. And I’m typing this beside my sleeping two-year-old, whom I nursed to sleep after a long day at nursery. In fact, I’ve actively lactated for the best part of five years, with only a six-month hiatus during my second pregnancy.
The new mum I was five years ago would be appalled, of course. So many people are when it comes to breastfeeding older children. Here’s a quick takedown of the myths about extended breastfeeding I used to believe, too.
Myth 1: Breastfeeding toddlers and children is unnatural
Actually, anthropological studies show that human children have always breastfed well past babyhood, weaning naturally between the ages of two and seven – when their adult teeth start coming in, and they physically lose the ability to breastfeed.
Extended breastfeeding is still standard practice across India and parts of West Africa. It was even commonplace in Western society until the 1800s, when formula began to become available.
Myth 2: Breastmilk has no nutritional value for children over the age of six months; they just do it for comfort
Breastfeeding provides vital nutrition and immune support to babies and children alike, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the American Pediatrics Association recommend breastfeeding up to the age of two, with “no upper limit” beyond that.
The composition of breast milk also adapts to your child’s specific needs – if your child has an infection, the antibodies required to fight that specific infection will appear, as if by magic, in your breast milk.
As for providing comfort for tiny children, what’s wrong with that? Breastfeeding can quieten a tantrum and soothe an illness. I’m not sure what, other than comfort, I’m meant to offer a child who’s suffering, or in pain. A firm handshake?
Myth 3: Extended breastfeeding is more for the mother, and has a sexual element
Look, I don’t know how you get your kicks. But walking around with a kid who’s clamped to one of your nipples and furiously – and painfully – twiddling the other nipple between his fingers, as though he’s trying to get the BBC World Service on a faulty old radio: this is not my idea of sexy-time.
Extended breastfeeding is for the mother, too. But it’s not all twiddling. Often, it’s a space dedicated to all that nonverbal mum-stuff we can find calming on a biological level: warmth, heartbeat, smell, symbiosis, shelter. These moments start in pregnancy with a mother stroking her bump, and will hopefully last long after the breastfeeding days are over, in one form or another.
Myth 4: Extended breastfeeding damages children
Actually, studies show that extended breastfeeding is associated with improved cognitive development, emotional stability and social skills well into adulthood. So… suck it?
Myth 5: Look, it’s just gross!
All biological functions are gross, which is why I had to “take a break” during my first kiss, at the age of 14, because I couldn’t get past the disgustingness of French kissing.
Once you become a parent, grossness loses its power. First there’s all that pooing on the delivery table. Then there’s the fact that you’ll never again poo alone, no matter how pernickety you might be. Then there’s snot and vomit, and before you know it – honestly – sticking your boob in a toddler’s mouth because it’ll stop them shouting or being sad suddenly isn’t the worst idea in the world.
The change really came for me when I got to the three-month mark, and realised I didn’t want to give up breastfeeding. My baby and I had a good old system going, and one that was making him bonnier and bouncier as the days went on.
So while my in-laws and friends sidled up with suggestions to add some baby rice to bulk out his diet and start weaning him off the boob, or with dark warnings that too much breastfeeding, and loving, and holding – would somehow “coddle” or “spoil” this baby, I wasn’t buying it.
In the end I visited my local lactation consultant to talk about it. When she asked how long I was planning to breastfeed, I trotted out my tired old line about not being the “creepy Moon Door lady”. At this she cocked her head, and asked, “Why?” Then she loaded me up with books about the science of breastfeeding, and I started to change my thinking.
So now I suppose I have some sympathy for the creepy Moon Door lady from Game of Thrones (although not, you know, a lot. She was really bloody creepy, after all). Breastfeeding into early childhood – if that’s what you choose to do – isn’t gross, or weird, or sexual, or damaging, but a normal process that we’ve forgotten about.
And it doesn’t “spoil” a child, because – science has proven – you can’t spoil a baby or small child, because they don’t have the cognitive development for “wants” – just “needs”. And by breastfeeding, if it’s something you’re both happy doing, you’re meeting your child’s needs.
Twiddling aside, I don’t know when my younger son will wean completely – but I’m happy to continue as long as he needs me to. Or until he actually manages to tune into the BBC World Service, whichever comes first.