I am following with interest the media hype following the infamous TIME magazine shoot of a mother breastfeeding her 3 year old son on a chair. I came on the BH this morning to see a 'spin off' thread discussing when is too old to still be breastfeeding a child. Really? is this really what we need to be talking about?
What I find ironic is that we are devoting news headlines, writing magazines, inventing entire BH threads to discuss what just 2% of the population do. Yep, only 2% of mothers actually breastfeed beyond 2 years of age. We could argue at what age 'extended breastfeeding' refers to, but for the purposes of making my point I am going to choose 2 years and beyond, because that is the current world health organisation recommendation for breastfeeding, so if you go beyond that I am going to call it 'extended'. If ever there was a minority group, then this is one of them.
I think the more relevant question is :"What age is too young to stop breastfeeding a baby"
What we know is that almost all mothers want to breastfeed, because 97% of mothers in Australia initiate it. Only 3% of mothers do not want to breastfeed, and so choose to never initiate. What we also know is that by 1 month of age, only 56% of babies in Australia are still being exclusively breastfed. That means that within 1 month, 41% of mothers who wanted to breastfeed are either no longer breastfeeding or only partially breastfeeding. 41%! Many of these mothers have stopped because they hit a problem that under the conditions of post birth recovery and new born exhaustion they found impossible to overcome (very understandable). The most common reasons are related to attachment, sore/cracked nipples, mastitis and low or perceived low milk supply. These 41% of mothers are the ones we need to be talking about, and these are the mothers as a society we are failing. This is where the energy and debate needs to go - not into the 2% of mothers who are still feeding beyond 2 and are making some people feel uncomfortable. I mean, who cares? no one is getting hurt.
so my second question that I think we need to talk about is: "How do we best help these 41% of mothers who have stopped or partially stopped after 1 month when they didn't want to?"
The 41% of mothers who wanted to breastfeed but are no longer doing so at 1 month old are often left with feelings of loss, sadness, regret, anger and at times guilt. I came close to weaning my now breastfeeding 2 year old when she was 10 weeks old because of recurrent mastitis, and I was absolutely floored at the sense of grief and sadness I felt just at the thought of having to wean when I didn't want to. These are the mothers we need to be focusing on and helping. How do we do this? Its a complicated issue. Because we don't give little girls dolls and show them how to breastfeed - we give them dolls with bottles and dummies, and that's what they see as normal. They don't learn those life skills as they go along. Many young girls, teenagers or mothers-to-be no longer see their mum/aunt/sister/cousin breastfeed either, and for this reason many mums are handed their new born baby having never even SEEN another mother breastfeed before (except for the odd one down the shops hidden under a hooter hider -surely not enough exposed to actually see how the child latches and what their mouth looks like on the breast). This is a tragedy. It is no different to handing someone a brand new bicycle - someone who has never even seen someone else ride a bicycle let alone ridden one themselves - and saying "here you go! I'll show you how to get on and how to push the pedals, and then I'll give you a push off and you can ride to the city and back! ok?". What are the chances they are going to fall off at the first corner, and not know how to get back on? I'd say very high. Probably around 41%...
This is what we need to be talking about. Why is this statistic as it is? what can we do to change it? We need to be thinking about the 41% of mothers that are left with that sense of loss. The 41% of babies who miss out on the immunity, the comfort, the stem cells, the white blood cells and the incredible reduced health risks that come with breastfeeding. 41% of mothers who miss out on reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancers and osteoperosis.
I don't know what the answer is. Maybe it is better pre-natal education. Maybe it is better role modelling from a society that is open and supportive towards breastfeeding. Maybe it something else. Maybe it is better post natal support. I dont know. But I sure do know that talking about and improving this statistic is this is much more important for everybody's mental and physical health than debating back and forth the 2% of mums who feed kids with teeth standing on a chair.
Well that's my 2 cents worth