“Oh, you are still breastfeeding him?” (almost speaking in hushed tones as if I was having an extramarital affair!) When I told my neighbourhood aunty that I am still feeding my then 2 year old, she nearly rolled her eyes up. She told me it is not good to feed “so long” and soon I must apply neem paste to my breasts to wean him. I bet she would have even consulted an astrologer for a weaning date! Sigh! I just thought to myself that while this octogenarian should have been appreciating me for extended breastfeeding, she was doing the reverse! This made me think of the other women in her family who probably never got to make informed choices to breastfeed their own children. I know I am hypothesizing now. But this is a reality in most families! Anyway, I just told her that my doctor had advised to feed longer for health reasons and walked off.
Having been closely associated with a parenting network in the city, I get to interact (virtually and in person) with many women who are in a position where they cannot take any leads in their own life, especially after becoming mothers. They cannot breastfeed their own children and have to fight their own kith and kin for the same reason. As a group, we only make women aware that just as there are choices in birthing, there are ways to continue breastfeeding for a longer while. There are awareness sessions on formula and introduction to solids too without discontinuing breastfeeding.
Coming back to my breastfeeding journey, I had no quintessential villains who stopped me from feeding nor did I have to face milk supply issues that most women face daily. I consider myself blessed that I even got complete family support when I decided to continue breastfeeding. Until he turned 8 months, my son was feeding from both my breasts and then one fine day he decided to himself: I don’t like feeding from mom’s left breast. He simply got comfortable on one side. Initially I worried if my breast got emptied, how would I satiate him? After speaking to other moms and reading articles online, I got to know it is pretty normal for babies to have a preference for one breast.
The next query to me is often about extended breastfeeding versus low weight. I faced fire for this from my then paediatrician who said he is underweight and my hubby even considered the idea of beginning cerelac for my then 1 year old son. It horrified me and I had sleepless nights as each day, my hubby would ask if we should buy the cerelac tin. Since I had read enough about it, I convinced him it was junk food. He did get it but thankfully my son rejected it. The tin vanished in course of time and I breathed a sigh of relief. I eventually changed my paediatrician and no longer did the weight issue resurface in conversations.
I also had zero clues when my friends would ask me how long I would be breastfeeding and when would I begin weaning. In the beginning, my answers were quite vague, I remember. I started saying that I would feed him until he turned 2. As he turned 2 years, I changed my answer to 3 years. It was so natural to me that I did not realize I would continue feeding him until he wanted me to feed. And now, at 3.9 years, he still wants his feed and I absolutely do not mind.
I am sure that the next query would be: what if he won’t ever get weaned? I have only one answer to this: Nature designated a natural weaning period for humans in a time when we never had hospitals or doctors! Why then should we intervene and wean the baby by force? Let the child decide. I decided to let my kid decide. Self weaning is not compulsory but women should know that it is possible to take this route too. There are no ill-effects on the mother’s health nor is the child in danger of getting malnourished. As far as nutrition and immunity go, breast milk will continue to be the best immunity booster for a baby, lifelong.
The composition of human milk is said to change as the baby grows. However it also doesn’t mean that a formula fed baby cannot develop immunity. It is just that vis-a-vis a breastfed baby, it will be a bit more challenging to keep illnesses at bay. So if you do have a choice to breastfeed your babies a bit longer, it is perfectly fine to do so. Do not worry about society, family or pesky paediatricians. Gentle weaning techniques are always there if you do want to wean. Always remember it is a mother’s choice at the end of the day!
For me, the duration of feeding has drastically changed over the last 3 years – from 1 hour, half an hour, 45 mins to 10 mins a day now and sometime nil!
In all this while, it never occurred to me that I should check my milk supply levels. I was going through a major stress period, perhaps even slight PPD. I was surprised I was able to feed and satiate him all through that phase. All I knew was that I was breastfeeding on demand and his pee count was normal. At 15 months, his then paediatrician even commented on his being underweight, addressing my toddler (not me!): you have had enough of mommy’s milk and you need cow’s milk! I was cheesed off with her then when she asked me to add lots of ghee and butter in his food – even make payasam (sweetened rice in milk). In fact, I became more determined to take the self-weaning route and changed the doctor. On the way back that day, when my hubby had even asked if I was sure I did not want to wean him now, I gave a monosyllabic reply: NO.
Now comes the scientific bit behind extended breastfeeding. Human milk contains 172 calories vis-a-vis cow’s milk which contains 146 calories. And yet despite the fact that human milk is more rich and nutritious than any animal’s milk, most of our society prefers to advocate cow’s milk for infants and discourages breastfeeding or extended feeding. They probably wouldn’t mind giving biscuits and other junk to infants and toddlers but if you say you are breastfeeding (extended) then there is something abnormal about you instead of the reverse.
Health experts have listed out innumerable benefits of breastfeeding for a longer period for the following reasons:
1. The first obvious one is nutrition for the baby. The composition of breast milk changes with the age of the baby. It is tailor-made to suit the needs of the baby. So irrespective of the age, gender, race or community, the baby will continue to benefit from appropriate amounts of calcium, protein, fat, and vitamins.
2. The second one is a stronger immune system. In my son’s case, when he was detected with severe skin problems and wheezing, I was advised to continue breastfeeding until he turned 2. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the frequency and intensity of wheezing reduced drastically. Even skin problems reduced thanks to medications and breastfeeding. The use of the nebulizer got minimized too.
A report says, “Babies who breastfeed have decreased incidences of illness and lower mortality rates. The immunity benefits improve the longer a baby breastfeeds. The longer you breastfeed, the less likely your baby is to have some of the illnesses that we associate with not breastfeeding, like ear infections and upper respiratory infections.”
3. Mommies are less likely to have breast cancer, ovarian cancer and endometrial cancer if they breastfeed for a longer period of time.
4. Breastfed babies have shown to have better brain development according to some studies. The reason being babies tend to feed from both breasts in multiple positions. This gives a chance for babies to reach out, touch, smell and look out for their mother when they are feeding. This is different with bottle fed babies who instinctually tend to feed in the same position – moms use their dominant hand to hold the baby to feed and rarely change positions too.
5. Finally, it is all about comfort. Babies and mothers bond a lot through breastfeeding. It helps soothe babies during illness or when they are experiencing pain or hurt.
So mommies those who are thinking of extended breastfeeding and facing opposition, please take a stand for your baby ‘coz “Mommy knows it the best”!