Is it? Breast milk is healthiest for a baby. For best effect, a woman should breast-feed her child for two years, and beyond, and not just the previously recommended six months, says the World Health Organisation.
Breast-feeding rates in Ireland are low. Last year’s ESRI report found that just 22% of babies are exclusively breast-fed at three months old. The figure is higher for newborns, with 45% of mums breast-feeding when they leave hospital, but this figure pales compared to 99% in Norway, and 93% in Austria.
Regardless of a national reluctance, many Irish mums extend breast-feeding and are proud to do so. A dozen women contacted me to talk about feeding two-, three-, or five-year-old children — and were happy to be photographed doing so.
Kara Spratt, 32, from Cork, is breast-feeding her six-month-old son, Brehon. She’s also feeding daughter Rumer Rose, who is almost three, in tandem with the new baby. From a bottle-feeding family, Kara had never seen a baby breast-fed, yet knew it was natural. “I never considered anything else,” she says.
But Kara didn’t have an easy start. “Rumer wouldn’t latch on,” she says. “For 13 weeks, we struggled. I was in agony. I got thrush deep in the breast; I had mastitis 27 times, but then we discovered Rumer had severe posterior tongue-tie. She had a painless medical procedure, which took seconds, and it was fixed.”
Things improved. Breast-feeding was established by six months. Rumer fed through her first birthday, through pregnancy and through the birth of her baby brother.
“I had a home birth because I couldn’t face being separated from Rumer,” says Kara. “She fed during my labour, and the next morning woke and came down to the couch where I was feeding the baby. Rumer fed on the other side, and held hands with her brother. It’s how they met.”
What’s the reaction when she feeds Rumer in public?
“It’s never bad,” she says. “I get mild curiosity, but never disdain.”
The idea of breast-feeding never occurred to Rachel Meadows, 32, from Co Dublin, who was too busy to think about having a child.
“I’m more of a dog person,” she says. She was working with orang-utans in Malaysia when she realised she was pregnant and hot-footed it back to Ireland for the birth.
A friend suggested she should breast-feed baby Ruben.
“I thought I’d give it a go,” Rachel says. After a bad start, she met a lactation consultant, and joined Cuidiú for support. “Sue Jamieson was amazing. She put me on the right track.”
Rachel intended to breast-feed for six months. But, through reading and research, she became attracted to attachment parenting, a phrase coined by paediatrician William Sears, who believes the emotional bond a child forms with his parents has lifelong consequences.
Now that Reuben is two, Rachel is taking it day by day.
“There are so many benefits. There’s the skin-to-skin contac — and there are benefits for me, too. I have type-one diabetes. I take a third less insulin when I breast-feed,” she says. The only downside, Rachel says, is that others find it hard to soothe Ruben.
“My mum finds it difficult when he cries. Ruben has never had to share me with anyone. So it’s hard to keep his outside relationships sweet,” she says. “And it annoys me when people ask me when I’m going to wean him. I feel pressure to give an answer, and to stop. When he was young, and we struggled, I was told to give him a bottle. Now it’s ‘do your duty as a woman, and get back to work’.”
Jenny Foxe, 35, is a mum of two from north Dublin. She didn’t realise there was any issue about breast-feeding.
“My mother breast-fed my sister until she was two — and there were 16 years between us, so I was living with it. I thought people only bottle-fed if, for some reason, they couldn’t breast-feed,” she says.
Jenny was lucky. She had an excellent public health nurse in Claire Alcutt, and when she moved to Dublin 15 she gained support from La Leche League. She fed Rohan through her second pregnancy, and tandem-fed until he was four.
“My younger son was one, and I felt overwhelmed. I made exceptions. I stopped feeding Rohan during the day. And, after he’d been with his granny for a week, when he asked to feed, I said, ‘no’,” she says.
Damon is still feeding at four years. But he almost stopped last year.
“He had pressure to stop from his friends, and his brother’s friends. One day, he said, ‘I’m too big for milk now’. At night, he’d come and lie beside me and I could see his body was tense. After a week, I whispered, ‘do you want milk.’ He said ‘yes’. He was so relieved,” Jenny says.
George, Jenny’s husband, is very supportive.
“He never felt left out. When the boys were small, he was totally involved. He’d bath them, change their nappies, and they’d go to sleep on his chest. He did question it when Rohan was one, but then he was supportive, setting up a Facebook page, Father’s in Ireland,” she says.
Damon doesn’t feed often, and never in public, but Jenny was so angry at adverse comments after the Time cover story that she wrote about it in her blog — www.jennyfoxe.blogspot.com.
“I’ve seen plenty of older children with soothers. What makes a plastic gadget more acceptable to fill a need than the breasts that are biologically designed to meet the same need?” she asks.
Clare Gilmore, from Donegal, doesn’t know how she’d cope were it not for the breast-feeding.
“I breast-fed my sons, now 19 and 16, until they were almost five. I’m now breast-feeding Fionnuala, two, and still feeding Aine at five,” says Clare.
The boys were born in England, where breast-feeding is more the norm, but there haven’t been many disparaging comments in Ireland.
“I am more self-conscious about feeding here in public; but, at 42, I’m secure in my decisions. I feed Fionnuala in public, and I don’t get a lot of comments,” she says.
Clare practices attachment parenting, but also continuum parenting.
“Author Jean Liedloff carried out an anthropological study on Indians. She observed the children in their parents’ arms, getting their needs met without any fuss. It’s not child-centred parenting, it’s adult-led, and the child comes along.
“There are so many benefits to continued feeding. That’s the ease with which you can feed and comfort the child. You can get them to sleep. And the nutritional benefit continues to help them. I can’t see how I would manage any other way,” she says.
Jan Cromie, of the La Leche League, feels social media has helped women gain confidence in extended breast-feeding.
“They can exchange tips and gain support through media like the Extended Breast-feeding Facebook page,” she says. “Before that, they may not have known of anyone else who was doing it.
“When a mother breast-feeds her child after two years, the nutrients are still there. A child is taking less breast milk than solid food at that stage. Often, it’s a way of connecting with the mother.
“It’s a wonderful parenting tool. If your child is having a tantrum, you can pick them up and nurse them. And usually two or three sucks is all it takes. And whatever the problem was before, it’s now forgotten.”
There’s plenty of research to back up Jan Cromie's claims. In 1983, A S Goldman discovered that the immunoloc componants in breast-milk increased during the second year of lactation. And in 1986, E.E. Gluck’s research showed that when breast-fed toddlers got sick, they recovered more quickly.
Dr Jack Newman, founder of a breastfeeding clinic in Tonronto was foremost in researching the emotional benefits. He believed that breast-feeding children between the ages of three and four acted gave mothers and children the opportunity to deepen their bond.
* See: www.lalecheleagueireland.com and www.cuidiu-ict.ie