The Battle for the Benefits of Extended Breastfeeding

by Sarah Healthy Pregnancy, Baby & ChildComments: 189

are you mom enoughWhy is it that mothers have to constantly battle for their right to breastfeed in public, particularly breastfeeding of toddlers, without being made to feel ashamed?

In the most recent violation of breastfeeding rights, Facebook pulled photos of breastfeeding Moms off the page of Kristi Kemp and locked her out of her account. Facebook has since apologized for its actions and reinstated Ms. Kemp’s page.

Ms. Kemp maintains a Facebook page called “Breastfeeding/Mama Talk” where she helps others overcome the stigma of breastfeeding in public.  She herself stopped breastfeeding after only 3 months because she felt embarrassed.

Ms. Kemp explains:

“When I started the page, women kept coming to me saying how embarrassed they were, how ashamed they were to breastfeed in public,  and I realized it was a bigger issue than what I even imagined.”

Indeed, women seem to have to constantly battle to breastfeed in public.

Who could forget the 2006 incident where Emily Gillette made national headlines for being booted off a Delta flight because she refused to cover up while breastfeeding her one year old daughter?

Breastfeeding can be challenging enough for a new Mom learning the ropes without the disapproval and finger wagging of a misinformed, squirmy public.

While breastfeeding tiny infants in public seems to be fairly well accepted, the older a child gets, the less tolerant the public becomes should a woman choose to continue nursing.

The Battle for Public Acceptance of Extended Breastfeeding

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a child’s life and then continuing at least until the child’s first birthday with mother and child maintaining the breastfeeding relationship beyond this point as long as mutually desired.

I personally chose to breastfeed my 3 children well beyond their first birthday, breastfeeding my first two children until about 24 months.  My third child self weaned a few months before she turned 4 years old.

I am well aware of the stigma attached to mothers who breastfeed toddlers!  More than once I received dirty looks from people while breastfeeding my children in a restaurant or other public place.

One lady went so far as to suggest that I should move to the bathroom to breastfeed.   Mmmm.  I don’t think so!   “Would you like to eat in the bathroom?”  I asked testily.

Nursing my children in the bathroom was something I always refused to do, no matter how uncomfortable the folks around me might get.   I also refused to use a cover-up when I nursed my children, as it was my experience that this would quickly overheat the child making for an extremely uncomfortable and sometimes sweaty situation.  Granted, I live in hot, humid Florida.  Covers might be nice for extra warmth in other areas of the world.

I also found cover-ups such a hassle too.  What if you forgot to put it back in the diaper bag or left it in the car when you went into the restaurant?

After a few early mishaps, I simply ditched using one altogether.

Even the YMCA, committed to improving the health of families and children, proved to be an unfriendly environment when I was nursing my babies, particularly as they got older.  There was absolutely nowhere comfortable to nurse there.   Hard, wooden benches with no wall behind them were the only choice in the locker room, so I opted for the benches in the busy and noisy hallway where I could at least lean against a wall while nursing before placing my child in the nursery for a few minutes while I attended a yoga class.

I lobbied on multiple occasions for a comfortable recliner to be placed in the YMCA locker room to give nursing mothers like me a relaxing and quiet place to breastfeed, but was repeatedly shot down by management.

No doubt, if a mother wishes to nurse her child beyond the first few months when her baby is small, she will need to prepare herself mentally for the likely disapproval of a misinformed public that still is not at all accepting of the many benefits of extending the breastfeeding relationship well past a child’s first birthday.

Why Bother to Nurse Beyond the First Year?

About three-quarters of mothers in 2009 chose to initiate breastfeeding after the birth of their baby. Unfortunately, many stop in the ensuing weeks and months for a variety of reasons.  By 6 months postpartum, 47% of mothers are still breastfeeding (only 15% of these exclusively as recommended by the AAP) and by 12 months, this figure drops to 25%.

Statistics for the number of women who breastfeed beyond one year in the Western world are nearly non-existent because many mothers are not willing to even admit to extended breastfeeding!

Nursing to age four as proudly demonstrated by supermodel Jamie Lynne Grumet in the controversial Time magazine cover above from May 21, 2012 is extremely rare.  According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), however, breastfeeding at that age shouldn’t be rare as there are significant benefits to both Mom and child for continuing breastfeeding well into toddlerhood.

Not only do Mom’s chances of breast cancer continue to diminish the longer she breastfeeds, but the benefits of providing breastmilk to a child who can easily eat and drink other foods instead are threefold:

  1. Continued immune protection
  2. Better social adjustment
  3. Sustainable food source in times of emergency

In fact, the AAFP states that “it has been estimated that a natural weaning age for humans is between two and seven yearsand that despite the public’s perception to the contrary, there is absolutely “no evidence that extended breastfeeding is harmful to mother or child.”

Indeed, breastmilk evolves with the child, continuing to provide what Nature deems most beneficial for that age.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2005 found that the expressed breastmilk of 34 women who were nursing children older than one year had “significantly increased fat and energy contents, compared with milk expressed by women who have been lactating for shorter periods. During prolonged lactation, the fat energy contribution of breast milk to the infant diet might be significant.”

What Did You Do?

What do you think about extended breastfeeding?  Did choose to practice it yourself or would you given the opportunity?  If you did practice extended breastfeeding, how long did you nurse your child?

My hope is that by the time my daughter and future daughters-in-law are nursing my grandchildren, there will be a graceful and comfortable acceptance of this natural and healthy practice – and comfortable recliners in the locker rooms of YMCAs and other community facilities around the country to prove it!

 

Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist

Sources:  Fat and Energy Contents of Expressed Human Breast Milk in Prolonged Lactation

Breastfeeding Older Children: How Weird or Normal Is It?

Picture Credit

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