Milk. What is it? What is its purpose? Where does it come from? I can answer all these questions in one sentence. Milk is a living food that is produced by mammals for their young on planet earth, its main purposes being to feed and nourish and pass on natural immunity. Not including nut milks of course (but the idea of little hazelnuts and almonds having teats does make me smile and whilst they do nourish, I am talking about mama milk here!)
Ok, next question. Why is it culturally acceptable, endorsed, encouraged and even expected in some countries for mothers to feed and nourish their young as they please and for as many months or years as they like but in others (ahem) it is not only seen as taboo, there has been a call for the law to change so that mothers can continue to breastfeed in public after 6 months? Law for the milk? Or just the receptacle (aka boobies)? It is now illegal for someone to ask a mother to stop feeding her baby but this law currently extends to six months only (please correct me if I am wrong). So what happens when the baby is six months and two weeks? What about all the women who are feeding big babies who look like they are a one-year old but are in fact only five months? It all seems a bit ropey to me. How can this possibly be ‘policed’ and why should it be policed in the first place?
So, what’s the deal? Do we need to have the same laws when children start drinking the milk from other animals? Are we going to have to shield them behind draping scarves and make them nip off to the public toilets so that they can drink their cow/goat juice? Just because it’s in a bottle, carton or cup doesn’t mean it didn’t originally form in the mammary glands of our bovine friends. OK so I am being slightly facetious — I do realize that some people get uncomfortable around boobies but every breastfeeding mother I have ever come across has always been so discreet. This is why I don’t think the boobies are the challenge. It’s the thought that the baby has grown teeth, can string a sentence together and yet is still suckling for all its worth. But one friend related to me once that she heard a young mother with a small babe retort that breastfeeding past three months was absolutely disgusting. Oh.
The notion, ‘Would you suckle straight from the cow itself?’ surely is a relevant one. If noses are upturned at babies drinking breast milk (heaven forbid such a thing should happen and of course there wouldn’t be the expectation for adults to drink breast milk as with all mammals there is a natural weaning period) then why is it so acceptable to drink the milk from another mammal? A milk that was exquisitely designed only for the young of that species. Yes, we can drink it but do we need to? We are the only mammal on the planet that is weaned off our mother’s milk only to have it replaced with another mammal’s milk — or several.
But this is where, for humans in particular, there seems to be the biggest debating, consulting, arguing and pondering. When should a baby be weaned from its mother’s milk? There are people I know who will have a definitive answer for this. ‘One week’, ‘Twenty days’, ‘Six months’, ‘One year — definitely one year’ and it continues.
One of my friends told me a few months back that I really shouldn’t be feeding my two-year old anymore. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that information. Especially as one of my friends breastfed her child until age four, the World Health Organization recommends feeding up until at least age two and oh yes – there is no definitive answer!
For me, I know there will be a natural end to feeding my daughter. Of course, she is not exclusively breastfed now and I am sure there are times when she doesn’t really need ‘boo-boo’ but she has it all the same. Am I disgusting for carrying on feeding her? Am I breaking the law? Do I annoy people when they ask me when I stopped feeding my little girl and I say, ‘Well….’? Feeding my daughter (who is now three) is something that is just between us… it’s not for the world to decide whether or not we should be doing it and it feels good to me and her. There is such a wonderful closeness when she suckles (which is mainly at night and early morning) and I have to say, on the odd occasion when she has been poorly, it has been an invaluable source of nutrition for her when she has refused all other food and drink. It’s every mother’s nightmare when their babe (no matter how old) doesn’t eat for days on end but where there is milk, there is nutrition and that alone is enough to banish any wayward thoughts from the mother’s mind.
My daughter is very independent and I believe this comes from the way she has been parented; sleeping in the family bed since she was tiny (and next to me in her Amby nest, which is a gentle rocking hammock, for nine months when she was born, coming into the bed to feed), being carried around in her favourite sling and being fed when she wants. Sometimes, it’s all about just being close to mummy’s skin — which of course, you don’t need to continue a feeding relationship to do this. But with all this closeness, some might propose that a child is getting too much love, is too dependent on the mother. Not the case! In fact, the opposite. Firstly, a child just cannot have too much love! And secondly, in our case, our Maya is extremely independent, doesn’t mind being left with family members and friends and is excited about starting in Montessori Nursery this year.
My conclusion is that each mother must decide what is best for her child and best for her. We have one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe and this doesn’t surprise me as breastfeeding is not exactly actively encouraged in the UK. Despite our midwife’s attempts in our antenatal course to promote ‘breast is best’, I was one of two mothers who continued feeding my daughter after eight weeks. It’s not a competition though. It’s all about what is best for you and best for your child. There should be no judgement on either side of the camp!
I have seen plenty of adverts for various milky formulas but not one single advert shows a mother advertising that it’s actually OK to feed your own baby — and of course there isn’t! Breast milk is free and it doesn’t need any equipment to heat it up (then cool it down). And you will never find shards of glass in breast milk. But I digress!
“All mothers should have access to skilled support to initiate and sustain exclusive breastfeeding for six months and ensure the timely introduction of safe and complementary foods with continued breastfeeding up to two years or beyond.”
World Health Organisation
Breastfeeding is as natural and lovely to me as being outside on a fresh, sunny blue-skied, breezy day. Breastfeeding is enjoyed immensely by my daughter and by me and it won’t last forever but it is within my reality now and by golly, I think it’s great! And it’s something that doesn’t need replacing with the milk from another mammal — whether it be cow, hedgehog or goat. And here endeth my thoughts!