Breastfeeding a three-year old? TIME has got us talking.

Oh, the controversy the latest Time magazine cover photo has stirred up. People all over the world are in a tizzy tweeting and blogging their opinions to whomever will listen. The photo is definitely “in your face”, and it’s meant to be. It sells magazines and it gets people talking. Home run for Time.

However, the unfortunate part about raising an issue like “extended breastfeeding” through the media in such a manner, means that the key messages of the actual issue end up getting completely warped, skewed and bent out of shape—like the twisted metal we all can’t help rubber necking to see after a car has just been totalled. In this case, most of the conversation online it isn’t about whether breastfeeding for an extended period (i.e., beyond a year) is a good thing for mom and child, it’s all about this hot mom and the impact this picture will have on her son’s future, and how Time is using the image and the controversy they knew it would cause to make a lot of money.

Well, here at HaltonParents, it’s got us talking too. Not so much about the magazine cover, but about what’s missing from the conversation related to the normalization of breastfeeding in our culture and the benefits of breastfeeding for two years and beyond (as the World Health Organization and Unicef recommends).

Andrea and her three daughters

I’m not one of the HaltonParents public health nurses. I’m just a mom of three girls who works with the nurses and who breastfed my kids for longer than many of my friends and family thought was “normal”. My first gradually weaned by about 2 ½ years; my second weaned at 2 year when my nipples starting hurting because I was already pregnant with my third; and my youngest slowly finished by just over 3 years of age.

I certainly didn’t go out of my way to be on a cover of a magazine to tell the world what I was doing. It was just something that felt completely natural to me: I knew there were lasting health benefits for both me and my children the longer I did it; it didn’t interfere with my life, even when I went back to work; I loved that it forced me to just sit for a few minutes a day close to my children, and it was easy. That’s it.

Now that I support the Health Department (a baby-friendly organization) and have been exposed to more about the actual evidence showing the importance of early attachment between mom and baby (and breastfeeding for as long as possible), I feel good knowing that my instinct seems to fit with what I’ve been learning.

Benefits such as:

  • Helps mom and baby feel less stress, and develops a strong early connection
  • The risks of cervical/breast cancer for both mom and female children decrease the longer you breastfeed
  • Breastmilk continues to contain antibodies that help prevent illness and fight infection for the entire length of breastfeeding, no matter how long it continues.
  • Breastmilk changes and evolves a child gets older to meet their changing needs.
  • Breastmilk has higher quality nutrients than other foods and it provides about 1/3 of a child’s energy needs for the second year of life
  • Studies have shown the longer a baby is breastfed, the higher their intelligence will be (we’ll see if this one holds true for my kids!).

I think more and more people are accepting breastfeeding as the norm. More and more people are becoming somewhat more comfortable with seeing women breastfeeding in public. (I would occasionally get looks, but very rarely did someone ever say anything negative to me.) But few are comfortable with seeing babies beyond a year, or who look beyond a year old, sucking at their mother’s breast, even though throughout the world the average age to breastfeed is a child is between 3 and 6 years of age. That’s the culture piece that needs to change, so moms feel empowered to make the choices they feel are the most natural for them and their children.

I’d say I’m a pretty confident person in general, but becoming a mother did something to my self esteem. It rocked me like nothing else in my life ever has and it continues to challenge me and expose me in ways I was never anticipating. It forces me to think about who I am as a role model and who I want to be as a person. Every day I question the words I’ve said to my girls, the way that I said them and whether my actions sincerely back up what I’m asking them to do. That’s a hell of a lot of pressure to put on someone and there are a lot of days – I mean A LOT of days – that I’m way off the mark.

And the journey and the challenges begin within the minutes after birth when you’re exhausted physically from giving birth, mentally from all of the anticipation and praying that all goes well with the delivery, and emotionally that all of the sudden you are the one responsible for keeping this baby you’ve created alive and almost right away you need to attempt to breastfeed. In the beginning it’s awkward, sometimes painful, and anything but natural. And for some moms, it simply does not work out for a whole variety of reasons, which could lead to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, anger etc.

I think breastfeeding is a very personal experience regardless of the help around you. You need internal strength and desire to do it, and you need to feel empowered both inside yourself and by those around you to continue. And if your family and friends question what you’re doing, you will likely do the same. But please don’t.

Each of my three weaned very gradually. It’s not like, at three, my youngest was breastfeeding every few hours or anything, maybe just once a day. There were even lots of days she didn’t breastfeed at all. I was sad when it was finally done, but both she and I were ready when it was. If there’s anything I can say, it’s just trust yourself and trust your child.  You are not me, or any other mother out there. Your experience is your own. And for me, even though I’m never confident I’m the mother of the year, I am confident that I felt like I did what I could at the time, and can only hope the bond I created, and the feelings of security I passed on to them in those early months and years will last a lifetime in their lives and in our relationships as they get older.

We’d love to hear your breastfeeding experience, your challenges or what you think about this issue:

  • Leave us a comment below
  • Tweet us: @haltonparents
  • Email us at haltonparents@halton.ca
  • Dial 311 or 905-825-6000 to speak directly to a  Public Health Nurse every Monday to Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

About the author: Andrea Montgomery is a communications specialist with Halton Region. One of her significant projects over the years has been the Region’s parenting strategy, which included the rollout of the HaltonParents social media initiative – getting the public health nurses to embrace tweeting and blogging to help empower parents to feel confident in their abilities and understand how their engagement will help their children thrive. She adores her three girls and their very engaged father (who’s really a 12-year old at heart!)

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2 Responses to Breastfeeding a three-year old? TIME has got us talking.

  1. Kendra says:

    Love this BF blog! Funny how in the early days it seems like it’s “wrong” not to bf and then later on it’s “wrong” to still be doing it. When does the shift happen? The part about trusting yourself as a parent is so important. Not easy, but important. I think it begins as early as going into labour. And mothers especially are continually challenged to trust ourselves to to what works best for ourselves and our families.

    • Maureen says:

      Thanks Kendra; I agree as a parent we need to trust our instincts, even though it can be challenging at times!

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