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When you start to breastfeed, hearing things like "exclusive breastfeeding for six months is the optimal way to feed an infant" and that it is recommended that you should be "breastfeeding up to the age of two and beyond" can be pretty daunting.
After all, newborn babies need feeding between eight and twelve times in a 24-hour period – and sometimes it can seem like you're feeding more than that; pretty solidly. The temptation to hand the baby to somebody with a bottle and get some sleep can be overwhelming.
Without support, without talking to people who have been there and got through it, many women do just that. And it is a hugely understandable temptation – it is a challenge to be the sole provider of nutrition for a small bundle of sleep and squawk, which is what babies often are during their first weeks.
But after talking to numerous women over the past six years about their experiences of breastfeeding, why they stopped, what they regret about stopping and what they wish they had known before they stopped, the one thing that comes out, loud and clear, is that nobody told them it was normal to feel like they did and that, most importantly, it would change as the baby got older.
Much of the generally accepted wisdom in our society about breastfeeding is based on a combination of less-than-satisfactory personal experience, media hysteria and accepted myth – things that “must be right” because they are so apparently obvious. However, though there may be some grains of usefulness within that, so much of it is confusing and misleading guff. After all, in the UK, there isn't a great wealth of knowledge about what it is like to breastfeed an older baby. Why? Because not many women do it. The Infant Feeding Survey 2005 says only 21% of women are exclusively breastfeeding by the time their baby is six weeks old and fewer than 2% at six months. So people generally believe that breastfeeding will always be difficult, hurt, be constraining because it has to be done so regularly; in short, they believe it is an inconvenient and unpleasant thing to do.
So, what is it like to breastfeed an older baby, once the engorged struggling with a ravenous octopus stage has passed?
Well, there are still challenges. But feeding patterns often start to establish themselves and babies often get more efficient at feeding, so that the gaps between feeds start to get longer. Many babies start to sleep for longer chunks of time at night and stay awake for longer periods during the day.
Milk production also settles down. The engorged, heavy breasts that literally loom large in the early days start to produce milk less in advance of feeds and more whilst you are feeding. Milk is produced faster the emptier the breast is and milk in an emptier breast will have a higher fat content than that in a full breast – which goes against the myth that you ought to wait till your breasts fill up to feed again. This can make it harder to express as your baby gets older; it may be a good idea to stockpile expressed milk in the freezer if you are planning to return to work and would like your baby to have breastmilk when you are separated.
In general, it just gets easier. There’s no sterilising, you can be more spontaneous about going out and staying out because you don’t need to plan how many bottles you’ll need and there’s no need to worry about working out how to make up a fresh bottle with water no cooler than 70 degrees, then cooling it down (or heating up ready-made formula).
In fact, one of the biggest challenges you may face is other people’s reactions, such as, “Are you still breastfeeding?!” “Ew! He has TEETH!” “You’re making a rod for your back, you know, pandering to that child.” And there will always be some wag who says, “Haha! Bitty!” There are many responses you can give to this sort of comment. Some of them are printable and include: “Yes, I am still breastfeeding. Brilliant, isn’t it? I found it hard to begin with, but I’m really glad I carried on!” “Yes, he has teeth, but if he’s breastfeeding properly, he can’t bite me as his tongue is in the way.” “It is my back and I will make any number of rods for it, thank you!” and “Oh, bless, you can repeat someone else’s not very funny joke, how CLEVER!”. But my favourite, and one I often used, is, “No, I stopped breastfeeding some time ago. He’s still doing it though…” with a nonchalant shrug and a smile.
So, how do you get from the wriggly newborn stage to the older baby stage? I suggest polite and serene indifference to other people’s opinions (unless they are definitely saying useful things) and thinking, “I don’t have to breastfeed until my baby is two, I just need to do this feed” helps. Because just do “this feed” for long enough and before you know it, your baby will be two!
A version of this piece appears in Acorn Pack Antenatal magazine, which is included in Acorn Pack Antenatal and distributed through Children's Centres in the London Borough of Hillingdon. For more information (and to see a photo of an actual pack!), see the Packs page - and to read the magazine, click the picture below!