Mama, let's smash this breastfeeding taboo
Updated: Aug 24
There's a point, usually around six months, when society moves from vaguely encouraging breastfeeding, to indifference, and then discouraging it, and finally, denigrating it.
This line of acceptance is fluid and, frankly, inexplicable.
It's not set by what is best for the child or mama, but instead determined by the arbitrary boundaries of onlookers who often feel that nursing beyond infancy "is weird".
Of course, what they mean is, "weird to them" or "weird to a society unused to seeing breasts used for anything but sex or advertising. But we know that many people project their discomfort - they force it on other people rather than learning to deal with it rationally.
We've heard the rules so many times...
I support breastfeeding but... (you know that but, it proceeds the sentence that tells you who the person speaking really is)
... NOT if they can ask for it,
NOT if they can drink from a cup,
NOT if they can walk (and so on).
Here's why statements are like this are illogical: My boys began walking at nine months, but some children don't take their first steps until aged one-and-a-half. My little girl has been able to drink from a cup since she was six months old, but the average age to do it is around one year. Babies "ask for milk" from the moment they are born - there are cues, signals, signs, all communicating what they need. The ability to formulate words, the ability to take a step, or to hold a cup is of no relevance to whether they should be nursed or not.
It's clear the argument for linking weaning to children hitting developmental milestones is deeply flawed.
And what's more it's obvious Western society has never really tried to understand breastfeeding or its place in evolutionary biology. But as the body of research grows, we are finding out just how incredible breast milk is - an immune-boosting super food that not only nourishes but soothes, calms, and aids emotional and social development.
There is no "use by date" to mother's milk.
"Time to Get Them Onto Cow's Milk"
It is baffling that mothers who nurse beyond infancy - providing their young with the optimal milk for humans - are ridiculed.
And yet it is regarded perfectly normal to consume the breast milk of other mammals.
What you pour on your cereal? That's cow breast milk.
Your latte? Made with cow breast milk.
That cheese board? Solidified and aged cow, sheep or goat breast milk.
What's weird is that society doesn't make the connection. It actively advocates for us to consume the breast milk of other species.
Let's be clear, cow milk is the optimal food for baby cows.
But according to researchers at Imperial College London it is “nutritionally inadequate” for the human infant, which means formula must be supplemented with additives such as palm, rapeseed, sunflower, algal and fish oils, as well vitamins and minerals, which come with their own additional ecological footprint.
In evolutionary biology terms, cow's milk is a recent introduction to the human diet and a large proportion of the world - some 68% of adults - simply cannot digest it well. So in many cases it's also a far from ideal food for older human children and adults.
But it has become normal to consume the 'breast milk perfectly designed for baby cows' because the enormous dairy industry has invested in, lobbied for, and marketed it to be incorporated as a core part of our diet.
Let's be frank, if there was a way to commodify human breast milk, if breastfeeding was profitable and there was a way to monetise this “liquid gold”, big business would have invested in and displayed nursing in all its glory decades ago.
Instead the practice has been consistently undermined and natural term breastfeeding even more so, even as the formula industry invents "follow on milks" - branded "unnecessary" by The World Health Organisation.
Did you know that the dairy industry is investing in "night milk" for adults. That's cow breast milk, specially extracted at night time, because studies have shown that it contains a high levels of tryptophan and melatonin, which are proven to aid sleep and reduce anxiety.
But night milk already exists for the human child - breast milk evolves to your child's age, needs, health, and time of day. If you are nursing, your milk will peak in tryptophan content at night and have higher concentration of 'wakeful' amino acids in the day.
And yet somehow society has created a total circus, where we condemn mothers for nursing into toddlerhood and beyond, all while the dairy industry creates products for adults from cow breast milk, because of the benefits that milk - made for calves - offers.
There is tremendous pressure on parents to sleep train (now a multi-million dollar industry) with so-called gurus warning of bad habits and sleep associations if you nurse to sleep, but the biological and wellbeing arguments for doing so a widely ignored.
Why are we insisting our children are weaned from breast milk whilst encouraging the dairy industry to create a range of products that are effectively a sub-optimal version of it?
'No Nutritional Value'
This statement has been peddled by everyone from medical staff to grandparents and it is just nonsense.
Breast milk loses non of its nutritional value, just because your child is growing up.
It may be that your child will get the bulk of their nutrition from their meals, but having breastmilk as well simply adds to that bouquet. And as toddlers are notoriously suspicious and picky eaters, it makes perfect evolutionary sense for breastfeeding to supplement and complement their diet.
In fact, according to research by Kathleen Dewey, for children aged between 12 and 23 months - 448 mL of breastmilk provides:
29% of energy requirements
43% of protein requirements
36% of calcium requirements
75% of vitamin A requirements
76% of folate requirements
94% of vitamin B12 requirements
60% of vitamin C requirements
It's become normal to give toddlers and children vitamin gummies and supplements to boost their nutrition as they grow. So why insist that breastfeeding - which we know bolsters the immune system and contains key vitamins and minerals - must be stopped in infancy?
More than that, it ignores the crucial role that breastfeeding can play in supporting the social and emotional development of a child. We have a tool that soothes, calms, nourishes, and protects, this continues to be true whether your child is aged one, three, or five.
Put simply, the more we research it, the more we understand breast milk's potential. If a pharmaceutical or food firm had designed it, it would be hailed as superfood, a wonder drug, and a balm for mental health all at once and marketed at premium prices.
At Least Put It In A Cup
The issue here is a fundamental misunderstanding of how breastfeeding works.
Refined over millions of years of human evolution, it’s something we as a species would not have survived without - and yet it is completely underestimated.
We now know breast milk has the ideal mix of proteins, fats, vitamins, and carbohydrates for a human infant. It also has infection-fighting leukocytes and antibodies, as well as enzymes, and hormones. This is all delivered in a symbiosis between mother and baby with researchers suggesting there is a continual cellular conversation between baby's saliva and mama's mammary gland receptors.
Receptors detect the presence of pathogens in the child's saliva during the nursing process and deliver a message to mama's body to begin production of antibodies against said pathogens. These antibodies are then delivered through breastmilk back to our young, where they help to fight the infection and bolster the child's own immune response.
"Putting it in a cup" makes this cellular conversation much harder to have. Why are we trying to make a super food, less super just because of irrational beliefs, myths, and failure of critical thinking? Far better if society could learn to deal with their discomfort and tackle the racism and misogyny at the root of these attitudes.
The problem is not motherhood, it is that patriarchal societies consistently undervalue and undermine what mothers do. It is predominantly women who do the unpaid labour in the home and who spend the most time nurturing new generations.
It is time to value this work and invest in it.
If governments can subsidise the dairy industry, why can't we subsidise post partum care, lactation support and proper parental leave policies so that parents can make informed decisions?
We already know that breastfeeding saves lives and billions of dollars in health care so it makes sense to create a society that supports, protects, and champions it. Breastfeeding often requires a steep, brutal learn curve so it is really a slap in the face to tell mothers, once they've made it through, that they are "weird" for wanting to continue.
COVID-19, THE WORLD HEALTH ORGANISATION,
AND NATURAL TERM FEEDING
The World Health Organisation recommends exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant's life and then to two years and beyond with food.
There are some that insist that nursing beyond infancy only applies to the developing world.
This is misguided.
While it is true, breast milk is hugely important in places where families don't have access to clean water and a steady food supply - the benefits apply to children everywhere.
In the US and the UK, both regarded as developed countries, child poverty remains a concern as do rising rates of childhood obesity. Under-nourishment can of course lead to malnutrition, but so can obesity - individual calorie intake may be high but nutrient intake might still be low.
WHO insist their guidelines suggesting breastfeeding should be encouraged to two years and beyond are global and not just for the developing world.
And Covid-19 has shown how quickly emergencies lead to chaos even in the most established of economies - parents in North America were filmed sobbing in supermarkets as panic buying left shelves empty of formula.
The pandemic has underlined how protective breast milk can be - mothers who have had the virus pass on antibodies to their nurslings. The value of this protection cannot be understated - especially in areas where vaccine refusal is high amongst adults. This immune benefit remains as true at six months as it is at four years.
At the core of this discussion is a woman's right, a family's right to make informed choices about what is best for their children. It's also about reclaiming our bodies.
The primary purpose of our breasts is to nurture our young.
Breastfeeding beyond infancy may not be right for every mama, but every mama deserves the right to be able to make educated decisions, free from judgement about their bodies and their babies.
To read more about why some women choose to natural term nursing, read these mamas stories