The conversations around breastfeeding remain one of the most productive, yet difficult for mothers in recent times. On the one hand, breastfeeding rates around the world are so low that various national campaigns have become very crucial to encourage new mothers to breastfeed their children not just in the early months but also past infancy. Statistics have shown that lack of breastfeeding costs the global economy nearly $1billion every day due to lost productivity and healthcare costs. A study known as “The cost of not breastfeeding” has also revealed that the world could have saved $341billion each year, if mothers breastfeed their children extensively, helping to prevent early deaths and various diseases.
Campaigns and statistics such as these, however, do not cease to stir up feelings of hurt as women who cannot breastfeed their children for various reasons feel inadequate for not being able to do so. These campaigns often gloss over the challenges many women face, skirting around the pain and difficulty of breastfeeding and leaving so many women feeling guilty and helpless. This well-intentioned advocacy incidentally derides the many hundreds of hours women spend breastfeeding, the challenges they may have to surmount and the sacrifices they may make because they decide it’s worth it.
In the past, mothers who were unable to breastfeed their babies hired wet nurses to take on the exercise as extended breastfeeding was once held sacrosanctly. This is however not the case anymore as factors cutting across social-economical and geographical boundaries are responsible for why mothers no longer consider breastfeeding their children extensively.
Elizabeth N. Baldwin in her study titled “Extended Breastfeeding and the Law” stated that “Breastfeeding is a warm and loving way to meet the needs of toddlers and young children. It not only perks them up and energizes them; it also soothes the frustrations, bumps and bruises, and daily stresses of early childhood. In addition, nursing past infancy helps little ones make a gradual transition to childhood.”
However, in the absence of honest real information on the realities of breastfeeding such as how hard it can be to latch on, how often babies feed, information about mastitis, growth spurts and abscesses, how do new mums make informed decisions on breastfeeding? Creating a supportive environment that encourages more mothers to breastfeed extensively requires a culture of getting real. I spoke with a number of women from diverse backgrounds about the realities of breastfeeding extensively and one of the key takeaways was a call for more realistic and productive conversations around breastfeeding.
BREASTFEEDING AND SOCIETY
Many cultures around the world are very supportive of breastfeeding. The community comes around the new mother, supporting her as she recovers from childbirth and helping her to get to grips with breastfeeding. They help new mothers look after the older children, do the house chores, feed them well and run errands for them. However, as the baby grows older, most communities withdraw their support, pressurizing mothers to stop breastfeeding their children past infancy.
Modern African societies, for example, do not give breastfeeding mothers the support they need to breastfeed their children for longer. Most mothers have to hide away from the public glare to breastfeed their toddlers. It also seems that so many are keener on procreation that they do not see the need to waste time breastfeeding a child for long. Many others just think that it is unreasonable to breastfeed a child who can already feed on solids.
Desola Sosan, a 36-year-old Businesswoman in Nigeria tells us “I was told that I was feeding my sons blood and stale milk by much older women. I think some of these myths were created and are circulated to have women stop breastfeeding in order to conceive and continue procreating.”
There is also the concern that nursing a child past infancy interferes with the child’s appetite for other foods. Ibironke Nihma Oduniyi, a 35-year-old Nigerian Goldsmith also stated that the society generally frowns at extensive breastfeeding. “Most people think it’s ridiculous,” she says, “I’ve had male medical practitioners tell me that extensive breastfeeding is really absurd even though they couldn’t provide valid reasons for their assertions. According to them, it leads to malnutrition as prolonged breastfeeding blocks their appetite for other foods.”
According to Sally Kneidel in her research, “Nursing Beyond One Year”, Some medical practitioners may feel that nursing will interfere with a child’s appetite for other foods. Yet there has been no evidence to prove that nursing children are more likely than weaned children to refuse supplementary foods.
Although the American Academy of Family Physicians estimated that a natural weaning age for humans is between two and seven years, women in western countries have differing opinions regarding societal reactions to extensive breastfeeding. While some women feel that they are not getting enough societal support for breastfeeding, some others have reported a great deal of societal support while breastfeeding.
Aliya Hasan, a 29-year-old Hospital Administrator in Ontario, Canada who successfully breastfed her child for two years stated that “I think everyone in my community thinks highly of someone who’s breastfed extensively for two years or more. In my experience, I loved it and if I could do it for all my children I would.”
Sherifa Az- Zuhur, a 63-year-old retired professor and writer in the USA reported that as a working mum, it wasn’t quite easy. “With my first child, I had to get cooperation from caretakers and nannies. However, with my younger child, I took him to my workplace so I could nurse him in my office privately but some of my male students were critical of this and wrote negatively about it in their evaluations. It’s really challenging to be a nursing mother in the workforce”
From conversations with women who have negotiated to breastfeed in their workplace, it seems that plenty of workplaces are either unsupportive of breastfeeding or genuinely do not understand the value in making the workplace lactation-easy for mothers. Sherifa acknowledged that a lot of working mothers quit breastfeeding due to the extreme difficulties of doing so while at work. Mothers either have to feed their babies or express milk every 2-3 hours to establish a milk supply and skipping a session is usually physically uncomfortable. In the short term, we have seen women leak through their shirts while at work. There have also been reported cases of blocked ducts, mastitis and breast abscess.
“As a society, we keep talking about how important and imperative it is for infant health and for women to be breastfeeding” says Dr. Lauren Dinour, an Assistant Professor in the Nutrition and Food studies department at Montclair State University in New Jersey “But then, we do the complete opposite when it’s time for women to go back to work.”
Dinour acknowledges that for most women, breastfeeding is a matter of environmental policies and societal support than of individual choices.
BREASTFEEDING AND SAGGY BOOBS
Body Image is another sensitive factor for most women. A lot of mothers have chosen not to breastfeed extensively due to the general notion that breastfeeding destroys the elasticity of women’s youthful breasts. “I think breastfeeding takes away from feeling sexy and can have a negative effect on how you feel about yourself physically,” says Fousia Abdullah, a 35-year-old stay at home pharmacist living in Texas, USA.
“I had always thought of my breasts as one of the most visually appealing parts of my body,” says Linda Norman, a 26 year old stay at home mum in Birmingham, UK, whose son is now a year old “But after I started nursing, they felt less like an aesthetic feature of my body and more like a pair of nursing valves”
Sherifa Az- Zuhur is particularly unbothered about the impact of breastfeeding on her breasts “Breastfeeding caused my breast size to increase which I disliked but the shape remained fine and I just wasn’t into considering cosmetic surgery – for what? For a man’s opinion?”
Rahma Aliyu, a 32-year-old educator in Abuja, Nigeria on the other hand appears to have a handy solution to getting her pre-baby breasts back. “I have done nothing about it,” she tells us, “I’m waiting for gravity to take over, but if all fails I’ve heard women attest to the effectiveness of fenugreek oil so I have that handy”
Many other women who are unwilling to take chances with their body avoid breastfeeding altogether. However, Sierra-Leonean Blogger and Youtuber Vickie Remoe who has successfully breastfed her child for over two years told us that most people who are likely to lose breast elasticity are those who smoke and gain a lot of weight while pregnant. “Breastfeeding is not the cause of saggy breasts,” she says “but since so many women gain a lot of weight when they are expecting, breastfeeding surely gets a bad wrap.” Remoe advises mothers who are concerned about their boobs to eat well, exercise and avoid nicotine before and after pregnancy.
BREASTFEEDING AND SEX
“Leaking milk and constant feedings affect your sex life” confesses Desola Sosan “My husband and I were basically co-sleeping with the baby so there were difficulties when the baby was in our bed. But i guess sorting out contraception 6 weeks post-delivery allowed for quite a bit of spontaneity especially when we were able to have some privacy.”
”My sex life was almost non-existent,” says Ibironke Oduniyi “I was just never turned on till I weaned her off. I had sex the month after I weaned her and boom! I got pregnant again. Right now, the no sex cycle is back on.”
Cathy Winks, Co-author of Sexy Mamas states that “breastfeeding suppresses ovarian estrogen production and this decrease in estrogen can lead to less vaginal lubrication. Vaginal dryness can make having sex uncomfortable even after you’ve completely healed from soreness, childbirth stitches, or tears.”
New mothers are generally unprepared for all the physical and mental changes that come with being a mother. Anne Semans, the other co-author of Sexy Mamas states that struggling with our sexual identities is a normal part of our adjustment to motherhood. “Breastfeeding brings out all sorts of insecurities, control issues, and excuses not to be intimate for both mothers and fathers.”
Perhaps, there appears to be a more positive way of looking at this. Sadiya Ahmed, a 45-year-old Heritage Professional in Hertfordshire, England tells us how understanding her partner was. “I think I was lucky,” she says “My husband was very understanding and we figured out a way to balance both breastfeeding and sex. It’s not possible to meet all of your partner’s needs at this time and it shouldn’t be a problem. I don’t see why it would be one or the other. You just need to have time for both.”
To solve this problem, Semans advises partners to lay their cards on the table. While unveiling their fears and insecurities, partners may each discover that their significant other is just as stressed as they are in their new roles as parents.
“With a two-year-old, weaning is never a walk in the park” admits Rahma Aliyu “I’d tried to do gentle weaning which was draining for both of us so I eventually just went cold turkey.”
“It was hard with both my children.” Says Sherifa Az-Zuhur. “With my son, I had an Ethiopian nanny who was quite shocked that I continued nursing after two years. At about thirty months, she initiated the cut-off which worked out ok.”
As much as we advocate extensive breastfeeding, it is equally important to be honest about the difficulties of weaning to help prepare mothers. The kids love mama’s milk, it tastes like ice cream and they’re so addicted to it, they just want to nurse forever and ever. Weaning them off it is, therefore, a very emotional period for both mother and child.
“Weaning was hard” confesses Desola Sosan, “because they were already aware and could talk; my attempts at weaning were not successful. They each eventually spent a few days away from home and by the time they returned, they were weaned. I also didn’t have engorged breasts despite stopping cold turkey.”
Most mothers who wean their children abruptly also have a very high tendency to experience breast engorgement, clogged milk ducts and mastitis. It is therefore advised to wean gradually or see a lactation consultant when things get out of hands.
Conclusively, extensive breastfeeding can seem like a very daunting task but it sure has great perks. The relationship between cognitive achievement (IQ scores, grades in school) and breastfeeding has shown the greatest gains for those children breastfed the longest. Breastfeeding toddlers between the ages of one and three have also been found to have fewer illnesses, illnesses of shorter duration, and lower mortality rates.
However, while advocating for extended breastfeeding, it is also very important to acknowledge the difficulties and challenges that mothers face during this period and provide support for them to ease through it.
This article was first published on The Chic