Tag Archives: extended breastfeeding

The last feed

I remember the first feed like it was yesterday.

That tiny, alien creature, all purple and waxy white, placed upon my exhausted body as I lay on our bed at home, high on gas and air and the enormity of what I had just achieved. Holding my baby close, the baby that for the past nine months had lived inside me and for the past nine hours had pushed me to the limit, feeling the unfamiliar suckling at my breast.

I had hoped, before he was born, to feed him for a year. When I realised, as his weight began to plummet over his first few days on the outside, that things would not be as straightforward as I’d planned, I hoped that maybe we would make it to six months.

But tongue tie sorted, and after several weeks of learning from scratch how to carry out this most natural of functions, we sailed past that first milestone – and just kept on going.

He fed at least three hourly, night and day, for two years.

It was exhausting, but it felt so right. I was proud to have overcome those initial obstacles, to have figured out how to make breastfeeding work for both of us, to have mastered the art of feeding in the sling – to have written two novels with him nursing there.

I did wonder though, after that second year, whether he would ever stop.

That was my adjusted goal, in line with WHO recommendations: to “continue breastfeeding up to the age of two years or beyond”. And then as that new deadline approached I decided to let him lead the way as far as weaning was concerned.

I wasn’t expecting him to go quite so far “beyond”…

We had a few shaky moments, soon after he turned two. However gentle and respectful my parenting aspirations I really, really needed to get some sleep. But then just as I thought I might need to make the decision for us he decided he didn’t need to feed at night any more.

Daytime feeds continued, every three hours.

As we went into the fourth year, that eased off. It would be just twice a day, before his nap and at bedtime. And then just for his nap. And then sometimes not even for that. He would go a day or two or three and I would think perhaps we were done, and then he would ask again for booba and I did not say no.

I often asked him, in those last few months, if there was milk. It was hard to believe that my body could be so adaptable, keeping up a sporadic supply for as and when my boy decided he needed it. But he assured me that there was, and sometimes I still felt the letdown, the rush of oxytocin.

I miss that, a little, now that he has stopped.

I tried to remember to take photographs. It was easy in the early days (once I’d got over the initial insecurities), but my confidence dimmed again as he got older. Our society does not take kindly to the image of a preschooler on the breast, however much a nearly four year old is well within developmental norms to be not quite weaned.

Still, I captured a few. I am glad to have them now: those pictures of the (almost) last feed.


The actual last feed passed unnoticed. I suspect it was a naptime, one afternoon when I snuggled beside him in his bed as he fought against the tiredness permeating his little body. Perhaps it was an afternoon when I dozed off, too: enjoying having my child close, the whirlwind of energy temporarily stilled.

It is a strange feeling, knowing that I won’t nurse my child again. I can already feel a levelling out in the relationships in our family: my husband has been so incredibly supportive of our sustained breastfeeding journey, and part of me is so happy that there is no longer that imbalance in our parental roles.

There is at the heart of it all, though, a sense of loss.

Something happened last night that brought it to the surface, made me realise that we are in the midst of a powerful transition.

Arthur’s cries startled me from sleep at about two in the morning. He very rarely wakes at night nowadays, and it is even rarer that he calls for me. But he was: shouting “Mama!” with increasing urgency. I leapt out of bed and down to his room, and found him kneeling on his new cabin bed peering into the almost darkness.

I searched out his eyes and held him close, his little body shaking. I asked if it had been a bad dream and he nodded, head still nestled in my neck. I wanted to ask what it had been about but I didn’t: I waited.

Moments later he pulled back and looked at me.

“I dreamt you died, mama. I dreamt you died.”

I lifted him out of the bed and we snuggled on his beanbag. His eyes wide open and breathing shallow as he rested his head against my chest, my hand gently stroking his hair and reassuring him that I was very much still there. Every now and then he would ask, “Why did you die, mama?” I didn’t know what to say, so I held him closer.

I felt my breasts fill with milk, but he did not ask to feed and I did not offer.

After a while of lying there I asked if he would like to come and sleep with us or whether he would prefer to go back into his own bed. He stood up and walked across the room, climbing the ladder up to his bed as I hovered close behind. He pulled the covers up to his chin and looked at me, smiling when I said he could come to us at any point if he felt scared.

He closed his eyes and went to sleep and I went back to my own bed and lay there in the almost dark, thinking.

In his world, one where he has been nourished physically and emotionally at the breast for as long as he has been alive, I suppose a piece of his mama has died. I am still here, though, and I can still comfort him.

Things will just always be a little different from here on in.

Benefits of extended breastfeeding


When I wrote last week about breastfeeding a toddler, I was very conscious that I was merely looking to capture my experience. There are many reasons why a mother might choose to breastfeed her child or not, and many more that will influence how long that aspect of their relationship continues. It is not my place to judge them for the decision they have made, or question their reasons for making it.

But then I read a comment that, just for a moment, made me question mine. One of my readers wrote that, on reading my article, he was left feeling that the extended breastfeeding relationship did much to benefit me but he couldn’t see how it benefited my child. That whilst I said that my son was not ready to stop, in fact it was me who wanted to continue.

Now part of me felt that I should just dismiss this entirely. Even if my reasons for continuing to breastfeed were mainly driven by my needs it’s not like it is harming my child – the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding for two years or beyond after all. There are so many choices to be made as a parent, and it is always a process of weighing up the needs of everyone involved before coming to a decision.

But another part of me wanted to tell him that he was wrong. That not only do I know that my child is not ready to wean but also that there are numerous benefits he enjoys by continuing to nurse.

Having looked deeper into the WHO recommendations as well as other research I was actually a bit surprised at just how many possible benefits have been found by the numerous studies that have been carried out.

Benefits of extended breastfeeding for the child

  • Improved nutrition: in the second year breastfeeding can provide around a third of a child’s energy requirements as well as significant amounts of protein, calcium, folate and other vitamins. Not bad for a fussy toddler!
  • A continuing boost to the immune system: some of the immune factors in breast milk actually increase during the second year.
  • A wide range of other health benefits, including reduced incidence of asthma, lower blood pressure in later life, improved dental development, protection against Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes, reduced risk of epilepsy. Extended breastfeeding has also been liked to lower rates of childhood cancer and obesity.
  • Improved cognitive skills, with the greatest gains for those breastfed the longest.
  • An important source of comfort, soothing tantrums and over-tiredness as effectively as a sore knee.
  • Increased confidence and independence. This one might come as a surprise, but as with many aspects of attachment parenting the secure bond created in the early years allows the growing child to branch out more, not less.

There are also, of course, a number of benefits for the mother who chooses to breastfeed her child past one year – benefits that are often overlooked in the argument that extended breastfeeding is merely pandering to the demands of the child.

Benefits of extended breastfeeding for the mother

  • A range of health benefits, including reduced incidence of Type 2 diabetes, lower incidence of hypertension, protection against breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
  • It can help to control your weight – whether helping shed the extra pounds or protecting against too much weight loss during the nursing period.
  • It reduces stress – the very act of nursing is relaxing, partly down to the calming effects of prolactin but also the physical closeness with your child that it necessitates in the middle of a hectic schedule. Added to this there is the peace of mind that comes from the health and nutrition benefits for your child described above.

Of course not all of these benefits will apply to everyone, and there are doubtless things that other mothers can add to this list. I think it provides a pretty solid retort, though, to those who believe that only one party can benefit from extended breastfeeding – or in fact that it is a fruitless enterprise altogether.

I feel immensely privileged that I have been able to breastfeed my child, and that circumstances have allowed us to continue this relationship for as long as we have. Now that I’ve reminded myself of just how many things we both stand to gain from it I’m most definitely not in a hurry to stop any time soon.

I have endeavoured to reference my sources for some of the more tangible claims above, but if you would like to find out more there are numerous resources available on the UNICEF and La Leche League websites. If you’d like to ask a question, or if I’ve missed anything you’d like to add, then please do so in the comments below. 




Mums' Days

Breastfeeding a toddler


If you had asked me at the beginning of my breastfeeding journey if I’d still be nursing my son at nearly 21 months I would have said no. No way. I mean, I had nothing against the idea of breastfeeding an older child theoretically – I wasn’t freaked out by it like so many readers of this article seem to be (I know, I know – never read the comments on the Daily Mail). I was just pretty certain that by the time my tiny baby had grown into a toddler our breastfeeding days would be long gone.

But like so many things about this parenting lark, I was wrong.

It’s not like I’ve made a conscious decision to keep feeding him, but rather that there just doesn’t seem to be any reason to stop. We’ve got our technique down pat now and there’s not much I can’t do whilst he’s feeding in the sling. He’s feeding right now – dozing in and out of consciousness as I tap away at the keyboard. I’ll certainly miss the time it gives me when he can be close and nurtured and safe whilst I can still get on and write. If all goes to plan our breastfeeding relationship will have seen me through at least two novels by the time he stops which can’t be bad!

There are of course many benefits for him as well. I mean, he loves his booba. He asks for ‘booba feed’ when he just wants a quick snack, or ‘booba bed’ when he’s ready to sleep, and when I say yes he bubbles over with glee. He’s even starting to express an opinion about which one he’d prefer, though I’m not sure I’m going to encourage that…

I do think it’s still an important part of his diet too. He eats well, don’t get me wrong – he’s had porridge and banana for breakfast today, followed by mackerel and poached egg and kale for lunch. But he’s growing so fast – both in body and mind – that I’m not surprised he needs the extra calories.

But there’s more to it than that. It comforts him, in this world which is more full of wonder every day. It gives him pause, time to reflect and recharge. It reminds him that I am here, and I am his, and gives him the confidence he needs to embrace all the new experiences that are presented to him. If he is sick, or falls and scrapes his knee or bumps his head, then a bit of booba is better than any medicine.

My milk helps to warm him up when he comes smiling out of the Devon sea, and when we were in Barcelona this summer, traipsing round the city in the scorching August sun, my milk stopped him from becoming dehydrated. Of course he drank water too, but the nutrients in the breastmilk did a far better job of reviving him. He’s not interested in drinking anything else – we’ve tried watered down juice and other kinds of milk but he won’t touch them – which is one of the many reasons I know he’s not ready to stop quite yet.


It’s not all plain sailing. There are moments when he calls out for booba or puts his hand down my top in public when I feel like I need to make excuses for the fact I’m still feeding him, though if anyone else were to actually challenge me on it they would most certainly feel my wrath. It can get exhausting, and I do sometimes wish he fed a little less frequently. We’re essentially working on the principle of ‘don’t offer, don’t refuse’, but he still rarely goes for more than four hours without asking. It’s not that I can’t say no – and sometimes I do – but that doesn’t sit very comfortably with me. There’s plenty else I put my foot down on, but not this.

Though I may need to break through that soon for the sake of both our sleep. Nights are hard at the moment: he’d dropped down to waking me for one or two short feeds which was totally manageable with the co-sleeping. But in the last few weeks it’s been almost like having a newborn again – last night he woke up almost every hour, scrabbling for me and crying bitterly if I tried to soothe him in any other way. I thought for a while it was maybe just backlash over the lack of routine we fell into over the summer, but having done some research it seems this is a fairly common ‘thing’ for the breastfeeding toddler. So we’re looking into gentle methods of night weaning him. There are lots of techniques out there which I think we could handle, but it’s one thing rationalising them in the light of day and quite another negotiating with an angry toddler at three in the morning. I’ll let you know how it goes.

And as for weaning entirely? Well I think now that’s up to Arthur. I’m certainly not about to deprive him of something he loves so much, especially as both of us will be losing out when our breastfeeding relationship is finally over. And really, for all of his confidence and agility and words, he’s still my baby. He’ll stop when he’s ready, and only when he’s ready will it be time to stop.





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Becoming a mum: sleep


It’s been a while since I’ve written in my ‘becoming a mum’ series, but I couldn’t leave it without tackling the all-important matter of sleep.

I’ve actually been putting this one off for a while now. I think I hoped that perhaps, being almost twenty months now into this whole parenthood business, I’d be able to write and say that I’d finally cracked it: that we were all getting enough sleep, at the right times, and maybe even that we’d achieved the holy grail of sleeping through the night.

Though it’s probably more appropriate that I’m getting these words out through the fog of exhaustion that’s been my general state since somewhere near the start of my third trimester of pregnancy. So nearly two years ago, if we’re counting. Two years since I can say I had a decent night’s sleep.

It’s not that Arthur doesn’t like to sleep. In fact, in the beginning, it was all he really wanted to do. It took all our energy to persuade him to eat – and I wonder sometimes whether his waking in the night since is payback for those early weeks when I had to rouse him religiously every three hours, tickling his toes and blowing on his cheeks just to get enough nutrition in him to enable him to grow. You can read about the start of our breastfeeding journey here – we’re still going strong with that as it happens, so watch this space for an update on the joys of breastfeeding a toddler!

But I digress. That happens quite a lot nowadays – sleep deprivation, probably…

We’ve had Arthur in a bedside cot since the night he was born. We started with a Bednest which we loved, and when he outgrew that at four months old we were by no means ready for him to move to his own room. So we graduated to a larger cot made by Troll – he’s still in it now for most of the night, and I’m hoping he’s not going to grow too quickly as I haven’t quite worked out what we’ll do then.

All of us – me and Leigh and Arthur – have become quite attached to co-sleeping. We often spend much of the night snuggled up together, but it’s great to have the space and security that the bedside cot affords. He’ll roll across when he wants to stretch out, and (usually) I can slide him across too if I’m really shattered. But knowing he’s there, hearing his breathing – that was invaluable in the paranoid early months. There’s something about it that feels so natural. And there is literally no better way to wake up than to hear his giggles, or more often nowadays to feel his hands on my shoulders as he peers into my face to say “Hiii!” before a request for booba or to walk and play.

I mention all this because I’m pretty sure that, were we to turn our backs on co-sleeping, then saying goodbye to night nursing and night waking wouldn’t be far behind. But as of yet it’s not a sacrifice we’re willing to make.

That’s pretty much the bottom line, really, when it comes to how we’ve handled the whole sleep issue. I know even without seeing the raised eyebrows of friends as I describe our ‘routine’ that our approach has been somewhat unconventional. But, tiredness aside, it kinda works.

Arthur goes to sleep late – 9.30ish usually – a time that came from watching him and listening to him and seeing when he started to get tired. We’ve finally made the leap to him going down in his own room so we get a couple of hours to ourselves, then he’ll wake up hungry sometime between midnight and two and we’ll bring him up to our room. He then usually wakes me every couple of hours to nurse – I’m not sure he really wakes up himself to be honest, but he makes his intentions pretty clear – and that continues until either I need to get him up or he decides it’s time to start the day.

I’ve read all the books on ways we could get him to sleep through the night. I know I couldn’t bring myself to go down the cry it out route – even though he’s older now I’d be afraid of what emotional connections would have to break in order for him to accept that no-one was coming for him rendering crying futile however lonely and afraid he was feeling on the inside. I know as well that there are a whole raft of gentler options, ones which I might be willing to try if it weren’t for the fact that, deep down, I’m not really sure I want things to change.

The later bedtime allows him to see his dad for a few hours at the end of the day – we get to all sit down to dinner as a family, and we all benefit from that. The payoff for me is that he generally wakes up for the day at around 8am. I am not, and never have been, an early morning person, so that suits me just fine. And then there’s the naps: when we’re not rushing around too much he will still have two decent naps each day, between one and two hours each. Bearing in mind this is usually preceded by a feed, and it all happens in the sling, it buys me a good few hours to sit and write. I can’t imagine how I’d get anything done otherwise – and as I’m burning to start work on redrafting my second novel as soon as things get back to normal in September I’m really hoping he doesn’t start dropping those naps any time soon.

He’s flexible too – he doesn’t need darkness or quiet to sleep, which is a real bonus for travelling. And if he stays up even later one night he makes up for it with a lie-in the next morning.

And on top of all that, our unconventional routine seems to suit him – he’s happy and healthy, growing well and hitting all his milestones. There are days when he’s tired and I know we need to slow down a little – days when we all have an early night. But once those batteries are recharged he’s ready to go again.

So whilst I know on the surface it looks like we’re doing this sleep thing all wrong, and whilst it sometimes feels like I live for my morning coffee and I can’t help but moan occasionally about that two years without a decent night’s sleep, I know deep down that I wouldn’t change a thing. I guess it’s like everything else in this whole parenting lark really – it’s ok to know the rules, to read up on other people’s theories and talk about what works for other kids. But ultimately you have to do what’s right for you.

Now excuse me while I go and have a little nap…