Breastfeeding: When to stop?
Keeping abreast with the conversation
How can one natural, life-giving process be shrouded with so many taboos?
Some will remember the infamous cover of Time magazine from 2012, which caused widespread outrage upon its launch onto new shelves. Under the headline, “Are you mom enough?”, a young woman is pictured having her left breast suckled by her three-year-old son.
The cover and accompanying article about “attachment parenting” ignited the ever-present debate surrounding extended breastfeeding – until the age of three or even six – and its repercussions.
Fast forward to present-day and there are still many tabloid-esque stories of women who feed as their child grows. In many parts of the world, there are even comedy sketches about it. In the UK, it’s also a controversial subject with 8 out of 10 women stopping before they want to.
So often, it’s splashed across headlines and discussed in such a judgemental way. But in reality, is there a “right age” to stop breastfeeding? The decision to stop breastfeeding is a very personal one. Each mother will have feelings about what’s best for herself and her child – and this decision varies from one child to the next.
Reasons why women stop breastfeeding
As part of their ongoing campaign for postnatal care, Mumsnet conducted a survey asking for their mothers’ experiences of breastfeeding. More specifically, what made mothers stop – either in the early days or weeks after birth. In the US alone, only 20% of mothers continue to breastfeed their children for the first six months.
Here are some of the main barriers identified from the responses:
Difficulty breastfeeding: it may be natural, but it certainly isn’t easy! So, here’s a hearty facepalm to anyone who says to you that you should pick it up without a problem. In fact, 50% of women interviewed said that they encountered issues when first trying to latch.
First-time mothers are a lot more likely to encounter problems, so don’t hesitate to reach out for support or a helping hand. Call your midwife, your doctor, your auntie – whatever you need. And there are communities of women, like The Breastfeeding Network, who’re always ready to offer advice – even when it’s 2AM and you can’t work out the clasps on your maternity bra.
Pain while breastfeeding: You may have heard the saying, “if it hurts, you’re doing it wrong.” Well, generations of feeding women will tell you that this is pretty much nonsense, in not so many words. The pain is most often caused by an incorrect latch, which is a learning process for both mother and baby in the first days, weeks, and even months.
If you’re struggling with getting a good latch, we recommend seeking help from a professional. And with the help of compresses, nipple balm, and other pain-relieving methods, the pain does tend to subside after the first few weeks (or days). Using a breast pump can help, like our hands-free breast pump, Elvie Pump.
Feeling anxious or overwhelmed by breastfeeding: You’ve carried your baby for nine months, you’ve just given birth, you haven’t slept properly for a long while, you’re probably sore, and suddenly you’re responsible for a tiny person. And on top of all this, you’re perhaps convinced that you’re doing breastfeeding all wrong. Well mama, welcome to the club.
Just three days after giving birth, 92% of women said that they were worried about breastfeeding – whether it’s baby getting a good latch or not producing enough milk. Of course, feeding your baby is a massive deal – there’s no doubt about it. But take a deep breath, get a cuddle from someone (or something fluffy), and know that being worried is normal. However, if your anxiety feels like more than you can cope with or if you’re at all worried about your mental wellbeing, please reach out to your doctor or midwife. There are also more postnatal mental wellbeing support resources here.
Maternity leave and returning to work: Maternity leave – or lack thereof – is one of the biggest hurdles that women who wish to breastfeed face in the U.S. As the only industrialized country without paid maternity leave, American women work much later into their pregnancies and return to work much sooner after giving birth than women elsewhere. One study showed that almost a quarter of women in the U.S. are back at work within two weeks of giving birth.
Planning your return to work can be an emotional time. Depending on your situation, you may be wondering about the logistics and how much support you’ll receive from your employer. At this point, many mothers ask themselves, “should I stop breastfeeding?” Whichever side the pond you may be on, expressing at work can be a challenge – especially with traditional, clunky breast pumps. Streamlined pumps like the Elvie Pump have become popular with working mothers – but it’s important to understand your rights to pump at work and how your company acts to protect your health and safety.
Medical reasons for ending breastfeeding: Sudden weaning may be required due to maternal illness, maternal medication, trying for another baby, or as a result of the prolonged separation of mother and baby. If weaning for medical reasons is suggested, access to support from a lactation specialist or medical expert is recommended. Any mamas struggling with breast fullness after weaning would use manual or electric methods of milk expression until they feel comfortable.
What does this mean for you?
As a deeply personal decision, it’s up to you, your “mother gut”, and your baby when you want to finish breastfeeding – and it’s one decision that mother (and baby) should be able to make without judgment. In fact, some babies lose interest in being breastfed, and will only want to be fed once a day past the age of one. However, if there are any medical concerns or if you’re at risk, you should seek advice from a health practitioner.
According to the World Health Organization, it’s advised that your baby is exclusively breastfed for the first six months of its life, as it protects from infections and helps them to digest their first solid foods. And from six months onward, WHO recommends that your baby should start eating solid foods alongside being breastfed for up to two years or longer.
Breastfeeding still has so many benefits for mother and baby after six months, whether it’s protecting from infection or continuing to provide the balance of nutrients needed. It’s been proven to lower the chances of both childhood and adult illnesses and, if your baby does get ill, helps the baby recover more quickly – especially as the baby gets older and starts interacting with other children, where germs can be rife. For example, breastfeeding for longer than six months has proven to lower the risk of type 1 and type 2 diabetes, as well as improvement of sight, the negation of dental problems, and lower risk of obesity.
Ultimately, whatever decision you make, you and your child will be fine, and rest assured that you’re a kick*** parent. And whether it’s e-chatting to another mother at 3AM, or getting help from friends, family, or a professional – no matter what, you’re never alone.