The pressure to stop breastfeeding

I was peddling my new-age nonsense apparently, trying to defend the indefensible

I recently mentioned in conversation that I was planning to wean my youngest child who is two and is still breast-fed. Although the focal point had been the sleep deprivation I’ve been suffering at the hands of my nocturnal toddler, the disclosure of my intent was met with an unnatural level of relief from the other party. “Oh thank God for that, he’s far too old for that nonsense,” I was told.

I'm not easily fazed when it comes to matters of the breast so I calmly and unaffectedly rolled out my usual and factual argument that the World Health Organisation actually recommends breastfeeding a child to the age of two and beyond. It didn't matter – they had zoned out of the conversation. I was peddling my new-age nonsense apparently, trying to defend the indefensible.

I never saw myself as an “extended breast-feeder”. In fact my eldest child wasn’t even breast-fed. As a young, impressionable, first-time mum I was eager to soak up as much information as possible about impending parenthood. “Don’t breast-feed, it’ll destroy your boobs,” was the first piece of advice offered by a mother who hadn’t breast-fed. “Don’t breast-feed, you’ll have to do all the night-feeds yourself,” said another, who had also opted to formula feed.

“Don’t breast-feed, sure you’ll have no idea how much baby is getting – and they’ll never sleep,” came the sage words of an experienced mum, who thought breastfeeding was just for “hippy types”.


The message was clear, but the final warning was yet to come; “Stand your ground with the midwives after birth – if they get any sense that you might consider breastfeeding, they’ll pressurise you to do it”.

And so as I sat through antenatal classes and chuckled at the midwife who outlined breasts’ primary purpose even if, as she put it, “the daddies like to play with the empties”, I decided to strengthen my resolve.

The great thing about parenthood the second, third and even seventh time around, is that a certain degree of confidence comes with experience. Having formula-fed my sleep resistant daughter on demand, rather than by the clock, I decided to breast-feed the next baby.

I never felt a pressure to breast-feed but I certainly felt a pressure to stop. As time passed and baby’s teeth appeared, the inevitable question followed “how much longer are you planning to feed?” Each milestone saw the question raised again, yet I can’t ever recall being asked when I planned to stop giving my daughter formula.

Friends and family seemed surprised by my intention to continue breastfeeding once I returned to work. A supportive employer meant that breastfeeding breaks were accommodated until baby turned two though the unusualness of my request was flagged to me by the human resources department. With the kindest of intentions, management decided not to refer to my availing of breastfeeding leave to colleagues – because it was a “private matter”.

Not considering there to be any need for secrecy, I explained my early finish to workmates over coffee. While most were surprised, the majority were supportive. There were however some who felt the need to express their distaste. One former colleague told me she thought breastfeeding a child over the age of four months was disgusting. Another found the concept so objectionable he complained to management about my availing of breastfeeding breaks.

Confident in my choice, I interpreted their reactions as ignorant rather than anything else. That being said, the fact my human resources department didn’t realise before my enquiry that it was company policy to provide breastfeeding breaks up until the age of two, did make me feel a little unique.

A rather large online Irish group of mothers who all breast-feed beyond infancy, however, has shown me that I’m not. The need however, for a “safe place” for these mums reaffirms how far we have yet to go to change public opinion and perception of what is a normal physiological practice.

The conversation with the relieved party continued. “He’s not a baby any more. You’re holding him back really. You need let him grow up,” I was told of my two-year-old son, all in an apparently supportive tone. This time it was my turn to zone out.

Regretting my decision to ever mention his planned weaning, I listened as “normal (cows) milk” was advocated, because really “this breastfeeding thing has gone on long enough”.

I thought of my older children who in no way seemed emotionally scarred by having been breast-fed beyond infancy and the fact that they all drink “normal” milk now.

I couldn’t resist the quip – “you do know where cows’ milk comes from, right?”

Sometimes you’ve just got to roll with the punches.