Each year, the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action organizes World Breastfeeding Week. Held the week of August 1-7, the awareness week’s theme changes each year. This year, the focus is on supporting parents.
Personally, I have a rather turbulent, mixed feeding history with my three children. I experienced first-hand what it’s like to feel like a failure. In reality, though, a lack of informed support was what failed me. I also experienced what a beautiful journey breastfeeding can be when we all support breastfeeding women.
Parenting infants requires that we all overcome multiple hurdles, whether we feed our children breast milk or formula. We must contend with exhaustion, judgement, unsolicited advice, shame, and self-doubt. Then, after all that, people expect us to balance work, home, and family. No wonder Mama Bear’s porridge was cold!
Breastfeeding week isn’t just for those who meet their breastfeeding goals, though.
It’s also for those that met hurdles and, for whatever reason, couldn’t overcome them. It is for those whose baby didn’t latch because it had undiagnosed tongue-tie. It’s for the women who thought they didn’t have enough milk when their baby experienced a cluster feeding growth spurt. It is for all the working parents who stopped breastfeeding because of their country’s poor maternity leave. And, it’s for those mothers who never breastfed their babies because they feared body-shaming.
Although some breastfeeding parents say “I make milk, what’s your superpower,” I don’t feel that milk production is really anything out of the ordinary. It’s amazing but normal! Unfortunately, out-of-touch politicians, colleagues, and family members cause the simple task of feeding a child to become a massive undertaking. Many parents buckle under the pressure of grossed-out gawkers, unrelenting bosses, and family members who insist that formula would be “so much easier.”
The World Health Organization recommends that parents breastfeed until age 2 “and beyond,” as it continues to provide nutrients and comfort as well as being a sustainable food source in times of emergency. Formula isn’t required beyond a year, but many parents continue because babies “love milkies” from both boobs and bottles. When a solid diet is well established, children can gain the nutrients they need from table foods.
So why continue breastfeeding beyond two years?
In addition to providing nutrients, breast milk also creates a bridge from the mother’s immune system to the child’s, regardless if the milk comes from the breast or through a bottle after pumping. Believe it or not, most children’s immune systems don’t fully develop until closer to their seventh birthday. Since one teaspoon of breastmilk has 3,000,000 germ killing cells, any breastmilk is valuable in preventing and fighting childhood illness.
I once cried lunacy at the idea of breastfeeding for “so long.” However, when I learned facts about the immunological benefits to baby and mother like less risk of many cancers (along with the gentle encouragement and support of other mothers), my perspective evolved to recognize and appreciate the benefits and beauty of breastfeeding an older child. After switching to formula at 8 weeks with my first child, I aimed to reach the “2 and beyond” milestone with my second but my daughter weaned at 20 months when I became pregnant with her baby brother.
Finally, with my youngest child, I achieved the WHO’s milestone!
I didn’t know what the “beyond” held for us, but a year-and-a-half later, my son is a self-declared “big boy” who will soon begin preschool. He’s much too clever for his own good… and Mummy’s sanity for that matter! But when he cuddles up to me and sweetly asks for a “tiny bit of mama milk,” I know he is still my baby, even though he’s growing much too quickly.
I understand that when we are busy smashing glass ceilings or even taking care of ourselves, our lives may necessitate separation from our children. But when time slows down and you’re not too busy, breathe your children in and give yourself a break.
Whether you’re a tired mama who’s chasing around multiple children or a young woman contemplating her first pregnancy, I hope you take time to think about nourishing your children this World Breastfeeding Week. Think about the support mothers require to feed their tiny humans, and show kindness to breastfeeding mothers along the way. We’re all in this together!