'I breastfed my kids for 19 years'

When Clare began breastfeeding her firstborn back in 1994, the first five weeks were full of pain. She never would have guessed that she would spend a total of 19 years breastfeeding her five children, and that she would be 48 by the time she finished.

"In the early weeks I had lots of problems. It was a very isolating time. I didn't know other women who were breastfeeding and I didn't know where to go for the right help," she told Kidspot.

"If someone had said, 'Here's a bottle, this will fix everything,' I would have taken it. But the thing that kept me going was that my son was obviously thriving on my breast milk. And once it all came together and it wasn't painful, it was like magic. I thought, 'This is how it's meant to be.'"

Another thing that helped Clare persevere was getting support from the Australian Breastfeeding Association (ABA). This year ABA's national helpline is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Nowadays Clare is an ABA volunteer and answers some of the calls herself - which she says are mostly about low supply and mastitis, and women simply seeking reassurance that what they are going through is normal.

While still a new mum, Clare (surname withheld) began attending ABA mothers' group meet-ups, and saw women breastfeeding older children. At first, she was surprised - but then she was intrigued.

"The more women I saw feeding older children and seeing their relationship with their kids, the more interested I was in the idea," she said.

Clare weaned her eldest son at 17 months, but she continued breastfeeding her other children until they were around four years of age.

"Breastfeeding toddlers is really lovely because they give a lot of feedback," she explains.

"They can talk to you about what they love about breastfeeding. They'll often have a different name for each side, and they'll have a preference. They'll say things like, 'Mummy, that was delicious,' and then they'll run off and play." 

Clare saw breastfeeding as "simply another part of parenting" and didn't initiate weaning when her children, now aged between 25 and eight, turned a certain age.

"With [second eldest child] Stephanie, we negotiated a lot. She was very articulate so she'd let me know exactly what she thought. But because I was still feeding a baby anyway, it made it simpler to continue."

Rather than feeling bored or impatient throughout the thousands of hours she spent breastfeeding, Clare appreciated the time she had with each of her children.

"I think a lot of new mums don't realise how many hours they're going to spend with a newborn sitting on the lounge feeding. It's a shock and for me it required a change in attitude. I learned to accept that it was my time to sit down and just be with my baby."

Clare also pointed out that breastfeeding became less time-consuming as her children grew older.

"Towards the end, they might have only fed once every couple of days. They're busy doing other things. I had a 'Don't offer, don't refuse' policy, so it was a very gentle, gradual wean."

If one of her children had wanted to continue breastfeeding indefinitely, would Clare have drawn the line at a certain age?

"I think it's really about what the child needs, but obviously I wouldn't be feeding them in high school."

Clare is adamant that her story, while unusual, isn't unique.

"There's lots of women who breastfeed toddlers and preschoolers, but you wouldn't know about it because they're not willing to say so. I could probably name 20 or 30 women off the top of my head who breastfed their children into their preschool years."

She acknowledges that breastfeeding beyond babyhood is frowned upon by society, but she believes that this is due a lack of understanding about its long-term value, which includes health benefits for children and mums.

She points to research suggesting that sustained breastfeeding reduces the risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer for mothers and provides an ongoing boost to kids' immune systems.

"My kids got their first major cold after they were weaned," she said.

The World Health Organisation recommends children be breastfed up to "two years of age or beyond," however many are unconvinced that it is appropriate to breastfeed beyond infancy.

"Sometimes it's health professionals not understanding the value [of sustained breastfeeding]," Clare said.

"I think that even within families, people can start to feel quite judged."

She said that her husband supported her breastfeeding choices, and that those choices did not result in her children developing an unhealthy dependence on her.

Quite the opposite.

"If we are meeting our child's needs, they're going to feel more secure and confident. My kids have always been very independent. They're not clingy or frightened of the world. I think part of that confidence is that they've always felt loved and supported."

In Australia, less than half of all mums continue breastfeeding after six months. For many women it's the logistical difficulties when they return to work that puts an end to breastfeeding. Clare herself was a lawyer but gave up her career after her third child was born. Although it was a deliberate choice to be a stay-at-home-mum and unrelated to breastfeeding per se, Clare believes that Australian workplaces have a long way to go in supporting other mums to continue breastfeeding.

Clare stopped breastfeeding four years ago and still misses aspects of it. However there are some upsides, such as her wardrobe no longer being limited.

"For many years I didn't wear dresses because they are just too hard to feed in. So one nice thing has been not having to worry about wearing clothes in which I can breastfeed."

Clare still has a bottle of her breastmilk in the freezer at home.

"It just sort of sits there as a reminder of all those years when I was feeding. I haven't quite brought myself to throw it out."

This originally appeared on Kidspot and has been republished with permission.

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