Rennie Pheloung has been breast-feeding for seven years since the birth of her first child, Lia. When Jason came along he joined Lia at the breast; Rennie finally talked him into giving it up at three and a half, when she was pregnant with Jo, now 17 months and still feeding frequently.

Breast-feeding hasn't always seemed so rosy. Just over six years ago, Rennie was a harassed mother of two in her native Australia. Her British husband, Paul, was out doing three jobs to save for their return journey home. She had followed the rule book and weaned Lia, then one, on to formula. She had even been repulsed by the idea of extended feeding after visiting friends in the mountains, one of whom was feeding a two-year-old. 'I thought I would never feed when the child was old enough to lift my shirt up.'

Her second child, Jason, was a difficult baby. 'By the time he was five weeks old I had nearly had a breakdown. I was at the lowest point in my life, screaming at my daughter. I just wasn't coping.'

The turning point came by chance. 'Lia was 16 months and at a stage where she wanted to go to the toilet constantly and I was always feeding Jason; it was horrible. I just started putting her on the breast and she didn't know what to do, so I talked to her about it and showed her . . . I'd never heard of tandem feeding before, and didn't know what made me do this.

'I was so horrified with what I'd done I rushed to the phone and rang Paul at work and was crying, saying: 'Lia has just had a breast- feed]' and he said: 'It's probably the best thing you could do.' '

After that, even though she joined a support group, she tandem fed clandestinely. 'I always did it secretly. I remember confessing it at a mothers' meeting. Once I found out that what I was doing was normal there was a great sense of relief.'

Starting as she meant to go on, on the flight back to the UK via Thailand, Rennie braved the reaction of cabin staff as she simultaneously breast-fed her strapping three-year-old girl and 18-month boy during take-off 'because it's good to suck something, otherwise they can scream their heads off when the pressure changes'.

Once in Thailand, she claims, a nightmare awaited them that was solved only with breast-feeding.

'It was summer, it was very hot, there were lots of insects, the food was different and the kids didn't like it. They wouldn't eat anything for days, or even drink the water. Basically all they would do was paddle in the hotel pool and breast-feed. They went back to fully breast-feeding. I had started having periods, but I must have been feeding so much that month, because my period stopped. It was totally exhausting, but I don't know what I would have done without it then.'

In National Breast-feeding Week the theme 'Eating Out Together' focuses on the conservative reaction towards women breast-feeding in public places. But if nursing an infant of six weeks causes consternation, it is nothing to what awaits the woman who nurses her toddler.

Rennie admits that it is not unlike being in an underground movement. 'I always avoid confrontation by choosing somewhere discreet to do it. I don't want people's reactions and criticisms. I am self-conscious. If I felt comfortable about it I would nurse everywhere.'

Jayne Sullivan, a breast-feeding counsellor, says there are some husbands who accuse their wives of being unfit mothers because they continue to nurse their toddlers. 'I had one woman who stopped in every toilet and fed her baby in secret because her husband disapproved. It's because some of them think their sons are going to end up as sissies, or that their wives' breasts will shrivel up.'

Rennie stresses that a supportive partner is one of the keys to extended breast-feeding. 'I really prefer it when Paul is around when I am feeding an older one, which may sound weak, but I feel that one of the roles of a partner of a breast-feeding mother is to protect you in that feeding relationship and to provide some security for you.'

Rennie, in her late twenties, does not fit the mumsy image of dedicated middle-class breast- feeding mother. She lives on a new housing estate in Mitcham, south London, where many of her neighbours are on the dole. Gypsies live in a field behind, and police patrol cars regularly cruise the close. Life is far from the NCT-land of au pairs and home-made bread.

She admits that extended nursing 'is not all wonderful and it's quite limiting to your lifestyle. Mothers do feel trapped and fed up and used. But generally the mother will still be glad she is breast-feeding. Breast milk is always the perfect food. Its health and nutritional benefits do not dry up at six months as we are sometimes led to believe. Children will suck thumbs, bottles and dummies till five and that is accepted. If you take them off the breast and on to a bottle they're are still sucking, but they are getting their comfort from a piece of plastic instead of a loving mother.'

As with her other two children, the family's life is loosely organised around her accessibility to Jo. This means that if she has a day when, as a voluntary communications counsellor, she leads a workshop, often outside London, rather than leave Jo behind with Paul for an afternoon, the whole family will attend. Yes, she says, it is limiting, and often exhausting. At times she has even felt resentful. But for her there never has been any other choice.

'There are so many emotional benefits. For emotional security there is nothing like a breast. Everything is better when you breast- feed.'

Lia had weaned herself off by the time Rennie was pregnant with Jo. 'It struck me that weaning is a developmental stage, like when they learn to walk, rather than something that is the mother's responsibility. I would let them decide when they were ready.'

But to get Jason off the breast at three and a half, she had to have a heart-to-heart. 'It was a mutual thing. I was pregnant and I told him that I found it uncomfortable, and that hopefully it could come to an end. He was old enough to rationalise and said 'OK'. It's important to be honest.'

She admits it is possible that Jason would still be on the breast now, at almost six, if he hadn't been asked to come off it, but that despite her willingness to go on nursing, she enjoys no longer being regarded as a milk machine.

'Towards the end of the feeding, I used to find that they'd go to Paul for cuddles, and when they came to me they came for a feed. Now they are coming to me because they want to be with me. not just because they want this breast.'

The British attitude to breast- feeding touches on repression and an inability to be in contact with our own feelings, she believes.

'There's an intimacy there that we are not supposed to be looking at. Also, men feel that the woman is preoccupied sexually with the baby and that it is depriving them of their sexual rights.'

After seven years, isn't there just the tiniest chance of an emotional dependence on extended breast- feeding?

'No, I've never breast-fed the children for my own pleasure. It hasn't always been easy and I've felt resentful often. I think a mother who was severely emotionally damaged could certainly use it as a tool to satisfy her own emotional needs, but in a healthy mature woman I don't think that is the case. The only women I know are doing it because it is the best thing for their baby.'

She eschews the view that endless breast-feeding consigns the female partner into a passive, less powerful role.

'I feel very powerful. I feel more feminine and more womanly and stronger than I have ever felt in my life. I think breast-feeding gives a woman that strength.'

La Leche League: 071-242 1278; Association of Breast Feeding mothers: 081-778 4769

(Photograph omitted)

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