Food for thought

The Government now advises women to breast-feed babies for six months. Joanna Moorhead, a mother of four, has been breast-feeding for 11 years, and can't understand why there aren't more like her
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Breast might be best, but for most women it isn't for long. Around seven in 10 new mums start off breast-feeding their newborns, but six weeks later only four in 10 are still at it. By six months the figure has gone down again, to one in five, and by nine months only around one in 10 are still breast-feeding.

Breast might be best, but for most women it isn't for long. Around seven in 10 new mums start off breast-feeding their newborns, but six weeks later only four in 10 are still at it. By six months the figure has gone down again, to one in five, and by nine months only around one in 10 are still breast-feeding.

The Government, though, would like to change all that. Today it issues a new bit of advice: what's best, says the Department of Health, is to breast-feed for not just the first few hours or the first few days or even the first few weeks, but for the first six months. And that's exclusive breast-feeding, too: babies don't need formula, they don't need water, they don't need cereals. A nearby mum – or if she's not available, then a bottle of expressed milk – is more than adequate.

Is six months an inordinate amount of time to breast-feed? I've certainly met health visitors who've said the new directive is unworkable – most mums, they say, just don't want to be tied down for so long. But children do tie you down: and one of the best-kept secrets of breast-feeding is that the longer you do it, the easier and more convenient it gets.

And I should know: I've been a breast-feeding mother for 11 years. It was back in April 1992 that I latched my eldest daughter on for her first breast-feed, and three daughters and more than a decade later I'm still going strong. I did have one break – an eight month gap before the birth of my third child in 1998 – but otherwise my life has been occupied for almost as long as I can remember by a breast-feeding baby or toddler – sometimes, even both.

Breast-feeding long term is an unusual choice to make in the UK – it's more common in Scandinavian countries – but worldwide I'm in the majority. Many mothers in traditional communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America feed their children until they're at school. One of the many hang-ups we have in this country about breast-feeding is that while it's OK for tiny little scraps of babies, it's somehow "inappropriate" (why?) for older babies. Some people have told me they find it unappealing, even weird, to see someone feeding a child who's big enough to walk or talk.

I don't quite know why these worries didn't get to me – maybe it's just that I never made it to that chapter of my breast-feeding book entitled "How to Wean". Whatever the reason, once you get the hang of feeding your baby – and like a lot of women, first time around I certainly had to put a bit of effort into learning how to do it – carrying on can seem like the easiest option. No need to graduate, as many babies do, from breast to bottle, so no steriliser and formula to buy, no time needed to prepare bottle feeds, and no need to have to lug loads of kit with you wherever you go as your baby gets older.

When Rosie, my first baby, was about 17 months old I got pregnant again. I put off and put off weaning her for so long that, in the end, the baby arrived first – and then the simplest thing seemed to be to just carry on, one on each side – what are two breasts for, after all? It was blissful: no jealous toddler eyeing up the baby's exclusive access to the breast, because she knew she could have her share, too. And best of all, we could all go to bed each afternoon and have a sleep, because one of the hardest things when you've got a toddler and a baby is synchronising their naps – and breast-feeding more or less guarantees sending them off to the land of nod.

Eventually, when she was around three years old, Rosie had her last breast-feed. I didn't feel torn apart, and I didn't feel delighted: it just felt as though we were moving on to a new stage in both our lives. Elinor, my second daughter, then carried on feeding until she, too, was three, as did my third child Miranda. Catriona, our latest addition, is now 15 months old and, like the others, her first word has been "booby".

I know that, in the months and years ahead, I'll get a few disapproving looks as I feed her out and about – but as far as I'm concerned, if anyone doesn't like it that's their problem, not mine. In fact, in my long career as a breast-feeding mother I've encountered precious little resistance. There was one time, in a posh restaurant, when I fished a small baby out of a car seat under the table when she started whimpering for a feed – and noticed, to my annoyance, that a man at the next table was looking rather angry and beckoning the waiter over. I squared my shoulders and prepared for a fight – only to discover that my fellow diner was not complaining about my breast-feeding baby, but about the quality of his soup.

In fact, as my husband pointed out, he probably hadn't even noticed I was breast-feeding: if those exhibitionist breast-feeders you sometimes hear about do exist they must be very determined individuals indeed, because you have to try hard for breast-feeding to be indiscreet. A few months ago I spent a day out and about in London with Catriona for a magazine article – feeding her in restaurants and museums, in trains and on buses. At the end of the trip the only complaint was from the photographer who was worried that, whatever angle she'd photographed us from, none of her pictures revealed even a flash of breast!

It can feel pretty lonely breast-feeding a toddler, but over the years I've realised – whisper it where you will – that I'm not a one-off. Some women I've met have confessed to feeding their older babies in secret. "It was the only way to soothe her when she fell over or felt poorly," says one. "But I didn't do it in company." Another says she carried on feeding her son at night after she went back to work because "it's the one thing the nanny can't do for him, it's this bond that we can still share even though I'm not with him all day any more."

Over at the Department of Health, meanwhile, they're just hoping the new message might make a few mums think twice about giving up too soon. Christine Carson, a government national infant feeding adviser, says the new recommendation recognises that exclusive breast-feeding for six months gives a baby the best possible start. "It's the absolute ideal," she says. "We know now from scientific evidence that there are no health benefits to giving solid food before six months, and there's some evidence that allergic conditions might be exacerbated by it."

But however abundant the advantages, there's still a widespread lack of confidence in breast-feeding in the UK. The "breast is best" campaign has succeeded in persuading most of us that a mother's milk gives a good initial start, but carry on with it and you soon find yourself up against a wall of doubt. "Are you still not giving that baby anything to eat?", I've been asked a hundred times as I've fed a perfectly contented, well-rounded five- or six-month-old. "Has she put on all that weight just on breast milk?" I was once asked by – can you believe? – a midwife.

The sad truth is that our society is infused with a lack of confidence in breast-feeding: we simply don't believe the milk we make ourselves is going to be enough for our babies. Strange, really, because if a woman's body can conceive, grow and then deliver a healthy baby, why on earth shouldn't it be able to carry on nurturing it as nature intended?

The fact is, of course, that for the vast majority of women the lactation process works perfectly well – at least once you've got over the initial period – and if we could only make ourselves believe in it, then mothers, as well as babies, would definitely be on to a winner.

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