Breastfeeding toddlers: it's considered a social no-no, which meansvery few mothers end up breastfeeding their babies past 12 months ofage. A University of Western Sydney researcher has carried outAustralia's first study of mums and bubs who breastfeed beyond infancy- looking at why these women are bucking the trend against prematureweaning, and asking the toddlers themselves how they feel aboutbreastfeeding.
Dr Karleen Gribble from the UWS School of Nursing, Family andCommunity Health surveyed 107 Australian mothers aged 21 to 45 years,who were breastfeeding 114 children at least two years of age or older.
Dr Gribble asked the women about their breastfeeding history,how they felt about breastfeeding an older child, and aspects of themother-child relationship. In a first, the survey also contained anumber of questions for the mothers to ask the children, who ranged inage from 24 to 78 months.
Released to coincide with World Breastfeeding Week (1-7August), the study not only sheds light on why the mothers continue tobreastfeed, but reveals how the children - who spoke of 'being able tocuddle mummy' and enjoying the 'yummy' taste of breastmilk - play animportant role in the decision-making process.
The overwhelming majority of mothers - 92 per cent - enjoyedbreastfeeding their children, and felt it had helped strengthen themother-child relationship.
However breastfeeding a toddler wasn't something the mothershad necessarily planned. 75 per cent didn't intend to breastfeed past12 months, however their increased confidence and knowledge aboutbreastfeeding, and a sense of their own enjoyment and that of thechild, encouraged them to delay weaning.
92 per cent of mothers reported that breastfeeding theirprevious children had influenced their current experience, with manymotivated to breastfeed for longer this time around.
Dr Gribble says despite recommendations by the World HealthOrganisation(WHO) that children be breastfed up to two years of age or beyond, andthe proven health benefits for both mother and child, many stillquestion the value of continuing to breastfeed beyond 12 months.
"The associated social stigma has meant the practice ofbreastfeeding older babies and toddlers is hidden behind closed doors.Less than one per cent of Australian children are breastfeeding ontheir second birthday.As a result, the breastfeeding of older toddlers has been largelyignored in research, and is poorly understood," says Dr Gribble.
Dr Gribble says her research reveals the decision to continueto breastfeed beyond infancy is as much a desire of the child as it isthe mother.
"Only 7 per cent of women said they had intended to breastfeedthis long.The choice to initiate and continue breastfeeding is usually couched interms of maternal decision making, but it's evident from this studythat as a child grows that it becomes a mutually-negotiated decision,"says Dr Gribble.
"For these mothers, there was a change in their own attitude,usually as a result of seeing others breastfeed toddlers, or theirincreasing knowledge and confidence, or their own enjoyment ofbreastfeeding. However the most common reason for continuing tobreastfeed was that the child simply enjoyed it, and did not want towean."
Dr Gribble says many of mothers were happy to continuebreastfeeding because they found it easier and more enjoyable than theyfirst anticipated.
"60 per cent of mothers said breastfeeding had gotten easierover time, while just five per cent stated that breastfeeding hadbecome more difficult.Many of the women had actually overcome significant difficulties tocontinue breastfeeding, such as early attachment problems, pain,post-natal depression, childhood sexual abuse, major illness, seriousallergy, and multiple births," she says.
Mums believed their toddlers continued to enjoy breastfeedingprimarily because it provided comfort; secondly, because of theintimacy and closeness involved; thirdly because they were hungry; andfourthly because they simply liked the taste of breastmilk - which wasclearly backed up by the children.
"When children were asked about breastfeeding, nearly all saidthey breastfed because they loved it - they liked the milk and it madethem feel happy or good," says Dr Gribble.
"Children made comments like: 'I like cuddling Mummy, it's mytreat' or breastmilk tastes 'as good as chocolate' and 'better thanice-cream'."
Dr Gribble says low breastfeeding continuation rates are amajor concern for health care professionals across Australia - not onlybecause premature weaning means more illness in infants, but because oflonger term consequences for the child and mother, contributingsignificantly to health care costs.
"We can learn a lot from the women in this study about how andwhy they persisted with breastfeeding. This may help to encourage morewomen to continue with breastfeeding through and beyond infancy for thebenefit of both mothers and children," says Dr Gribble.
Dr Gribble will present the results of her study at an international breastfeeding conference in Hobart in September.
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