Prolonged breastfeeding: when to stop?

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This article on extended breastfeeding is published in the Vanity Fair Junior on newsstands until March 21, 2023

“Qhen I breastfed my son for the last time, he didn’t know it was the last, but I did. I will never forget it», says Stefania Di Bari, 34, digital copywriter of Rutigliano, mother of Edoardo, who is now two and a half years old, and of Dalia who will be born in the summer. «Edoardo was 26 months old: I wanted to stop, but at the same time I was already nostalgic for those moments that I knew would never come back. Those moments that passed before my eyes, like in a film, while he suckled for the last time in the typical state of complete abandonment that only breastfeeding can provide». The following morning, Stefania put vinegar on her nipples: «In this way I didn’t reject his request to breastfeed, it was he who told me: “Mom, today the milk is not good”. So I explained to him that he had become a big boy and now he could get good milk from the bottle. He accepted and, since that day, our family life has improved. In the last few months Edoardo had become addicted to the tit: he didn’t eat and didn’t sleep, I tried to make up for it by breastfeeding him, but the more I breastfed him the less he ate and the less he slept. A vicious circle had set in, which I managed to break only with the help of a psychotherapist».

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The World Health Organization is clear in this regard: it suggests breastfeeding exclusively up to six months and then hopes alongside solid food that breastfeeding will continue until at least the second year of age, as long as “mother and child so desire”. So when to stop? When one or both members of the dyad feel the desire.

Alessia Arcolaci, 40, a journalist from Rome, felt the desire when her son Leon turned five: «I’m a freelancer and I had to go back to work when she was only two months old. I wrote from home and, initially, breastfeeding was the only way to make the days work: he was peaceful on the breast, I on the computer. Growing up, he became our bedtime ritual. From the age of three onwards she attacked herself almost exclusively in the evening to fall asleep. He was pleased, me too, I didn’t see why to stop, even if there were many external pressures. There were those who told me that I was continuing out of selfishness, those who insinuated that Leon would not be autonomous, those who complained that seeing a woman offering the breast to a school-age child was a “scandalous” sight”.

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The magazine also claimed it Time: in 2012, he put on the cover a mother breastfeeding a child who was already visibly grown up, titling Are you mom enough?. The controversy, then, was directed towards the theories of the pediatrician William Sears, a well-known advocate of prolonged breastfeeding, and in general towards those who promoted the equation “good mother = breastfeeding mother”. An equation which, net of the recognized benefits of breastfeeding, could prove dangerous if it pushes mothers to embody that spirit of total self-denial which involves extreme risks, as recent news events at the Pertini hospital in Rome have demonstrated. Today, however, an opposite movement has also formed, equally extremist and guilty: the front “of early autonomy”. According to this line of thought, advocated for the most part by people without the slightest scientific or pedagogical training, a mother’s first task is to emancipate the newborn from herself. It follows that, often, these subjects never miss an opportunity to make a mother who breastfeeds on demand, who practices co-sleeping or who continues to offer the breast after weaning.

When Giada Piantanida, 38, a yoga teacher from Milan, vents about the sleepless nights that her second daughter Irene, 19 months, is making her go through, her sister replies: «Of course if you did like all normal people, and give her a nice bottle of cow’s milk, see how she would sleep». But she asks herself: «Am I really abnormal because I still breastfeed? I work all day and, when I get home, I divide my attentions between my two daughters: the “older” is only four years old and is still in need and Irene never has a moment alone with me, except while I am breastfeeding her. They are our exclusive minutes, they make us both happy. I will stop when you learn to talk and you are able to explain to me how you feel.’

“But I’ll stop when Leonardo eats a little more,” echoes Chiara Baroni, 31, a Milanese employee and Leonardo’s mother, who just turned one. «At six months I weaned him, but he’s not a good fork and I need the milk to integrate, even if my mother keeps repeating to me that I have to stop».

In fact, the benefits of prolonged breastfeeding are scientifically proven. «First of all, the expression “prolonged breastfeeding” is misleading and reflects a widespread prejudice in our society», begins the pediatrician Angela Laganà. “From an evolutionary and anthropological point of view, breastfeeding for less than two years is considered ‘abbreviated'”. As reported by the Ministerial Technical Table on Breastfeeding, «long-term breastfeeding does not negatively affect the independence of the child nor the psychological health of the mother. On the contrary, it contributes to the cognitive, emotional, family and social well-being of both». From a strictly medical point of view, continues the pediatrician, «for the mother, it reduces the risk of osteoporosis and breast and ovarian cancer, with the level of protection proportional to the overall duration of the woman’s breastfeeding. On the other hand, it protects newborns from many infections, globally reduces mortality during the first year of life even in countries with a high socio-economic level, and reduces the risk of developing numerous pathologies including celiac disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and of some allergies.

This would be enough to respond to those who allow themselves to interfere in such an intimate and exclusive relationship. But if that weren’t enough, Elena Rossi, obstetrician coordinator of the delivery room at the Mangiagalli hospital in Milan, adds: «In addition to the nutritional function, breastfeeding plays a key role in building the emotional dimension, for the baby and for the mother. Let’s even say that a mother continues to breastfeed for her own pleasure. So? Why must the good be directed exclusively from the mother to the child and not vice versa? Having a serene mother is also essential for the serenity of the baby. Except for situations of serious risk to a woman’s health that require medical advice, it is always advisable to listen without judgement. There are mothers, some women from the Chinese community for example, who sacrifice the individual desire to breastfeed on the altar of what is prescribed by their culture, which provides for a sudden return to work. Others want to stop but fear hurting the child. It must therefore be explained to them that they will be able to find alternative ways to get in emotional harmony: from caresses to sweet words. Still others, on the other hand, like to wait for the child to detach themselves ».

Anthropological studies indicate that this usually occurs around the age of three, but that individual variability is such that it is possible to contemplate emancipation from the breast from 12 months to 6 years. «Leonardo detached at 14 months. One day I offered him the boob and he said: “No”. He never looked for her again. At that moment it is as if I had cut the umbilical cord for the second time », says Valentina Salvagno, 33, a director from Pescara who has dedicated her latest short film to the theme of breastfeeding: Mom: magic or sadness. «Every time I breastfed I relived the moment of childbirth, since I stopped it has never happened to me again. It is as if the symbiosis that began during pregnancy had ended: in that moment I understood that my son was different from me. And I had to let him go.”

In 2012 the magazine Time dedicates the cover story to the theme of prolonged breastfeeding, criticizing the supporters of the equation «good mother = breastfeeding mother».

Other articles by Vanity Fair that might interest you:

– Rooming in, lights and shadows of the recommended practice for breastfeeding mothers

– Is it possible to breastfeed if you have a full-time job?

– 8 food rules to follow while breastfeeding

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Source: Vanity Fair

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