THE REALITY OF BREASTFEEDING

WEANING

 

This term means the introduction of food other than breastmilk. It does not mean that the baby stops nursing. The overlap of breastfeeding and eating other foods is meant to be a large safety margin. The longer a child receives breastmilk the healthier he will be. The benefits are measurable way beyond infancy. I am saying this because it appears that in this country it is assumed that once a baby has solid food it will no longer need milk. It also appears to be a cause for pride to have a child who is precociously mature, having ‘solid food’ - which is in fact liquefied food - at only a few weeks that its gut is not ready to receive. The child is not ready until it is able to chew at least a little with its gums, if not teeth, and need never have pureed food at all. This readiness happens somewhere in the middle of the first year and may be related to when your baby cuts his teeth. Some are not ready for many months, even up to a year. Formula fed babies must receive other foods because formula is known not to be a perfect food for infants. This knowledge has then been transferred to breastfed babies because of fears about the inadequacy of milk. It does not apply to breastmilk in the same way and it is perfectly appropriate to feed a baby solely on breastmilk for at least six months. At about this time most babies will have started to show an interest in the food that you are eating. I found that my babies liked to nurse when we were having a meal, so it was natural for them to share as much as they could manage. I did have to draw the line at one daughter who used to nurse avidly and eat half the food off my plate. I thought it was time to give her her own meal.

Many parents assume that babies need pureed food to begin with and even that it must be especially bought in little jars. Of course you can give your baby these foods if you wish but you do not need to. By starting your child on what you eat the chance is that he will continue to eat the same food as you with little fuss. When your baby stretches out his hand to try your food he wants what you are eating, not what you have separately prepared or bought. Once ready, a baby can manage to gnaw and suck at anything it can hold:

crusts of toast

quarters of apple

peas

chunks of banana

dried apricots and figs

these will keep a baby happily occupied for ages. You can also pass spoons of mashed potato, rice, sauces from your plate. A baby sitting and chewing may choke, so you need to be ready to tip them up over the sink if necessary, and they should always be attended.

Stopping nursing is a different matter from introducing other foods. This can cause heated debate, and is one topic I suggest you discuss with your partner, before you begin if possible.

Any breastmilk is better than none, so do begin, whatever your later plans. The colostrum, first milk, is highly protective and lines the baby’s gut ready to receive mature milk. You need to nurse for a minimum of seventeen weeks if you wish to protect your baby from the more damaging effects of respiratory disease and gastroenteritis. However I would guess that if you get that far you are unlikely to want to change as you have got through the tricky bit and onto the enjoyable part. It is after all a wonderful experience to nurse your baby and not just a matter of the best feeding method.

Many people assume that breastfeeding will be halted by a mother’s return to work. This is not the case. Do plan to breastfeed, even if you feel you later will be returning to work. Mothers who go out to work often continue to breastfeed and really value the relationship they have through continued nursing. You can continue to nurse morning and evening for many months, and this has a protective function as well as an emotional bond. (see Work: returning to work and breastfeeding p.51, and the book “Working and Breastfeeding”, bibliography.) The ideal is to let the child choose how long to nurse, if that is what you would like to do. Most will choose to stop when over one year old. In many countries, and in some religions, there are stipulations as to the length of time to breastfeed.

The World Health Organisation recommends at least two years, in industrialised nations as well as in countries where the child’s health is more obviously at risk. It is becoming more widely recognized that breastfeeding protects against infectious diseases - especially in areas without access to clean water. However it is less well known that formula fed babies are five times more likely to die than breastfed babies in this country. And here we notice the preventative effect of breastfeeding on diseases like childhood diabetes, asthma and ear infections.

If you have decided that you do wish to instigate the end of breastfeeding, plan to do it gradually, for your benefit as well as the baby’s. Sudden weaning can cause painful engorgement, even when you thought that your milk supply had dwindled.

Suggestions of times not to wean (terminate breastfeeding): when baby or mother are unwell, when you are about to move house or go on holiday, because someone in authority disapproves of the age of your nursling, when the next baby comes if you are still nursing, during a heatwave. These times may precipitate your need to reconsider your relationship with your child and partner but they can be a mistaken time to force weaning if everything just seems too much. At stressful times it can be disheartening to find your nursling apparently regressing by getting more enthusiastic about breastfeeding. It is temporary. Parents tell me they notice that their children are more independent than their contemporaries, when they have chosen to wean themselves from the breast in their own time. However there are times of natural maturing and some children decide that they will wean themselves at significant moments; there are no rules.

There are also indications to stop so that the mother can conceive again.

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