I’m still breastfeeding my five-year-old – it’s not weird, it’s natural

Last week, my son took a tumble in the playground. He was crying, so I whisked him onto my lap for a quick breastfeed

The tears stopped and he was soon back playing. Not an unusual scene – except my son is five years old. 

It’s an eyebrow raiser. And before I became a mum, I’d have thought it odd too. I barely saw anyone breastfeed – a baby, let alone an older child – and when I did, I felt uneasy.

Nor did nursing come naturally to me. I’d done little research on breastfeeding during my pregnancy, and in 2015 found myself holding my first-born son, Alex, clueless about lactation.

But I vaguely remembered images from photo exhibitions and magazine spreads of women breastfeeding their babies in slings while working the fields. How hard could it be? Answer: very. 

When my milk ‘came in’ a few days after birth, I woke with what felt like two bursting rocks on my chest. It was more painful than anything from pregnancy or childbirth (I’d had a C-section), and I started sobbing.

Why is there a furore around children drinking the breast milk nature created for them, while we glug down cow’s milk unquestioningly? (Picture: Debbie Stowe)

Alex didn’t immediately get the hang of latching on, and we couldn’t get comfortable. It took weeks, the introduction of a nursing pillow and experiments with cradling, various hold techniques and side-lying until we started to hit our stride.   

One night, sleeping in silk pyjamas (new mum tip: don’t), I woke in a pool of leaked milk. It felt cold, icky and miserable.

Breastfeeding sessions felt interminable. Sitting in my garden one day, a feed lasted so long that a spider started spinning a web on us.

On a post-partum morale-boosting shopping trip, jets of milk suddenly spurted forth in the M&S changing room. Luckily I liked the shirt and bought it.

The NHS recommendation of exclusively breastfeeding your baby for six months seemed daunting. I pondered marking the days off on a chart, like a prisoner yearning for release.

But it gradually became easier. Six months elapsed and I continued to breastfeed. 

I expressed milk once or twice, hoping that my partner could take on some of the night feeds, or my mum could give Alex a bottle, allowing his dad and I an afternoon out. But Alex refused it and we didn’t persist – we were just pleased that our son was feeding well and thriving. 

When my second son, Ollie, arrived in 2017, I tandem fed. I truly appreciated the amazing, free tool at my disposal: bellies were filled and meltdowns halted, with no faffing over sterilising bottles. 

As a writer, I’m mostly home-based, so I was privileged not to have to return to a workplace and transition to pumping. That is one of many deterrents to feeding – it’s also tying, tiring, often uncomfortable physically and socially. And new mums can be discouraged from many angles. 

I wish more women knew that if they push through the initial struggle, it can become normal.

I’ve fed on trains, trams, planes, buses, in cars and taxis, in shops, parks, zoos, schools, gyms, churches, offices, airports, cinemas, on protest marches, and while dancing around the room at my sons’ music classes. 

I’ve even fed on a film set – Ollie had a small role in a TV series and after a few hours on location he was restless. A spot of ‘mummy milk’ between takes and bam: scene nailed.

Breastfeeding mums are doing a great service for their children at considerable personal sacrifice and ought to be congratulated, not mocked (Picture: Debbie Stowe)

Closest family members have been supportive (if bemused that I’m still going). But I have endured stupid jokes about my sons ‘still feeding at university’.

What grates most is not the impertinence, but the ignorance – the doctors, scientists and paediatricians of the World Health Organization urge mothers to feed beyond two years, but that doesn’t matter because you find it ‘weird’? 

Breastfeeding mums are doing a great service for their children at considerable personal sacrifice (a decent night’s sleep, evenings out, weekends away), and ought to be congratulated, not mocked.

I’ve seen other mums report being asked to cover up, or nurse in the toilet, by friends, family members, restaurant staff, swimming pool lifeguards, and so on. I’ve never experienced this, but I have had unsolicited remarks.

‘He’s a bit old to be feeding, isn’t he?’ a friend’s mum commented of my then two-year-old.

I didn’t tell her I was still feeding the four-year-old too – breastfeeding older children is still such a taboo that it’s not something I discuss much outside my inner circle.

Now I’m such an old hand, nobody’s judgement is going to deter me, but disparaging comments shape how feeding is viewed in our culture and can discourage women from persevering. Especially in the early days post-partum when they are exhausted, hormonal and emotional, and often doubting every decision. 

A common criticism is that the nutritional benefits dwindle and nursing becomes just for ‘comfort’. But what is wrong with giving a child comfort? Why else do we hold their hands, hug them, buy them security blankets and teddies? 

Then there’s, ‘You’re just doing it for yourself’ – an accusation I’ve mused on wryly as a flailing foot hits my face mid-feed. Yes, it’s purely for my own gratification!

I still (mostly) enjoy feeding, but it’s demanding, and hardly something a mum would do just for kicks. 

And to those who imagine a breastfed child as a clingy mummy’s boy, I would love to have shown you footage of my sons skipping off cheerfully to summer camp this month, eagerly wriggling out of my goodbye embrace.

Breastfeeding has strengthened our bond. I’ve made numerous parenting mistakes, but I’m proud of having boosted their immunity – especially since Covid-19 – and that I can ease their hurts so efficiently. Nothing soothes them better than a feed and I am best placed to know that.

I haven’t set a limit for when we will stop, as I want that decision to be made by my sons. They eat a range of healthy foods; wholewheat pasta, cereals, fruit and vegetables – I have no concerns that breastfeeding is harming their diet.  

Mums like me are a rarity. I don’t know anyone in real life who is feeding children older than mine, but we find and support each other online. 

Britain has some of the lowest breastfeeding rates among high-income nations: according to UNICEF, only 81% of UK children are ever breastfed (it’s 98% in Sweden). Just 1% are exclusively breastfeeding at six months (and the NHS places the bar lower than the World Health Organization, which recommends at least two years). 

And this is despite the help British mums can access on the NHS, local support groups and helplines. Plus the phenomenal list of benefits – everything from lower risk of obesity for baby to reduced risk of some cancers for mothers.

The UK’s poor stats must partly be down to social attitudes: the bouncing breasts of Love Island are fine, but the same body part used for its intended purpose – eww. 

I understand people who know nothing about it finding it odd – I used to feel the same. But it is so beneficial for mother, baby and wider society – UNICEF says higher breastfeeding rates could save the NHS £40million each year as fewer kids would get sick. 

Why is there a furore around children drinking the breast milk nature created for them, while we glug down cow’s milk unquestioningly?

Breastfeeding should not be remotely controversial, but, alas, it is. The ‘mum wars’ rage on whether any of us like it or not – I wish there was less judgement of mothers who are just trying to do their best for their child.

After nearly six years I’m used to being made to feel guilty about my decision by every corner of society.

I’m also accustomed to shrugging off stares if my sons need a quick fix of my milk. Because when I stop is going to be up to my boys – and nobody else.

The Truth Is…’s weekly The Truth Is… series seeks to explore anything and everything when it comes to life’s unspoken truths and long-held secrets. Contributors will challenge popular misconceptions on a topic close to their hearts, confess to a deeply personal secret, or reveal their wisdom from experience – good and bad – when it comes to romance or family relationships.

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