My first born, my daughter, arrived after a traumatic birth. I had dreamt of a natural water birth, but instead I ended up having an epidural, an episiotomy and a forceps delivery. I remember feeling so sad that my birth plan had gone out the window, but I found tremendous comfort in the fact that breastfeeding came naturally for us. From the first moment the nurse finally laid her on my chest, she latched on, and from then on, breastfeeding became a part of our everyday. To me it’s the most natural and most normal thing I could possibly be doing.
I knew it wouldn’t last forever, but I wanted to continue to nurse her until she chose to stop. Anthropologist Kathy Dettwyler’s research suggests that the normal and natural duration of breastfeeding is between two and a half and seven years. As my daughter approached 2, there was still no end in sight, and we were both happy with the way things were. Nursing my daughter was still a beautiful experience and I cherished the stillness and loved the connection it gave us.
Just after she turned 3, I found out I was pregnant with her brother. Our breastfeeding journey really began to change around this time. When she was 3.5 (I was 21 weeks pregnant) our daytime nursing sessions were few and far between, she barely nursed in the night and she was even able to fall asleep without nursing. By the time my son was born, she had mostly weaned herself, apart from the occasional nursing session if she was poorly or going through something, but when she saw me nurse her brother, she wanted to nurse as well, which surprised me. It turned out to be a blessing because he would only nurse on my right side leaving my left side painful and engorged and she was able to help me with that. It also helped her tremendously with coping with the stresses that come with introducing a new baby to the family. She nursed a lot during those first few months, then all of a sudden she was 4, then 4.5, then 5, and now days or weeks go by without her asking. Her 18-month-old brother on the other hand still nurses day and night.
Nothing changed in my breastmilk once my daughter turned 2, or when she turned 3, 4 or 5. My milk still provides her with nutrients and immune factors that help her own developing immune system, and her age doesn’t take away the comfort she feels when being held in my arms. It’s the way we reconnect, especially now. The very act of nursing helps her when she is going through big emotions and upsets and it assists her in regulating herself as it helps to relieve her stress by lowering her heart rate. To me, I’m not practising ‘extended breastfeeding’, I’m just breastfeeding as I’ve always done. It’s an organic journey which I know is coming to an end and I feel good that I have been able to let her take the lead. It hasn’t always been easy – I’ve been through many nursing aversions – but we always somehow make it through.
As a mum, I’ve felt quite alone in our journey and I wanted to connect with other mamas who are allowing their children to lead the way. Being a photographer, I believe it is important to see images of breastfeeding mothers as a way to help normalise it, which is how my Milk project was born. I am so eternally grateful for all the mothers who have shared their breastfeeding journeys. Our experiences are all unique and many mothers I’ve had the honour to connect with have been through trials and tribulations to be able to breastfeed. They leave me in awe of their strength and determination to do what they feel is right for their babies. Their journeys deserve to be celebrated.
Adeola with Ayla (3 years)
“To me, it means allowing my child to make the choice about when she is ready to stop breastfeeding on her terms. Sometimes she’s hungry for milk, other times she’s hungry for connection and security. Both are valid, and I feel grateful that I can offer her both so easily.
“I have been breastfeeding for the better part of 13 years. It has been a long and ever-changing journey. There have been times when I have resented it. But then there is the ease it has brought to my life: the easiest flights, the deep connection as our eyes meet and lock together over the breast and she knows that I will always be here. The cure-all for every ache, pain or minor injury, the instant reassurance that is sometimes needed in new places or with new people. Then there is the undeniable awe and gratitude that my body has been able to do this. I will feed her as long as we both want to and every day I will be given sweet moments of pause as she cuddles up and we connect in a way that is just for us.”
Holly with Josh (6 years)
“It’s really only in the last two years or so that Josh has slowed/stopped feeding at night, which may seem like a long time for our society to accept, but after the research and education I’ve undertaken, it’s really not surprising and is considered ‘normal’ in many other societies.
“In a way, our experience has been like the tide of the ocean – constantly changing. No two days are the same. It’s been rough at times – we’ve weathered storms then the sky has cleared and it’s been completely calm and smooth sailing again. Now he’s 6, I know my time is almost done. Every time he feeds I wonder if this will be the last time. I stroke his hair and I pull him in close as I smell him. I tickle his hands and we play thumb wars. I still can’t stop looking at him.
“There are so many emotions that come with this final realisation: a subtle feeling of excitement, to have a little more autonomy over my own body once more, a little more ‘freedom’ if you like; a sense of achievement after everything we’ve been through; sadness that it’s coming to an end and that one day we will no longer have this particular connection; and pride – pride in myself that I knew what I wanted and, no matter the criticisms that rained down on me, I persisted. And we did it.”
Lilli with Olsson (5 years) and Camden and Bowie (2 years and 9 months)
“Natural term for us has provided empowerment, trust and comfort. Knowing my children’s nutritional, developmental and emotional needs can be met has been a great relief to me. If these last few months have proved anything, it’s that we need to maintain as sustainable an approach to life as possible, and to focus on family and our bonds. Breastfeeding has enabled us to do this even with the unsettlement around us. Giving our children choice and an element of control – like when to wean – builds confidence that will cascade into many areas of their lives.”
Beth with Jack (3 years and 3 months)
“I used to think that people who breastfed their children beyond babyhood were a bit strange – that it was something they did for themselves and that toddlers and older children didn’t ‘need’ to breastfeed. And yet, I find myself breastfeeding a 3-year-old, with no plans to stop. But I didn’t know. I didn’t know the amazing health benefits, that breastfeeding would support my son’s immunity and cognitive development, way beyond babyhood. I didn’t know how amazing it would still feel to hold my child close to my body and know that my body (for which I have always had so much contempt) still could help him grow and develop. I didn’t know how grounding it could be, for both of us, when life is overwhelming. And I didn’t know how important it would be to him – how it is his safe place, his joy and his comfort. That when I pick him up after a day apart, it is his way of knowing he is ‘home’. When he wakes at night and needs to know he is safe, it’s “Mama milk” he calls for. I can’t pretend it’s always easy; sometimes I feel my body isn’t my own, and having to deal with other people’s reactions and feelings can be challenging. But for all the challenges, I wouldn’t change it. For us, it is too special to stop for any other reason than my son deciding he is ready to.”
Amber with Miles (4 years and 9 months)
“Natural term breastfeeding means the same as it has always meant: milk and comfort at the breast. It hasn’t changed because he’s got older. It’s just my child drinking milk the way nature intended, until he is ready to stop. He has used it for nutrition, pain relief and comfort. Now it’s mainly for bedtimes, but sometimes he asks when he’s feeling sad or hurt. I never considered I would breastfeed this far into Miles’ childhood, but it has always been my child having milk and comfort, and it continues to be just that.”
Steph with Wilbur (22 months)
“Natural term breastfeeding means we have a deep-rooted connection and all-around closeness that I can give at any time and anywhere. We can rest together, sleep together, and I can hold him whenever he needs me for comfort, reassurance and confidence.”
Elina with Levana (4.5 years) and Zoryan (20 months)
“For the first few days after Zoryan’s birth, Levana hardly ate anything – my milk was rich, and she needed fluids to recover from a cold. I was worried Zoryan would get her cold, but he didn’t. My body knew exactly what my babies needed and gave them the best nutrition to grow and be healthy. Those first few weeks were so hard for her. Suddenly there was this little being that I paid so much attention to. Letting her nurse whenever she wanted was reassuring for her, and after a difficult couple of weeks, she became calmer and was a bit happier to share me with her brother. I love tandem nursing them. Levana strokes Zoryan’s head, and he touches her face. Even Rad, who is now 10, can feel the love and often comes and hugs me while I nurse them, saying how he wishes he was small again too. Of course I feel tired and I have to make sure I feed myself well. Now Levana sometimes watches me nursing Zoryan, and when I offer to nurse her as well, she says, “No, it’s for Zoryan.” She waits her turn and then whispers into my ear in Russian that she wants to nurse too. It is so sweet and considerate of her. And I am sure it is forming a lovely connection between her and Zoryan. I know they will nurse until they don’t need it anymore, and I am enjoying every moment of it. It won’t last long in the big scheme of life and I treasure this precious time.”
Rachel with Oscar (3 years and 2 months) and Zac (4 weeks)
“Continuing to breastfeed our 3-year-old has been a useful parenting tool. For him, it has helped us connect while soothing and containing emotions, and it has aided his transition to big brother. For me, it prevents engorgement, and has relieved ‘mum guilt’ by allowing us to feel more connected, especially on lazy days when I feel exhausted – it turns it into quality time. It has felt right for us to continue; I don’t actually know how to stop, and I feel that stopping would cause more (unnecessary) distress than continuing. For us, at the moment, the pros of continuing outweigh the cons.
“Zac’s breastfeeding journey and tandem breastfeeding is still pretty new (only 4 weeks), so who knows how it will turn out. I haven’t made any plans; I’m just seeing how it goes. I didn’t expect to be nursing Oscar for so long and I don’t really advertise it or feed Oscar in public, but it actually does make life easier for the moment. I very much believe each family is different and you do what works for you. This definitely is something that works for us but not at all what I would have expected before the boys came along!”
Danni with Lowell (20 months)
“To me, natural term breastfeeding is a connection. It’s a true dyad – both mama and little one holding space for one another. In the mainstream, breastfeeding is often portrayed as simply a method of feeding, but it is so much more than that. I love the connection it creates, the comfort, but also the slowness it brings. It’s a reminder to be present and to enjoy the simple moments with your child.
“It’s a closeness beyond anything I’ve ever experienced and I am so proud that we were able to muddle through those early weeks. Breastfeeding may not be as calm an activity as it once was, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m hoping I can continue to offer him this safe space for a long time to come.”
Ann Owen is a family photographer who specialises in celebrating all the seasons of motherhood. She is married and is a home-schooling mama to two little wildlings: a 5-year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy. Craving a quieter life and one closer to nature, she relocated from London to the New Forest in 2017. www.annowenfoto.com and @ann.owen.foto on Instagram