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How long is best for breast?; Phoebe is two, with a full set of teeth, and when her baby brother is breastfed, she joins in. So just when is the right time to stop?

Byline: SALLY JANES

BALANCING her children on her lap, Amanda Evason enjoys the most relaxing and peaceful moment of the day.

While most 30-something women unwind with a couple of glasses of wine, Amanda looks forward to the final breastfeed, just before bed.

But her children aren't newborn bundles. One is a toddler, walking, talking and with teeth, the other is one year old.

For almost a decade Amanda's breasts have belonged to her five children. She breastfed her eldest boys until they were three-and-a-half. She is now simultaneously feeding Phoebe, two, and Quentin, one.

If you shudder at that thought then you may be stunned to hear about a woman in America who is still breastfeeding her eight-year-old son.

After discussing it on US TV, Lynn Stuckey, 34, was told by a court in Illinois to stop breastfeeding her school-aged boy. The case shocked women on both sides of the Atlantic and last week even 44-year-old Madonna joined in the furore, calling it "incest".

But experts believe our attitudes to nurturing are backward rather than forward.

"This is an unusual case, but of course it is not incest," says Phoebe Tait, of La Leche League.

"Breastfeeding can never become incestuous because it's not a sexual act, it's a nurturing act. It is exactly the opposite of incest."

She adds: "In many cultures, such as the Native Americans, the average age of weaning can be anywhere between two-and-a-half and seven. Breastfeeding for longer is normal and natural."

In fact, the World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding until two, supplemented with other foods.

If children are left to wean themselves, this usually happens between three and four.

In Scandinavia, it is normal to breastfeed a child until two or three. One year's maternity leave and excellent work/life support make it much easier to juggle breastfeeding's demands.

Some companies even allow "Express Breaks" to express breast milk.

In contrast, in Britain only 21 per cent are still breastfeeding after six months as the demands of juggling childcare and a career and difficulties with breastfeeding take their toll.

The National Childbirth Trust (NCT) recommends women in the UK breastfeed exclusively for six months, as frequently in the day as the baby wants.

Breast milk contains natural antibodies and breastfed babies are less prone to infection and have a reduced incidence of asthma, eczema and allergies.

But this can be little comfort for women who struggle to breastfeed.

"Breastfeeding is an art that has to be learned," says Phoebe Tait. "In ancient times, women would breastfeed in groups and learn by looking at others. Today the most successful rates occur in places like South America, where women are exposed to breastfeeding. More women need to be helping other women to breastfeed in the West."

Why some women can't breastfeed..

In the vast majority of cases, women don't get enough support. The only physical reasons a woman may struggle is sore or cracked nipples.

But one common complaint is women feel they have poor continuity of care after birth. New mums can see a stream of a dozen healthcare professionals.

Each one offers their own two pence worth of advice, which means the new mum, exhausted from the birth, is juggling conflicting advice.

And it is support, advice on technique and practice that is so badly needed for new mums.

NCT breastfeeding counsellor Heather Neil says: "We take many calls from women who feel terrible and in great distress.

"I've come across women who still regret not being able to breastfeed 20 years later. I would never say persevere. They need to speak to a counsellor or a good health visitor.

"The vast majority do the best they can. Research shows that 90 per cent of women who stop within six weeks, would have liked to have continued longer, if they had felt able to."

She adds: "Breastfeeding is not the only way of mothering. Other factors contribute to health, happiness and welfare.

"With a third of her life spent breastfeeding, Amanda has it down to a fine art. But not every woman does. Here we talk to four women about their different experiences.'

I breastfed my children until they were aged 31/2'

Amanda Evason, 30, is mum to Victor, nine, Xavier, seven, Sophia, five, Phoebe, two, and Quentin, one. She lives with husband Andy, 40, an IT consultant in Guildford, Surrey.

Amanda says: "Before I had children, I thought breastfeeding was disgusting, but I tried it with Victor and loved it. It feels like I'm giving them the best start.

"Victor only had breast milk for the first 13 months, nothing else. My paediatrician had told me that all a baby needed in the first year is breast milk. I lied and told friends that he was eating solids so that people wouldn't think I was strange.

"I breastfed both Victor and Xavier until they were three-and-a-half. I'd breastfeed them in public and as they got older people commented a lot. I've been told to leave restaurants, people stare on trains and I've had lots of people asking me what I'm doing.

"I've also been asked to cover up outside the school. The older three weaned themselves, one day they just refused the breast.

"Sophia was only 18 months old when she wouldn't breastfeed. You feel sad when they stop because they no longer need you, they're not your little baby any more.

"I haven't had a break in breastfeeding for nine years and I'm still feeding Phoebe and Quentin. It's hard if I get ill and I have to watch the medication I take and what I eat and drink. But I'm not a goody two-shoes.

"Every Friday night I book a babysitter and go out and drink. When I get home, a bit worse for wear, I have to 'pump and dump'. This means I express the breast milk so my supply doesn't dry up, but I can't give it to the children, I have to throw it away. The next morning I pump and dump again. Once I've dumped two feeds, the alcohol will be out of my body.

"One downside of breastfeeding is I do feel the breasts belong more to the children than me. My husband still touches my breasts, it doesn't bother him. For me, though, if the baby has been on them all day the sexual sensation isn't really there.

"But breastfeeding has been so much a part of my life that I'll really miss it when I stop."'Bottle feeding is much more convenient'Nicky Parker, 35, decided against breastfeeding Adam, now 17 months old. Nicky is a full-time mum and lives in Basingstoke, Hampshire, with husband Garry, 45, who works in IT.

Nicky says: "I decided long before I was pregnant that I didn't want to breastfeed. I couldn't imagine doing it and I certainly didn't like the idea of breastfeeding in public.

"I don't have a problem with other mums breastfeeding, I just personally didn't feel comfortable with nudity in public and was shy about baring my breasts.

"I knew about the medical benefits of breastfeeding, but I was bottle-fed and I'm healthy. I didn't see a problem.

"My GP said it was a shame, but respected my decision.

"After the birth I didn't try to breastfeed at all. As I was being stitched up, Adam was passed to his daddy for his first bottle feed. My milk dried up within a week. Bottle feeding is so convenient. It was easy to establish a routine and at four weeks old he was sleeping through the night. Garry did the nightly feeds, which gave me a break and helped them bond.

"Of the five mums in my ante-natal class, I was the only one who said I was going to bottle feed. But a month after we'd had our babies only one was breastfeeding.

"As a nation, we are so pro-breastfeeding but I feel women should know that they are not second-class mums if they bottle feed.

"I believe women should have the right to choose what is best for them.

"Adam's only been to the doctor's once in his life and doesn't have asthma, eczema or any allergies.

"He's the right weight for his age and perfectly healthy."'I couldn't breastfeed my daughter'Nicola La Grue, 33, was devastated when she couldn't breastfeed baby Poppy, now two. Nicola works part-time as a pharmaceutical writer and lives in Camberley, Surrey, with husband Conor, 30, a telecoms manager. The couple are expecting their second baby in December.

Nicola says: "I wanted to breastfeed Poppy, but I just couldn't. I found it impossible to position her properly.

"I was so upset. I felt a failure and a bad mother. I knew all about the health benefits of breastfeeding and I felt bottle feeding was second best.

"I'd tried to breastfeed for two weeks but she didn't get very much milk. I tried to express. I talked to the breastfeeding counsellors, who tried to position Poppy, but nothing worked.

"I was so sore from trying, I didn't feel I could carry on. Poppy had lost a lot of weight and I decided to start bottle feeding.

"Months later I was still depressed about it and comments from strangers added to my feelings of guilt. I was in the post-office queue one day and as I got out the bottle, a woman - a complete stranger - asked me why I wasn't breastfeeding.

"Bottle feeding costs about pounds 10 a week and sterilising the bottles is a chore, but there are advantages. Other people can share in the feeding, and I left Poppy with my parents when she was eight months old and had a weekend away.

"It hasn't affected her health. Poppy is a very beautiful and healthy child. She doesn't have any allergies and she's always slept through the night."'I didn't want my babies to have cow's milk protein'Maggie Smith, 37, expressed her milk at work so baby Elizabeth would have the benefit of breast milk. Maggie lives with husband Andrew, 36, in Oxford. Both are civil servants. Their children are Michael, six, and Elizabeth, two.

Maggie says: "I was determined that the children wouldn't have cow's milk protein until they were at least six months old. I wanted them to have the health benefits of breast milk. That meant expressing my milk at work when I returned after five months' maternity leave. I breastfed Elizabeth in the morning and evening.

"When she was in childcare during the day, she had milk I'd expressed and frozen. At work I carried around a flight bag with my breast pump, Thermos flask with ice and the sterile milk bags.

"Every couple of hours, I'd go to the toilet with the pump. It was very discreet and nobody had to know about it and none of my colleagues said a thing. I preferred to use a hand pump as the electric pump makes a bit of a noise.

"It takes 10-15 minutes to fully express and I'd do it about four or five times a day. I had to keep expressing at work otherwise Elizabeth wouldn't have had any milk for the rest of the week. And if I had gone a few days without expressing, my supply would have dried up. It did feel a bit like milking a cow.

"When I'd expressed, I either stored the milk in the office fridge or in my ice-cube Thermos until I got home when I'd put the bags straight in the freezer. What was hard was that for my job I had to travel all over the country with my expressing kit in the back of the car. One time I was visiting a university and I couldn't just nip off to the loo. I had to explain to a colleague that I was feeding my baby. She was very matter-of-fact and said: 'Oh, you need to use your pump. Off you go, dear.'

"Elizabeth weaned herself at eight months. She just refused to breastfeed and once she stopped suckling, my milk supply dried up. I did feel sad about that. I would have liked to have continued to a year."

- Breastfeeding mums can inadvertently encourage other women around them to have children themselves, say scientists.

This is because they give off pheremones that boost the sexual desire of others, increasing the likelihood of conception.

Women get a signal that the environment is safe enough to give birth and raise young. Such a mechanism could be left over from our cave man days, when it was vital to breed only when conditions were safe to ensure survival.

In a study, women who sniffed pads that had been worn in the bras of nursing mums reported heightened sexual desire.

And in some parts of the world, newly-wed women are encouraged to spend time with new mothers to increase their own chances of having children.

Why the breast really is the best

For baby..

- Breast milk contains antibodies and enzymes not found in formula milk. Antibodies from the mother help ward off infection. And enzymes increase resistance to digestive problems, such as wind, constipation and diarrhoea.

- Research from the University of Glasgow suggests breastfed babies are almost a third less likely to become overweight as bottle-fed babies. They are also less likely to suffer allergies and will be better protected against childhood diabetes.

For mum..

- Women who breastfeed for more than a year cut their risk of developing breast cancer by four per cent, according to research published in The Lancet.

- Breastfeeding uses up to 400 calories per day, so helps you get your figure back.

Why the bottle isn't all bad For baby..

- Formula milk is made to be as similar to breast milk as possible and contains sufficient nutrients for a growing baby. These include:

LCPs (Long-chain poly-unsaturated fatty acids), vital for eye and brain development.

Nucleotides - the building blocks for a baby's growth, which also boost gut function.

Beta-carotene - protects the immune system, skin and tissue.

For mum..

- It makes your boobs sag less. This can happen because milk is produced by the glandular tissue at the centre of the breasts. The glands swell and press surrounding fat cells. This fat may not expand again if a woman breastfeeds for 18 months or more. This leaves the breast saggy inside the skin which is stretched by the baby's sucking. If a woman doesn't breast-feed, the glands will revert to their normal size more quickly, compressing the fat for a shorter time.Percentage of British women breastfeeding after childbirth

- One week after birth - 55 per cent

- Six weeks after birth - 42 per cent

- Six months after birth - 21 per cent

(figures: Office of National Statistics)- For more information, contact the NCT Breastfeeding helpline on: 0870 444 8708. Lines open 8am-10pm seven days a week.

- La Leche League of Great Britain is a registered charity, offering support and information to women. To make a donation or for help call: 020 7242 1278

CAPTION(S):

Amanda breastfeeds Phoebe, aged two, (left) and Quentin, aged one; Amanda with Phoebe, two, and one-year-old Quentin; Picture:TIM ANDERSON / ALASDAIR MACDONALD; Nicky with her son, Adam, who's now 17 months old; Maggie with Elizabeth, aged two; Amanda with her five children; Nicola with Poppy, now aged two
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Title Annotation:M Health
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Nov 14, 2002
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