Natasha Keane is still breastfeeding her youngest daughter Grace, even though she is ready to start school.
The mum-of-three is a breastfeeding advocate and she nursed her oldest daughter Ellie until she turned five and decided she wanted to stop.
Natasha, 38, from Galway, Ireland, practises natural stage weaning – where a child decides for themselves when to stop breastfeeding.
Back when she was a first-time mum to son Adam at 19, she had to stop breastfeeding after a few months due to medication but at that time, she believed nursing after a year was ‘creepy’.
‘I wanted to do it for longer, but I was only 19 back then and didn’t think I could question my doctor,’ she said. ‘I cried so hard for about a week afterwards.
Stephen struggled to take his bottle and it was very stressful.’ After meeting her husband Adam, 35, and falling pregnant with their first child together, she decided she wanted things to be different this time around.
She vowed to be more prepared and joined a local breastfeeding group. ‘I walked into my first meeting, and saw a woman tandem feeding her three-year-old and 18-month-old, with one at each breast,’ she recalled.
‘My jaw hit the floor. I genuinely had no idea it was possible to feed children past the age of one – let alone two at the same time. ‘Instead of judging, I simply asked questions.’
She started to research other groups, speak to other mums and read articles about extended breastfeeding.
She also read on the NHS website that babies are passed valuable antibodies to help protect them against infection through their mother’s milk and discovered that the World Health Organization states that breastfeeding can continue for up to two years and beyond.
According to their recommendations – made together with UNICEF – children should start breastfeeding within an hour of being born and be exclusively nursed for six months, going on to be breastfed on demand then, from six months onwards, should begin eating safe and adequate foods, while continuing to take their mum’s milk.
Buoyed by her findings, Natasha became an advocate for natural stage weaning, saying: ‘There’s a saying in the community – ‘Don’t offer and don’t refuse.’
‘Putting that into practice with my girls meant that, while I wasn’t sitting them down like clockwork, offering them my milk, I wasn’t saying no if they asked.’
She started breastfeeding Ellie with no deadline in mind and when Grace was born two years later, she would tandem feed with one on each breast.
‘I tandem fed for two years,’ she said. ‘I was a little apprehensive at first about the practicalities of it all, but you find your own groove, and it gets easier the more you do it.
‘As Ellie was a little older by then, I could explain to her to be patient and let Grace latch on and settle in first. ‘Every single night, they would fall asleep without fail, one on each breast, holding hands.’
While Ellie stopped wanting to breastfeed just before she turned five, Grace continues to suckle once in the morning and once in the evening. But Natasha still deals with negativity, which she blames on people’s miseducation, rather than on deliberate nastiness.
‘People see breastfeeding as fair game – something everyone is allowed to have an opinion on and criticise,’ she said. ‘I never would, as it is every mum’s choice, but I know if I said something about bottle feeding, it would be unacceptable.
‘I have received some difficult comments over the years. When Grace was just eight months old, I had somebody say to me that I should be force-feeding her into weaning by that point.
I just thought, “What would you say if you knew I’m also feeding her older sister?” ‘I don’t think people are deliberately trying to shame me, or be evil, though. It’s a lack of education – even within the medical profession. ‘We have lactation specialists, but not many of them, and most doctors and nurses aren’t armed to the teeth with the same level of information.
That’s how you end up with mums like I used to be, who don’t realise you can feed past a year, or think it’s wrong to.’ Natasha also thinks mums should be able to breastfeed in public.
Also aware that some mums cannot breast feed, she wants to encourage them to find their local milk banks, where women can donate their own excess supply.
In the past, she has donated six litres, which went on to help 22 different premature babies, as well giving a stash to some mums she met through Facebook, who could not nurse themselves as they were having chemotherapy, but did not want to give their babies formula.
‘It’s up to every mum as an individual what they want to do, and I understand that some have tried and tried, but simply cannot breastfeed,’ she explained.