The topic of breastfeeding, for better or worse, remains a controversial one — especially when it comes to discussing how long it should go on. It’s particular controversial if you’re Sharon Spink, a British mom who has been speaking out about how she let her daughter nurse until she was 9 years old.
“When I came to have Charlotte, I had decided on natural term weaning. It’s nice for the child to be in control of when they want to wean, rather than forcing the issue,” Spink, 50, an actor based in North Yorkshire, England, told the Sun, after sharing her story with the Caters News Agency and having it picked up in global outlets, from the Daily Mail to the New York Post, similar to what happened in 2014 when she first shared her story about nursing her then-5-year-old.
Spink, who’s also a mom to three older kids, said she wanted to break the stigma around extended breastfeeding — a concept that’s been promoted by celebrities including Mayim Bialik and Alanis Morissette and has raised angry criticism in the public realm many times over the years — perhaps most notably in 2012 when the cover of Time magazine featured a 3-year-old boy standing on a chair to breastfeed from his defiantly posed mom. It was part of a feature package around the rise of attachment parenting — a method with three main tenets: co-sleeping, baby-wearing (that is, slings rather than strollers), and extended breastfeeding, all as ways to bond and “attach.”
Later came stories about moms who breastfed their 4-year-old and 6-year-old, and one who said the plan was to continue until her daughter was 10 years old, all prompting criticism that veered into accusatory, sexual-based territory, as it has this time for Spink, who said her daughter self-weaned just a couple of months ago. In response, she has been called a “pedophile” on Facebook, where one of the many stories about her and Charlotte had been shared 6,000 times. Others called the situation “freakin weird,” “nuts,” “perverted,” “selfish,” “sick,” “bizarre,” “child abuse,” and “unnatural.”
But for all the attacks on Spink, there were also many strong defenders, at least one of whom called her an “inspiration.”
“Wow what a fantastic amazing woman achieving nearly a decade of breastfeeding… What an amazing bond they must share,” noted another. “Shame something so natural is frowned upon in this day and age.” Another chimed in with, “A woman breastfeeding her OWN child is wrong because the child isn’t a baby, but it’s totally okay for adult humans to drink the milk of a mother cow? Jesus Christ, human beings are weird sometimes.”
And there was this heartfelt reply to Spink’s critics: “Society judgment is disgusting. You do realize that the world health organization recommend to breastfeed a MINIMUM of two years… Why do you feel the need to judge her?”
Spink did not immediately respond to questions from Yahoo Lifestyle about why she decided to go so public with her story or about whether or not her daughter has been teased about it. She did, however, respond to a similar question posed by someone on her Facebook page, writing, “She’s fine & her school friends are so nice. There’s never been any bullying.”
The biological age of weaning for the human species is between 2.5 and 7 years old, according to research by a Texas A&M University anthropologist, with the average being 4.3 years. In the U.S., where most moms stop breastfeeding much earlier, the CDC reports that 57 percent of babies are still nursing at 6 months (25 percent exclusively through 6 months), and fewer than 36 percent of babies are still being breastfeed at 12 months.
Leigh Anne O’Connor, a New York-based certified lactation consultant and leader of an extended breastfeeding support group, tells Yahoo Lifestyle, “It is cruel that people are calling this woman a pedophile.” She notes that while she’s never personally worked with anyone who breastfed for as long as Spink has, she supported a woman who breastfed her child until age 6 and knew a woman whose children all nursed for about 8 years. “Nine years is older than the biological norm, but it is not unheard of,” she says.
“It can be challenging when the world sees nursing a toddler and preschooler as weird. And I imagine this mom is met with amplified criticism,” O’Connor adds. “Western culture has a complicated relationship with breasts. We flaunt them to sell cars and beer, but when breasts are used for feeding babies and children, people get uneasy.”
Although some commenters have speculated that Spink could no longer actually be producing milk, O’Connor says that she could. “It is possible that she is producing milk this long. Many moms make milk for years — they may nurse through a pregnancy and nurse both kids and keep making milk as long as their breasts are stimulated. It is also possible that there is very little milk and the nursing is for comfort.”
Responding to a question about the presence of milk posed to her on Facebook, Spink responded, “Only way I knew there was milk there was because Charlotte would tell me there was.”
In any event, O’Connor notes, there’s been no published research as far as she’s aware that mentions any risks to a child who nurses for this long. But the benefits, she adds, are the possibility of Charlotte having a boosted immune system, as well as the mom’s enhanced “connection with her daughter.”
Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle: