London - A mother who breastfed her daughter for almost a decade has described its physical and emotional benefits in an attempt to tackle the stigma around "extended nursing".
Sharon Spink, 50, said she was accused of child abuse and "called every name under the sun" for continuing to breastfeed Charlotte until the age of nine.
But the mother of four insists it has strengthened her daughter’s immune system – as well as the bond between them – and criticised society’s attitude to nursing older children.
Spink was determined to breastfeed Charlotte after struggling to do so with her three older children – Kim, now 30, Sarah, 28, and Isabel, 12. She said: "I was determined to make it work for Charlotte.
"My initial goal was to get past the six months mark, then it became 12 months, then two years. After that it was seeing how far she wanted to go."
She decided to continue feeding her until the little girl felt ready to wean herself – and ended up breastfeeding until nine-year-old Charlotte decided to stop two months ago.
At the age of five, Charlotte was feeding three times a day, but this gradually reduced over the past four years to about once a month.
Spink, of Sherburn-in-Elmet, North Yorkshire, believes Charlotte’s immune system has been given a boost as she "doesn’t get as many coughs, colds and tummy aches" as her other children.
The actress, who has now qualified as a breastfeeding counsellor, said she used to feed Charlotte in public places, including at hairdressers and supermarkets, but more recently had just done it at home.
Charlotte had intended to stop her occasional feeds when she turns ten in April – but now hasn’t fed for two months, bringing it to a natural end.
The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breastfeeding up to six months, with continued breastfeeding along with complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond. But doctors say there is no reason to stop occasional breastfeeding at that point if a mother wishes to continue.
However, Spink’s choice has led to strong criticism.
"I have been called every name under the sun," she said. "I’ve been told it’s child abuse, I’ve been called a paedophile and a freak. The first time it upset me, but now it’s water off a duck’s back. I just want to [tell] other mums out there who are wondering “should I or should I not?” that this is normal."
And she believes the benefits for Charlotte will be lifelong.
"I hope when she’s older she’ll remember that feeling of comfort and security it gave her.
"We have such a close bond and I’m convinced it’s because of breastfeeding her for so long."