London - When James Vincent’s wife Vicky decided to breast-feed their third child, he was nothing but supportive. Their elder children had the benefit of their mother’s milk and he wanted the same for their youngest.
But when Vicky was still feeding Beanie nearly three years later, James, 34, admits it had become a problem. ‘I found it difficult,’ he says. ‘It can inhibit your closeness to your wife.
‘I was fully supportive of Vicky’s decision, but it was hard not to feel left out. As a father you don’t have that closeness with your children for the first few years because the breast-feeding bond is so strong and exclusive.’
As such, James, who works in sales for an electrical company, admits he felt Vicky’s body was ‘off limits’ to him until she finally stopped breast-feeding Beanie a year ago, just before he turned three.
Like many fathers, he felt edged out by the extended period of feeding - known as ‘extreme nursing’ - that’s become fashionable among middle-class mothers.
His eldest daughter Maisie, ten, had been breastfed for only a week because of health problems, while his son Beau was happy to wean himself at a year. But Beanie, now four, showed no signs of wanting to stop, so his wife carried on.
As Vicky believed in feeding anywhere and on demand, Beanie developed a habit of requesting ‘Can I have some boob?’ whenever he wanted some milk.
‘I had to make a decision not to let it get to me,’ says James, from Helston, Cornwall. ‘Vicky is uninhibited, but a lot of people still react with disgust at the sight of a woman breast-feeding an older child.’
Vicky, who works as a breast-feeding mentor, admits she never discussed James’s misgivings. ‘It was very much mine and Beanie’s decision to carry on breast-feeding,’ she says.
‘I found it all-consuming. As you breast-feed, the hormone oxytocin, which induces happiness, is released. Sometimes James felt pushed out by my closeness to Beanie, especially when he was lying between us breast-feeding in bed.’
But Vicky concedes that while protracted breast-feeding may have cemented the close bond she has with her son, it has clearly failed to foster intimacy between her and James.
‘Some women tell me their husbands hate it,’ she says. ‘I think men view their wives’ breasts as somehow theirs and say extended breastfeeding can get in the way of physical intimacy.’
Mothers who suckle their children beyond the age of two have always provoked controversy, and public debate about late breast-feeding was reignited recently by a graphic image on the cover of Time magazine.
The photo depicted a 26-year-old mother, Jamie Lynne Grumet, and her son, who was almost four at the time, standing on a stool to feed from her breast.
It sparked worldwide controversy. Those in favour of extreme breast-feeding applauded the mom for championing the cause so uncompromisingly; those against condemned her for exposing her young son to ridicule or even long-term psychological damage.
But while the impact of long-term breast-feeding on mother and child are furiously debated, what of the impact on the husbands of the women, who insist breast - no matter what the age of the child - is best?
Alexandra Dooley was still feeding her four-year-old son Joseph when he started nursery school. Though her daughter Erin stopped breast-feeding of her own accord at 15 months, she was a keen advocate of ‘extreme nursing’ and was happy to continue as long as her son wanted to.
But it sparked rows with her partner Paul, who confessed to feeling ‘uncomfortable’ about it.
‘We argued because Paul wanted us to bottle feed so he could spend as much time with the children as I did,’ says Alexandra, 36, a nurse from Warrington, Cheshire.
Two months ago, another family member expressed her repulsion and alarm at the practice, which brought things to a head.
‘She said Joseph would end up breast-feeding into adulthood like the David Walliams character in Little Britain,’ says Alexandra, referring to the grotesque comic parody in which Walliams plays a grown man who still publicly demands what he calls ‘bitty’ from his obliging mother.
‘That was the thing that most upset me. It made me feel sick about what I was doing. But to make me feel like that when I’m the mother and it’s my choice - I thought that was wrong.’
Fathers are often loath to admit that their real concerns about breast-feeding are less altruistic, as Francine Kaye, couples counsellor and author of Divorce Doctor, points out.
‘Breast-feeding is the most exclusive and bonding act,’ she said. Men often feel pushed out; not just because their erotic role has been usurped by a nurturing one, but also because dads cannot participate in breast-feeding.
‘It’s often the case that women’s love for their babies is so all-consuming they do not realise how much they are neglecting their intimate lives with their husbands.
‘And when breast-feeding no longer serves a nutritional purpose - when a child is three and eating solids - I think it’s outrageous to continue.
‘You have to ask yourself: “Is it the child’s or actually the mother’s needs that are being served here?”
‘Unless the husband is totally supportive you begin to wonder if his wife is avoiding confronting something about her relationship with him.
‘There’s a point when she has to resume intimacy with her husband, so I sympathise totally with men who feel, that by the time a child is old enough to help itself to milk, their partner’s breasts should have resumed their sexual function.’
A few men are relaxed about their partners’ decisions to breast-feed past babyhood - investment banker Jonathan Henry is one of them.
He insists he feels no conflict between the sexual and nurturing roles of his wife Angela’s breasts.
He and Angela, 40, a former law lecturer, have three children: Natalie, six, Lucas, three, and one-year-old Eloise. Astoundingly, their mother is feeding them all.
‘If my children are sick or can’t sleep, I feed them and it makes everything OK,’ says Angela, who lives in Woking, Surrey, and also home-schools her children.
Jonathan, 43, says he understands why critics of long-term breast-feeding consider it ‘weird’. However, he insists it hasn’t had a detrimental impact on his sex life. ‘Some men don’t want to share their wife’s breasts with their children because they think they’re part of what makes her sexual.
‘But just because they’re used for breast-feeding, it doesn’t mean they can’t perform a sexual function, too,’ he says.
He admits he would have baulked at the notion of feeding a six-year-old before he became a father, but says he has been won over by the health benefits.
Advocates of extended feeding claim mother’s milk boosts the human immune system, which takes from two to six years to fully mature.
Relationship expert Dr Pam Spurr believes men feel compromised: wary of seeming unreasonably possessive, but secretly aggrieved.
‘They don’t want to appear to be unenlightened and jealous, so they try to hide their true feelings, but resentment inevitably builds up and often boils over into big rows,’ she says. Many men, too, feel physical aversion to their wives’ extended lactation.
‘They struggle with the fact that they’re producing milk and find it a turn-off. I would be astounded if sex lives weren’t affected by continued feeding beyond the age of two,’ says Dr Spurr.
Even so, though there are no official figures, estimates suggest a growing number of oums are doing it. The Facebook page for the book Breast-feeding Older Children, by Ann Sinnott, has almost 3,000 ‘likes’.
Aurelija Supronaite, 31, who lives near Croydon, Surrey, is one such devotee, and she sees no problem in nursing her daughters, Emilia, three, and one-year-old Isabelle, simultaneously.
However, her husband Dominic, 40, who runs his own building company, admits he feels uncomfortable at times.
‘I’m not sure embarrassed is the right word, but I am conscious people think breast-feeding an older child in public is out of place,’ he says.
‘They don’t know how to react. I’m very happy that Aurelija and the children have such a strong bond, but there comes a point when you feel you’d like to get back to how you were before the children were born. I know Aurelija would carry on breast-feeding for as long as the children want it, but I want her back. I also worry that if it carries on until they go to school the children might get teased about it.’
Aurelija does not share these anxieties. ‘Both girls enjoy it so much I don’t see any reason to stop,’ she says. ‘I’m happy to carry on as long as the girls want to.
‘Emilia wants “mommy’s milky” most if she is tired or unwell, it’s a comfort.’
However, the issue of extreme nursing is so sensitive and controversial, few will openly admit that their distaste amounts to revulsion.
One father who does admit to feeling repulsed would speak only under the condition of anonymity. Married to a 35-year-old teacher, they live in Chester and she feeds their children - a boy, aged two, and a five-month-old baby.
‘It seems perverse and unnecessary to feed an older child,’ he says. ‘It also gets in the way of our intimate life - I feel rather repulsed by it.
‘It’s fine when my wife is breast-feeding the baby, but when my son starts to suckle at her breast I simply can’t look.
‘I hate it when he lifts up his mom’s top and bra so he can feed. To me, it’s a massive invasion of personal space.’
Advocates like Adeline Ayers, from Redruth, Cornwall, who is still feeding her youngest child Gregory, four, contend that, whatever the father’s feelings, it fosters confidence and security in their children.
Detractors say it could do the opposite. ‘If breast-feeding becomes the only way the child can feel safe and comfortable, it could become dependent on it,’ says Dr Helen Barrett, developmental psychologist and author of Attachment And The Perils Of Parenting.
‘And for children with particular needs that already make them a target for bullies, continuing to breast-feed could make that situation even worse.’
Adeline, who lives with husband Sam, 39, an engineer, and has three older daughters - Eve, 17, Ruth, 16, and Rose, 12 - insists her husband is happy to share their bed with Gregory.
Indeed, Sam confirms this. ‘We often find ourselves playing musical beds at night - I’ll end up in the spare room or the sofa. But it has not had a detrimental effect on our intimate life - you just have to be more inventive,’ he says.
The danger of normalising extended feeding is the sense of obligation it imposes on mothers to conform. The provocative Time magazine headline ‘Are You Mom Enough?’ does much to enforce feelings of inadequacy in those who fail to breast-feed at all or feel they did not do so for long enough.
Becky Dickinson, 38, a writer from Addlestone, Surrey, is mom to Jonas and Daisy. She feels she would have ‘failed’ her son had she not breast-fed him.
Though she suffered from painful mastitis, she breast-fed Jonas until he was 2½. Her partner, Uli, 36, urged her to bottle-feed, but when Daisy was born she breast-fed again.
She is trying - fruitlessly, it seems - to wean her at 2½.
‘I feel I’ve done my bit for her immune system, possibly at the expense of my own. I catch every bug going and feel constantly exhausted, which doesn’t help my relationship with Uli,’ she says.
‘It’s embarrassing, too, when you’re out and a toddler shoves her hands down your top and shouts: “Booby!”
‘The problem is that Daisy is not ready to give up and no one tells you how to stop when your child doesn’t want to.
‘Short of smearing my nipples in Tabasco or binding my breasts with duct tape, I’ve no idea how to wean her.
‘I love her immeasurably, but I wish she’d find an alternative milk supply - such as the fridge.’
In the extreme nursing debate perhaps Becky’s experience is the most persuasive argument of all for weaning children as babies - before they realise they are being breast-fed at all. -