By: Jennifer Wiley/UK Mirror
As a proud mother, Denise Sumpter cuddles her bright, talented and confident daughter it is clear they have a special bond.
At six-and-a-half years old, Belle is still breastfeeding – the oldest child in the UK known to be taking her mother’s milk.
The Year Two pupil will ask for a feed if she is tired, ill or simply wants some bonding time with her mum.
She might ask a couple of times a day, or maybe just once or twice a week.
Sometimes she feeds on her own, and other times she latches on alongside 18-month-old brother Beau.
And Denise, 44, insists she will continue until Belle decides it is time to stop.
“I’ll feed Belle as long as she asks,” she says. “I don’t know how long that will be. It will be the same with Beau. I don’t think there’s anything weird about it.
“I feed both children on demand – whenever they want it.”
Belle is a head taller than most of her classmates and has rarely been ill.
Her mother puts this down to her “mama’s milk”, and for the confidence of her clever daughter – a talented violinist, singer and dancer who is top of the class in most subjects.
Denise, a PhD student of ancient science, says: “I have two healthy, bright, confident children who I truly believe have benefited from breast milk, and continue to do so.”
Denise has the backing of partner Jules Deering, 47, a technical director at a university drama department.
“Breastfeeding hasn’t impacted my sex life in any way,” she says. “It hasn’t ruined my breasts.”
In fact she credits it with helping her keep her figure and her health, saying: “I’m protected from various cancers and can eat what I want without gaining weight.”
But she insists that the benefits it gives to her children are her driving force. “Mums who feed for longer are often accused of being selfish,” she says.
“There are things I get out of it – like calm, happy children. But I can say with certainty I’ve done this entirely for the benefit of my kids.
“When Belle finishes I’ll be sad but it’s a natural progression. Her milk teeth are going and I get the impression she won’t be feeding for much longer. But she can take her time.”
Denise admits her choice has raised eyebrows, saying: “I used to get the odd comment from relatives who’d say ‘here we go with the milk thing again’. But I think because people know I’m confident in my decision they let me get on with it.”
However, Belle no longer feeds from her mother in public. “I will sometimes tell Belle no. She hasn’t asked to be fed publicly since she was about four or five. Luckily, I haven’t had many negative responses.”
The mother of two had never planned to continue breastfeeding for so long.
When Belle was a newborn Denise expected to feed her for six months to a year at the most – but when the time came she began to change her mind.
“I heard women talking about tricking their babies to stop breastfeeding, or simply taking it away,” she says. “Belle seemed so tiny and she really needed her milk.”
Once she started to look into the subject she discovered baby-led weaning. “It became clear that the norms in this country aren’t necessarily correct or what is best for children,” she says.
“The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding up to two years and beyond. I decided to let nature play its course.”
Denise, from Islington. North London, found help and advice through groups such as breastfeeding support organisation La Leche League. “Having a strong support network is really important,” she says.
“I try to help parents with the information I have as it saves lives, empowers women and makes children happy.
“When mothers are told to cover up while breastfeeding in Claridge’s or ignorant politicians like UKIP leader Nigel Farage tell nursing mums to ‘sit in the corner’, it only does harm. What we need is more openness and more truth so mums can make informed decisions.”
She adds: “There are so many myths about breastfeeding it’s unreal.
Nigel Farage on breastfeeding:
“People argue that after a certain age breast milk has no nutritional benefits but that’s nonsense – there is not a single food source that suddenly stops being nutritious.
“My children have hardly been ill. Beau came down with something the other day and because I nursed him through it he was better in 24 hours. I’ve had similar with Belle. If they’re upset it calms them. It helps them sleep.”
Denise denies her children are overly dependent on her.
“People think by feeding Belle this long I will stunt her confidence. But she is extremely independent – if anything, she can be too bolshie sometimes,” she says.
“Her teachers say she is mature for her age. She’s been away from me at her nan’s for a week and was fine.”
She admits: “If you’d asked me five years ago I never would have thought I’d still be breastfeeding Belle. However, it turned out to be one of the best things I could have done for my family.”
And for little Belle and Beau, nothing could seem more natural.
Denise says: “Belle understands not everyone breastfeeds as long as her, but she’s proud of it. She’ll pretend to breastfeed her dolls. The other day at playgroup Beau picked up a toy bottle and didn’t have a clue what it was. I was proud of that.”
The arguments for and against
She’s right – Lactation consultant Luci Lishman, who is also registered nurse and midwife
Denise is an inspiration. Breastfeeding has obviously been helpful for her and her children who are benefiting emotionally and physically.
It’s a personal choice that isn’t for everybody. Some people only want to feed for three months, others for two years.
The important thing is we support mothers to do what is best for them and their child.
The World Health Organisation recommends babies exclusively breastfeed for six months and then continue into the second year and beyond along with solid foods.
For some women that isn’t possible, but it’s an ideal.
Every year a mother breastfeeds she decreases her risk of breast cancer by 4.3 per cent. It also cuts the risk of other cancers and illnesses.
For children breastfeeding provides increased immunity indefinitely.
It is thought that a child’s immune system probably isn’t fully developed until the age of 10 or 12.
Globally, the average age children stop breastfeeding is four and a half.
Longer-term breastfeeding is perfectly natural, it’s just not always seen as socially acceptable.
It’s brave of Denise to share her story – I’m sure it will encourage other mothers and trigger conversation.
She’s wrong – Retired midwife & breastfeeding counsellor Clare Byam-Cook
I applaud Denise for breastfeeding and managing to do it beyond six months. She’s right – the more mothers do it, the more breastfeeding will become the norm and that’s great.
However, she’s wrong to think mothers in this country should still be breastfeeding a six year old. In England, it isn’t necessary – or normal.
There are things babies should progress from – wearing nappies, using dummies, sitting at a high chair. It’s the same with breastfeeding.
She could be making her daughter the object of ridicule.
I don’t think food – including breast milk – should be treated as a source of comfort in a country where we have an obesity epidemic.
It’s true that breast milk protects children from illnesses, but by the time they are six they have their own immunity.
There are things parents have to say no to, and this is one of them. Just because a child wants something doesn’t mean they always get it.