Vickie Krevatin’s four-year-old son Jessy was at a party last week that left him uncontrollable with excitement. When Vickie’s attempts to stop him knocking over drinks, shouting and throwing toys failed, she took him to a quiet room, removed her blouse, lay him on top of her and let him suckle her breast.
Jessy may be a strapping 3ft 3ins tall and old enough to start school next month, but Vickie breastfeeds him five times a day because, she says, it alleviates his symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) - the most commonly diagnosed behavioural disorder in children. “Every time he is offered ‘boobies’ he is calm,” says Vickie. “Breastfeeding is as effective as drugs for keeping his symptoms under control. I dread to think where we would be without breastmilk.”
Despite the well-known health benefits of breastfeeding, only one per cent of British women do so exclusively for the World Health Organisation’s recommended six months, while extended breastfeeding (the WHO recommends it is continued until the age of two) is so rare it is seen as a societal taboo. Earlier this month US mother Jessica Anne Colletti, 26, caused controversy when she posted a picture of herself breastfeeding her 16-month-old son and his 18-month-old friend on Facebook, with many claiming the boys, even at their age, were too old to be nursing.
“I know people don’t regard it as ‘normal’ but I don’t care,” says Vickie, 42, from Basingstoke, Hants. A devoted mother who quit her job as a financial crime auditor when Jessy was six months old and now works from home as a jeweller, she adds: “Jessy won’t be breastfeeding when he’s 18 but I have no intention of stopping until he’s ready.”
ADHD, whose main symptoms are hyperactivity and impulsive behaviour, is thought to be caused by underactivity of chemicals called neurotransmitters in the brain and a poorly developed prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls “executive functions” including self-control).
Diagnoses have soared in recent years - the NHS estimates that between two and five per cent of school-age children suffer to some extent, although some experts believe the rise in diagnoses is due to other health complaints or a child’s natural exuberance being misdiagnosed.
While there is no cure, the most common treatment is methylphenidate, a stimulant drug most commonly known by the brand name Ritalin, which increases the activity of the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenaline. Figures released this month showed that prescriptions for Ritalin have more than doubled in a decade, reaching almost a million last year.
Jessy, diagnosed with ADHD this February, has been taking Equasym XL, another brand of methylphenidate, since March. “It has helped him focus and he is making progress,” says Vickie. But, she maintains, breastfeeding is also vital in helping her son calm down.
There is no medical research to support Vickie’s claims, although breast milk does contain naturally occurring chemicals called nucleotides that induce sleepiness. Also, during breastfeeding a gastrointestinal hormone called cholecystokinine (CKK) is released that makes a child feel sedated.
And there is some research showing that nursing may protect against ADHD developing in the first place. In June 2013 researchers at Tel Aviv University found that children who were bottle-fed at three months of age were three times more likely to have ADHD than those who were breastfed during the same period. It is not known whether this is due to the composition of breast milk or the bond formed between mother and baby while feeding but, says Dr Aviva Mimouni-Bloch, a specialist in child development and paediatric neurology in charge of the project: “The differences were significant statistically. In the end, we speculated that prevention of ADHD may be added to the list of the known advantages of human milk feeding.”
Being breastfed since birth however, did not prevent the difficulties his parents had with Jessy, born in June 2011. “As a baby he wouldn’t sit still for longer than 15 minutes. If I put him in a car or buggy he’d scream,” says Vickie. “As he got older he would kick and shout and was so destructive we’d be reduced to tears - but at this point we just thought he was a typical boy.”
Her partner of eight years, Portuguese-born João Da Mata, 45, a television presenter on a horse racing channel, adds: “We loved Jessy but he pushed us above and beyond.”
The only thing that calmed their son was being in close proximity to his mother. So for the first six months, Vickie kept him in their bed at night, carried him in a sling and breastfed him up to 18 times a day. After being introduced to solids, he was still breastfed on demand. Her strategy at this stage – with Jessy’s disorder still undiagnosed - was motivated as much by maternal love as her son’s restlessness: “Despite being difficult all I wanted to do was be with him all the time.”
At two, and still nursing on-demand, Jessy - who has never drunk fruit juice and has a healthy diet - had three decayed teeth extracted. Indeed, some research shows that breastfeeding for an extended period can increase the risk of Tooth decay. “His dentist told me that breastfeeding was rotting his teeth and that I should stop,” says Vickie. “But I have read that milk flows from the nipple to the back of the mouth so it is less damaging than drinking milk from a cup.”
She insists she encountered no adverse reaction to breastfeeding in public, which she continues to do. “The only comment has come from other mums who said they wished they’d breastfed their children for as long as I had,” she says.
Last September, Vickie enrolled Jessy at nursery where his erratic behaviour led the manager to assign a specific member of staff to supervise him. This prompted Vickie to visit her GP, in the private sector. In February, Jessy was referred to a child psychologist - also in the private sector - who, in conjunction with a psychiatrist, diagnosed him with severe ADHD and prescribed Equasym XL. “The diagnosis was devastating but at least we knew Jessy wasn’t just being naughty,” says Vickie.
Meanwhile, the psychiatrist told Vickie she should stop breastfeeding. “But he couldn’t tell me why, so I won’t,” she says. Some experts say she is right to stand her ground. Qualified breastfeeding specialist Catherine Cooper, based in London, says: “Breastfeeding is a natural and progressive relationship between a mother and child and if left to the child weaning happens between two and a half to seven years of age. In other societies this is seen as perfectly normal. The only negative outcome is society’s judgment.”
But Andrea Bilbow OBE, CEO of charity The National Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service is sceptical that breastfeeding has any particular benefits to children with ADHD. “Breastfeeding will keep a child calm but so will hugging them or giving them a dummy,” she says.
Six months ago exhaustion saw Vickie drop Jessy’s overnight feeds. But Jessy still sleeps with his parents and is allowed a feed at 5am; he then has three feeds during the day and needs a breastfeed to go to sleep. “It is undoubtedly a comfort to him – as soon as I take my top down he comes running and he says my breast milk tastes like cake,” says Vickie. “But it is getting harder now he is so big - he bites me.”
Alison Roy, a child and adolescent psychotherapist with mental health services in Sussex, says: “It could be Jessy has worked out a reassuring, regular form of contact with his mother that has helped him to self-regulate his emotions. But children with ADHD still need to separate from their mothers, physically and psychologically, for the healthy development of their personality and capacity for socialisation.”
João, meanwhile, is sanguine about his son’s continued breastfeeding. “It has been the best thing for Jessy,” he says. “Despite his ADHD we have the most amazing boy in the world.” Vickie agrees: “On his own terms Jessy is incredibly affectionate and compassionate. He is always kissing me and says he loves me to the sun and moon and back.”
Since being on medication Jessy, now at nursery five mornings a week, has learned to play with his cars for half an hour and sit on the sofa for 20 minutes at a time. Vickie says she will continue to breastfeed as long as it helps him. “All we want is to be able to lead a normal, happy family life,” she says. “And if breastfeeding helps us to do that I don’t see why Jessy should stop.”
By Antonia Hoyle