Intro

All content of this blog is my own opinion only. It does not represent the views of any organisation or association I may work for, or be associated with. Nothing within this blog should be considered as medical advice and you should always consult your Doctor.

Is breastfeeding a six year old ok? Er where do you live?

Cruz Beckham
Suri Cruise Aged 4
When people ask what is a "normal" age to wean, my stock reply is biologically or socially?   In the UK people are fine seeing an older toddler sucking on a man made latex nipple - anyone who has even caught five minutes of a Jordan (Katie Price) episode, will know parting Princess from her pacifier is no mean feat!  I had thought for a while it was a custom made version for busy celebs with a "no spit" feature, but after seeing the speed with which it was removed when a camera appeared for still photos - I was relieved to see not!

Despite the fact there is significant evidence weaning happens very prematurely in the Western World, the knee jerk response to a Daily Mail article published about how freakish feeding a six year old was - sucking on a real nipple no less! (the one that comes without the risks of suboptimal oral development) was staggering!

Perhaps in the West the culture clash is in part due to the conflicting portrayal of children.  Whilst Suri might like a bottle at four, she's also been clocked tottering in mini high heels.  Cruz Beckham sports a pacifier, but check out his tats and swagger!  There are claims Gwen Stefani has bleached her son Kingston's hair, and I have no words for the recent offering from Katie Price.

I want to share an article that sums up completely about how it's all about cultural norms.  I first read it in the Spring magazine published the The Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, and more recently it has been shared online by Christie Haskell on The Stir  in her response to said Daily Mail article.  Thought Armadillo readers might like it too :)

Breastfeeding in the Land of Ghenghis Khan by Ruth Kamnitzer
In Mongolia, there's an oft-quoted saying that the best wrestlers are breastfed for at least six years - a serious endorsement in a country where wrestling is the national sport. I moved to Mongolia when my first child was four months old, and lived there until he was three.

Raising my son during those early years in a place where attitudes to breastfeeding are so dramatically different from prevailing norms in North America opened my eyes to an entirely different vision of how it all could be. Not only do Mongolians breast feed for a long time, they do so with more enthusiasm and less inhibition than nearly anyone else I've met. In Mongolia, breastmilk is not just for babies, it's not only about nutrition, and it's definitely not something you need to be discreet about. It's the stuff Genghis Khan was made of.
Like many first-time mums, I hadn't given much thought to breastfeeding before I had a child. But minutes after my son, Calum, popped out, he latched on, and for the next four years seemed pretty determined not to let go. I was lucky, for in many ways breastfeeding came easily - never a cracked nipple, rarely an engorged breast. Mentally, things were not quite as simple. As much as I loved my baby and cherished the bond that breastfeeding gave us, it was, at times, overwhelming. I was unprepared for the magnitude of my love for him, and for the intensity of his need for me and me only - for my milk. "Don't let him turn you into a human pacifier," a Canadian nurse had cautioned me just days after Calum's birth, as he sucked for hour after hour. But I would run through all the possible reasons for his crying - gas? wet? understimulation? overstimulation? - and mostly I'd just end up feeding him again. I wondered if I was doing the right thing.
Then I moved away from Canada, to Mongolia, where my husband was conducting a wildlife study. There, babies are kept constantly swaddled in layers of thick blankets, tied up with string like packages you don't want to come apart in the mail. When a package murmurs, a nipple is popped in its mouth. Babies aren't changed very often, and never burped. There aren't even hands available to thrust a rattle into. Definitely no tummy time. Babies stay wrapped up for at least three months, and every time they make a sound, they're breastfed.

This was interesting. At three months, Canadian babies are already having social engagements, even swimming. Some are learning to "self-soothe." I had assumed that there were many reasons a baby might cry, and that my job was to figure out what the reason was and provide the appropriate solution. But in Mongolia, though babies might cry for many reasons, there is only ever one solution: breastmilk. I settled down on my butt and followed suit.

A Working Boob Hits the Streets
In Canada, a certain amount of mystique still surrounds breastfeeding. But really, we're just not very used to it. Breastfeeding happens at home, in baby groups, occasionally in cafes - you seldom see it in public, and we certainly don't have conscious memories of having been breastfed ourselves. This private activity between mother and child is greeted with a hush and politely averted eyes, and regarded almost in the same way as public displays of intimacy between couples: not taboo, but slightly discomfiting and politely ignored. And when that quiet, angelic newborn grows into an active toddler intent on letting the world know exactly what he's doing, well, those eyes are averted a bit more quickly and intently, sometimes under frowning brows.

In Mongolia, instead of relegating me to a "Mothers Only" section, breastfeeding in public brought me firmly to center stage. Their universal practice of breast feeding anywhere, anytime, and the close quarters in which most Mongolians live, mean that everyone is pretty familiar with the sight of a working boob. They were happy to see I was doing things their way (which was, of course, the right way). When I breastfed in the park, grandmothers would regale me with tales of the dozen children they had fed. When I breastfed in the back of taxis, drivers would give me the thumbs-up in the rearview mirror and assure me that Calum would grow up to be a great wrestler. When I walked through the market cradling my feeding son in my arms, vendors would make a space for me at their stalls and tell him to drink up. Instead of looking away, people would lean right in and kiss Calum on the cheek. If he popped off in response to the attention and left my streaming breast completely exposed, not a beat was missed. No one stared, no one looked away - they just laughed and wiped the milk off their noses.

From the time Calum was four months old until he was three years old, wherever I went, I heard the same thing over and over again: "Breastfeeding is the best thing for your baby, the best thing for you." The constant approval made me feel that I was doing something important that mattered to everyone - exactly the kind of public applause every new mother needs. 

The Lazy Mum's Secret Weapon
By Calum's second year, I had fully realized just how useful breastfeeding could be. Nothing gets a child to sleep as quickly, relieves the boredom of a long car journey as well, or calms a breaking storm as swiftly as a little warm milk from mummy. It's the lazy mother's most useful parenting aid, and by now I thought I was using it to its maximum effect. But the Mongolians took it one step further.
During the Mongolian winters, I spent many afternoons in my friend Tsetsgee's yurt, escaping the bitter cold outside. It was enlightening to compare our different parenting techniques. Whenever a tussle over toys broke out between our two-year-olds, my first reaction would be to try to restore peace by distracting Calum with another toy while explaining the principle of sharing. But this took a while, and had a success rate of only about 50 percent. The other times, when Calum was unwilling to back down and his frustration escalated to near boiling point, I would pick him up and cradle him in my arms for a feed.
Tsetsgee had a different approach. At the first murmur of discord, she would lift her shirt and start waving her boobs around enthusiastically, calling out, "Come here, baby, look what mama's got for you!" Her son would look up from the toys to the bull's-eyes of his mother's breasts and invariably toddle over.

Success rate? 100 percent.

Not to be outdone, I adopted the same strategy. There we were, two mothers flapping our breasts like competing strippers trying to entice a client. If the grandparents were around, they'd get in on the act. The poor kids wouldn't know where to look - the reassuring fullness of their own mothers' breasts, granny's withered pancake boasting its long experience, or the strange mound of flesh granddad was squeezing up in breast envy. Try as I might, I can't picture a similar scene at a La Leche League meeting. 

When They're Walking and Talking... and Taking Their Exams?
In my prenatal class in small-town Canada, where Calum was born, breastfeeding had been introduced with a video showing a particularly sporty-looking Swedish mother breastfeeding her toddler while out skiing. A shudder ran through the group: "Sure, it's great for babies, but by the time they're walking and talking ... ?" That was pretty much the consensus. I kept my counsel.

It was my turn to be surprised when one of my new Mongolian friends told me she had breastfed until she was nine years old. I was so jaw-dropped flabbergasted that at first I dismissed it as a joke. Considering my son weaned just after turning four, I'm now a little embarrassed about my adamant disbelief. While nine years is pretty old to be breast feeding, even by Mongolian standards, it's not actually off the scale.

Though it wasn't always easy to fully discuss such concepts as self-weaning with Mongolians because of the language barrier, breastfeeding "to term" seemed to be the norm. I never met anyone who was tandem breastfeeding, which surprised me, but because the intervals between births are fairly long, most kids give up breastfeeding at between two and four years of age.

In 2005, according to UNICEF1, 82 percent of children in Mongolia continued to breastfeed at 12 to 15 months, and 65 percent were still doing so at 20 to 23 months. A mother's last child seems to just keep going, hence the breastfeeding nine-year-old - and, if the folk wisdom is right - Mongolia's renown for wrestling.
At three-year-old Calum was still feeding with the enthusiasm of a newborn and I wondered how weaning would eventually come about, I was curious about what prompted Mongolian children to self-wean. Some mothers said their child had simply lost interest. Others said peer pressure played a part. (I have heard Mongolian teenagers tease each other with "You want your mommy's breasts!" in the same way Canadian kids say "Crybaby!") More and more often, work commitments force weaning to happen earlier than would otherwise have occurred; children will often spend the summer in the countryside while a mother stays in the city to work, and during the extended separation her milk dries up. My friend Buana, now 20, explained her gold-medal breastfeeding career to me: "I grew up in a yurt way out in the countryside. My mom always told me to drink up, that it was good for me. I thought that's what every nine-year-old was doing. When I went to school, I stopped." She looked at me with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "But I still like to drink it sometimes."
Pass the Milk, Please
For me, weaning from the breast seemed a fairly defined event. I always expected that, at some point, feedings would decrease, and continue to taper off until they ceased altogether. My milk would dry up, and that would be that. Bar closed.

In Mongolia, that's not what happens. Discussing breastfeeding with my friend Naraa, I asked her when her daughter, who was then six, had weaned. "At four," she replied. "I was sad, but she didn't want to breastfeed anymore." Then Naraa told me that, just the week before, when her daughter had returned from an extended stay in the countryside with her grandparents and had wanted to breastfeed, Naraa obliged. "I guess she missed me too much," she said, "and it was nice. Of course, I didn't have any milk, but she didn't mind."

But if weaning means never drinking breastmilk again, then Mongolians are never truly weaned - and here's what surprised me most about breastfeeding in Mongolia. If a woman's breasts are engorged and her baby is not at hand, she will simply go around and ask a family member, of any age or sex, if they'd like a drink. Often a woman will express a bowlful for her husband as a treat, or leave some in the fridge for anyone to help themselves.

While we've all tasted our own breastmilk, given some to our partners to try, maybe used a bit in the coffee in an emergency - haven't we? - I don't think many of us have actually drunk it very often. But every Mongolian I ever asked told me that he or she liked breastmilk. The value of breastmilk is so celebrated, so firmly entrenched in their culture, that it's not considered something that's only for babies. Breastmilk is commonly used medicinally, given to the elderly as a cure-all, and used to treat eye infections, as well as to (reportedly) make the white of the eye whiter and deepen the brown of the iris.

But mostly, I think, Mongolians drink breastmilk because they like the taste. A western friend of mine who pumped breastmilk while at work and left the bottle in the company fridge one day found it half empty. She laughed. "Only in Mongolia would I suspect my colleagues of drinking my breastmilk!"

Living in another culture always forces you to reevaluate your own. I don't really know what it would have been like to breastfeed my son during his early years in Canada. The avalanche of positive feedback on breastfeeding I got in Mongolia, and Mongolians' wholehearted acceptance of public breastfeeding, simply amazed me, and gave me the freedom to raise my child in a way that felt natural. But in addition to all the small differences in our breastfeeding norms, the details of how long and how often, I ended up feeling that there was a bigger divide in our parenting styles.
In North America, we so value independence that it comes through in everything we do. All the talk is about what your baby's eating now, and how many breastfeedings he's down to. Even if you're not the one asking these questions, it's hard to escape their impact. And there are now so many things for sale that are designed to help your child amuse herself and need you less that the message is clear. But in Mongolia, breastfeeding isn't equated with dependence, and weaning isn't a finish line. They know their kids will grow up - in fact, the average Mongolian five-year-old is far more independent than her western counterpart, breastfed or not. There's no rush to wean.
Probably the most valuable thing about raising my son in Mongolia was that I realized that there are a million different ways to do things, and that I could choose any of them. Throughout my son's breastfeeding career, I struggled with different issues, and picked up and discarded many ideas and practices, in my search to forge my own style. I'm glad I breast fed Calum as much and as long as I did - it turned out to be four years. I think breastfeeding was the best thing for my son, and that it will have a lasting impact on his personality and on our relationship.

And when he wins that Olympic gold medal in wrestling, I'll expect him to thank me.
 

32 comments:

  1. this makes me think of the poll on whether one should nurse a child older than 2 in response to this article....I told my 7 year old daughter (who nursed til 4.5) and she said..."but poor children, how empty for them...and poor mummies too".

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  2. I LOVE this article. It was sent to me by someone when my daught was between 4 and 6 months. I felt a sudden urge to move my family to a country that accepted breastfeeding as the norm. I haven't lol, but what an eye opener :)

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  3. I nursed my daughter till she was 3yrs and 1 week old, (she self weaned) but I also nursed while pregnant, and tandumed for a a year of this. (she was 14 months when I got pregnant again, and nursed for a year after her brother was born). My son is 2yrs old and nurses at his request now he can ask too. I expect he will self-wean as well.

    I loved this... Thank you so much for sharing a wonderful experience.

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  4. I soooo needed to read this article. I wasn't able to breastfeed my son, but I know when I have my second child, I want to remember and cherish the Mongolian attitude toward breastfeeding.

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  5. Really appreciated this article! It blows me away how 'grossed out' people are about nursing! I nursed my first daughter until she was three (and I became pregnant with my second) and the second one is still nursing strong! I wish people would realize that nursing 2+ years is NORMAL not abnormal.

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  6. It is so true that peoples reaction to breastfeeding depends where you live.
    I live in Spain, my breastfeeding son is 14 months and I am constantly told how good for him breastmilk is (not by doctors or midwives though, they are generally surprised when I say he is still on 'mummy milk'. Oh well)
    My family in the UK, however, seem amazed that I am still going...
    Fab article, thanks for posting.

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  7. I love this article! I always stick a boob in my kids' mouths if they get fussy and I've totally whipped out my boobs to get my toddler to nurse and stop panicking. I saw a wildlife video of a polar bear doing that to get her kids to come out and explore the snow!!

    A paediatrician told me to stop nursing my toddler (because I am nursing in tandem and my toddler "needs to be moved on to something more appropriate"), but I just told him no way! He kept insisting it was "hard," even when I said it was no bother, and he said my milk was "for the baby now." He sent us to a dietitian, who had talked to the head lactation consultant in Glasgow about it and they said it was fine. HA HA, Mister Paediatrician.

    (I really was shocked and appalled that a doctor would say something like that, especially with the really low rate of BFing in our area.)

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  8. I have to say that I read the Mongolian part of the story in Mothering Magazine and it gave me the confidence to continue breastfeeding as long as my child and I felt good about it (which is what I wanted, but worried about my resolve). The part about using the breast to calm children and distract them from conflict really stayed with me. I was able to nurse her WHENEVER I felt was appropriate (which became anytime she hinted at disappointment or the want to bf) without concern that I was b'feeding too much, or rather using it as a crutch! Well, she's 27 1/2 months old and we're still going strong, she doesn't seem to be loosing interest or reducing the frequency. I have peace of mind when she's not interested in eating solids and I have a whole nation behind me, it just doesn't happen to be my nation!

    I try to imagine people here saying things like, "Keep b'feeding, she'll be a great doctor." or "Keep b'feeding, he'll be the best at football/basketball." "Keep b'feeding, she'll be a better momma than we were." "Keep b'feeding, he'll be the most compassionate adult male in the western world!"

    I'm so thankful that you're husband had that wildlife study. I share this story with as many nursing moms as I can!

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  9. LOVED this post! thank you so much!

    I too will pull up my shirt and ask my son if he "wants boobies" and it always stops him from crying! :D

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  10. Great article- just wondering if the Mongolians ever suffered from allergies and eczema etc - atopy. My lo seems to be allergic to the lactose in my own milk- i'm totally dairy/soy/egg/fish/nightshades free and still bad allergies- so was wondering if they had anything like that and if breastfeeding would still be continued if they saw that baby may be allergic to the milk somehow? xx

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    Replies
    1. As to this idea of allergies, it may be helpful to try eating right for your baby's blood type. Tomatoes are one main problem for many.

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  11. LOVE this article - i have read it many times and it always makes me smile and gives me new resolve to keep breastfeeding until the time is right for US to stop (by us i mean my daughter!!) it's nice to see it passed round again so more and more people can read it!

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  12. I love this article. What a wonderfully positive thing to read in the morning. It made me smile and reinforced just how much I love breastfeeding and how important it is. My twins will be a year old in a couple of weeks and I hope to keep on breastfeeding them for lots longer yet!

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  13. Fantastic article, could do with having it distributed amongst health 'professionals' here in the UK! My 5th child (18 months) is still breastfeeding fairly frequently and showing no signs of stopping and as long as it's a mutually positive thing between us (and very handy for soothing a tired/hurt child) why should we?!

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    1. Just wanted to add that there are some health professionals out there who do understand the benefits of extended breastfeeding. I am a health visitor in the UK and have always supported mums to breastfeed for as long as they and their children want to. I was breastfed myself and self weaned around 3 years old and my partner similar. We now have a beautiful 11 month old boy who breast feeds on demand and will do so till he decides otherwise.

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  14. I loved that article, read it a long time ago on Peaceful Parenting. had been around quite a while

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  15. Thank you. I want to move to Mongolia! When my kids were young I was lucky enough to be able to surround myself with pro-breastfeeding friends; so many women in the west don't even realise what a difference that makes. And thank you for removing the last niggle of doubt about whether offering my son a breast every time he squeaked was the right thing to do! My daughter was more discriminating and would refuse the breast and insist that I sorted out her problem; much harder work :)

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  16. amazing article, thank you! Makes me feel more comfortable breastfeeding my 3,5 yr old! Amazing that when there's no other option babies seem to just get on with and breastfeed quite easily!

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  17. This needs to be the front page of every newspaper, so relevant. I'm sick of defending my 3.5yr olds breastfeeding. Thank you

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  18. Breastfeeding my 3 year old and PROUD of it here! If the topic of breastfeeding comes up in conversation with other mummas I'll often tell them I am too. People need to know it's physiologically and psychologically totally and absolutely NORMAL for a 3 year old to still feed. I guess they may go away and think I'm nuts but hopefully my matter of fact attitude helps!

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  19. In western countries, once a child is old enough to walk and talk, it's too old to breastfeed. Why? Because we are not short of good food to feed our kids. MacDonalds and Burger King have beautifully coloured food and also give away toys with their meals, which the kids can play with instead of being a pain in the arse to the ADHD mother who is more engaged with the latest smartphone that was purchased using benefits.

    I'm telling you all, the world is falling apart.

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  20. Very interesting. Yet confuses me a bit! I want to do what's best for my kid, so I wonder, will the "mongolian way " help him really be more healthy or happy? As anyone studied it?
    Because I love breastfeeding my little boy -11 months now- but soon I will have to go back to work and he will go to kindergarden, so will he miss me much more during the day if I keep on giving him my milk ?
    Somehow also I will need him to self-soothe a bit during the night instead of waking me up 4 or 5 times to get his reassuring boobie dose, because I'll have to work during the day and be strong.
    So what's the morale? I can bfeed him for many years but isit really worth doing?

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    Replies
    1. I went back to work when my daughter was 12 months old, she was still waking every hour to two hours at night and feeding as frequently during the day.

      I can't say for sure whether or not she missed me "more" because of the breastfeeding but we certainly found that the first feed when we got home was the perfect way to reconnect after 8 hours apart.

      Whether or not you night wean depends on your job. I don't think night weaning is for my family but I am a web developer so can code half asleep. If you were, for example, a lorry driver, or operated heavy dangerous machinery, there would be more reason to encourage longer sleeps. That said, not all babies who are night weaned end up sleeping longer, you just lose your ability to get them back to sleep quickly instead..!

      Good luck in whatever decision you make.

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    2. sleep training and breastfeeding don't have to be oposites! Slowly lower the number of times you feed at night or just get it over with, choose what works for you and yours. Don't wory about feeding your kindergartener durring school, the number of feeds will be substantially less if he is still bfing at all!

      Nurse one feed , day , and week at a time and see how it progresses!

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    3. I was nursing my youngest when I went back to work. He was 1 and my middle child was 3. He hadn't nursed since my milk dried up when I got pg when he was 18 months old. I was pumping to leave milk at daycare and I had to watch it because my 3 year old would run off with it and drink it! So I started giving him some. He mostly didn't want it after I said it was okay, he could have it lol.

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  21. I've been breastfeeding for nearly 11 years now- my eldest obviously started me off, and she fed till nearly 4- but her sister was born when she was 2.5 so they tandemed, then my sons were born- both 2.5 years apart and they crossed over too. Breastfeeding through the pregnancies was hard, but I'm glad I did as it avoided waiting for the milk to 'come in' and helped the siblings bond. My youngest is still going strong at nearly 3 but soon my breastfeeding years will be over...:-( It's quite sad really- it's so much a part of my life now. He's not keen to wean yet, but can be a bit bossy which I'm not keen on... but we'll see how it goes. Anyone need a wet nurse??

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  22. I went to a pro breastfeeding doctor, and even they told me not to become a pacifier--I just thought, what if I am, if it works? Everyone asks me how long I plan to feed my daughter, and I just answer when we're ready to stop. Who knows how long that will be?

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  23. Hello,

    I am wondering if you can help me with the following. I am a researcher working for a British production company working on a development for a documentary about the weird and wonderful world of breastfeeding and everything that this topic has to offer. We are currently trying to track down unique stories and find the contributor that can share their story with us.

    Therefore I was wondering if your group has come across anyone that might fit this brief or you know anyone that would want to share their amazing story with us. We are hoping to film this documentary anywhere in the world and asap so it would be great to hear from you.

    If you require any more information please do not hesitate to contact me and I look forward to hearing from you,

    Kindest Regards,

    Charlotte Critchfield

    charlotte.critchfield@betty.co.uk

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    Replies
    1. Sorry for being blunt but your approach isn't likely to get you any responses here. As the article says breastfeeding isn't 'wierd and wonderful'. How about changing the focus of your programme to question why some societies view it that way?

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