Extended Breastfeeding (EBF): A Stigmatizing Term

Recently when the Time Magazine sported a front page spread of a young boy standing on stool breastfeeding, the media and public went wild with debate, furry, outrage and reaction over a behavior that some people call “Extended Breastfeeding.”

Since the article’s publication, I’ve been tossing this term around in my head and I realize that I’m not a fan of the term.

Why am I not a fan?

Well, first of all, the term Extended Breastfeeding inherently applies that the breastfeeding is being extended past some arbitrary line that is being drawn in sand that defines the child-breast relationship.

The term extended breastfeeding implies that the mother is breastfeeding her child longer than…longer than….well, longer than something.

Let’s debunk some of these myths.

There is not a point at which a parent “should” stop nursing.

What do we mean by should? Who defines what should is? Who gets to make the ultimate decision on should?

If we listened to the young mothers commenting on mothering forums, as I have, the line would be 15 months. Nursing beyond that age, as one contributor said “is just sick.” I think that sums up the general opinion some women regarding nursing a toddler. This perception needs to change regardless of what another mother chooses for herself and her child.

Nursing into toddlerhood has no negative health effects on the child.

The AmericanAcademyof Pediatrics (AAP) doesn’t have a problem with a mother nursing a child past infancy. Because of the clear health benefits the AAP recommends “exclusive breastfeeding for about 6 months…with continuation of breastfeeding for 1 year or longer as mutually desired by mother and infant.” 1 Additionally, they state that “mothers should be encouraged to continue breastfeeding through the first year and beyond as more and varied complementary foods are introduced.” 1

Nursing into toddlerhood is not emotionally detrimental for the child nor is the mother nursing to meet her own emotional needs.

There is no evidence to suggest that breastfeeding past a year or even into later years is emotionally unhealthy for the child.2 The assertion that the mother is breastfeeding her child for her own benefit is ludicrous. First of all, no toddler would participate in breastfeeding if he or she did not want to. For all of you parents out there, I’m sure you remember your 2 to 3 year old child’s favorite word: NO!

Forcing a toddler to do something is not very easy, especially if it requires them to curl up on your lap and hold still.

A mother cannot force a child to breastfeed.

Of course a mother can wean a child, but why wean a child if he or she is not showing signs of readiness?  Children will wean themselves naturally when they no longer need the emotional security of the mother’s breast. Weaning a two year old child before she was ready would be like taking away her security blanket or favorite stuffed animal.

There is a misconception about toddlers and breastfeeding: Toddlers don’t nurse the way that infants do.

It would be the rare toddler who would go to mom for a long, nutritional nursing session at the age of two or three. Most children seek the breast out for comfort or security. By the time a child is in their toddler years most children are only nursing for short periods of time and usually before or after sleep. Even if they were seeking the breast out during the day, the mother is most likely starting to set limits on that behavior as well. It’s a process and one that is not easily controlled or defined by external forces. It varies greatly depending on the child, the mother and on the mother-child relationship.

The general rule of thumb is that nursing can and should continue as long as it is a mutually beneficial relationship.

After a couple of years, there are plenty of mothers who will tell you that the joy of nursing is fading. At that point the nursing relationship is no longer mutually beneficial and a mother may choose to encourage her child to wean. On the flip side, a child may choose to no longer nurse because he is ready to be done even if the mother enjoys that bonding time. However, the child-centered parent will follow her child’s lead and bring an end to the nursing relationship.

Between a combination of baby or toddler-led weaning and a mother’s desire to wean her child, nursing will always come to an end at some point in time.

Given the health benefits of nursing to both mother and child, as a society we should be supportive of any nursing relationship between mother and child.

Currently, breastfeeding rates are much lower than the government would like them to be and both the AAP and the Surgeon General are trying to encourage more mothers to breastfeed and for longer periods of time. The Surgeon Generals Healthy People 2020 objectives for the year are “82% ever breastfed, 61% at 6 months, and 34% at 1 year.”3 Although most mothers try to breastfeed upon giving birth, “within only three months after giving birth, more than two-thirds of breastfeeding mothers have already begun using formula. By six months postpartum, more than half of mothers have given up on breastfeeding, and mothers who breastfeed one-year olds or toddlers are a rarity in our society.” 4

By continuing to use the term “extended breastfeeding,” we as a culture, and as a group of informed, conscientious parents, are perpetuating the notion that breastfeeding has some finite, culturally-defined end and that it is the rare mother, the anomaly, the outlier, the “strange mom,” who nurses past this “normal” point. If we wish to change this we might want to be more cognizant of our choice of words. Nursing into toddlerhood is a normal way to nurse and perhaps we should be calling it just that. Nursing. Nursing into toddlerhood. Nursing an older child. Non-infant nursing. Let’s be creative and start talking about it in a way that will normalize the behavior rather than continuing to set ourselves and our healthy parenting behaviors apart from the rest of society.

References:

1http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/129/3/e827.full.pdf+html

2http://www.llli.org/ba/feb01.html

3http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/calls/breastfeeding/factsheet.html

4http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/calls/breastfeeding/calltoactiontosupportbreastfeeding.pdf

RELATED POSTS:

https://singlemomontherun.com/2012/05/16/breastfeeding-isnt-about-sex/

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8 comments

  1. Interesting point. I tried to be creative and come up with a better term than extended breastfeeding, but didn’t come up with anything. Also, I think there should be an age when breastfeeding should stop, even if mother and child still want to continue. An age prior to puberty…. How about age 7?

  2. Here is a tangent I have been thinking about for a while. There was a book I read in 2008 that gave me my first impression of extended breast feeding. Spoiler alert. The book was Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, which then presidential candidate Barack Obama said was one of his favorite books. A beautifully written, and deeply disturbing novel. Since the book was influential for him, I wonder what President Obama’s impressions of extended breast feeding would be.

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