Normalizing Extended Breastfeeding

by Dionna on May 15, 2012

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The Momosphere is all atwitter over Time Magazine’s cover story: “Are You Mom Enough?” From its “shocking” cover photo to its provocative title, it’s obvious Time was shooting for “mommy war” controversy (something I work hard to stay away from).

If I shy away from controversy, why would I ever agree to the possibility of being on the cover of Time? Because I want to normalize breastfeeding past infancy. Extended does not equal extreme.

People have said that my son (and moreso Jaime’s son, who is on the cover) will be upset or embarrassed someday by this article. But that is the attitude we are trying to change – we do not want the sight of an older nursling to cause a stir ten years from now. By agreeing to be a part of this photo shoot, we wanted to create opportunities for conversation and education about how normal and natural it is to nurture our little ones by nursing past infancy. We want our children to never bat an eye at the sight of a mother breastfeeding past infancy.

So how can one photo stir up such controversy and negativity? And why would any mother choose to nurse for longer than a year?

The Decision to Breastfeed – For Three Months or Three Years – Is Culturally Influenced

Western culture tends to focus on the sexual aspect of the female breast much more than on its biological role of breastfeeding, despite the fact that we are mammals. The word “mammal” is derived from mammary glands. Mammary glands are those amazing parts of our breasts, the primary purpose of which is to feed our young. So while we often hear about nursing moms being asked to leave or cover up, you rarely hear about petitions to have Victoria Secret ads removed from evening television or city billboards. Go figure, eh?

In addition to our culture’s fascination with breasts as sexual objects, breastfeeding is also “modified by a wide variety of [cultural] beliefs, not only about infant health and nutrition, but also about the nature of human infancy and the proper relationships between mother and child, and between mother and father1.”

That must explain many of the objections I’ve read whenever there is an article about nursing past infancy. There are vague complaints about it being “too sexual.” That it encourages children to be overly dependent on mothers. That it is somehow at odds with a child’s development (ever heard the one about children old enough to “ask” should not be nursing?).

Nursing older children, however, is not a new thing. Not only is there evidence that mothers have nursed past toddlerhood throughout human history (and have been recommended to by physicians!), but cultures around the world continue to nurse to three years or beyond today2. If nursing past infancy were a harmful practice, the human race would not have flourished so.

And so while the “median age of weaning throughout the world is between ages three and five[,]” here in North America we are weaning our children when they are far younger.

Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy Benefits Children and Mothers

The biologically normal benefits of breastfeeding do not magically disappear once a baby turns a year old. Breastmilk still provides nutrition that is far superior to cow milk. It contains an abundance of antibodies. “In fact, some of the immune factors in breastmilk increase in concentration during the second year and also during the weaning process3.”
Think about it like this:

Suppose you have an oil well in your back yard. Like all oil wells, its yield is highest in the first year. You get a check for $100,000 dollars. Great! So now do you cap the well? The next year you get a check for only $10,000. Do you cap the well? The next year you get a check for $1,000. Do you cap the well? The next year you get a check for $100. Do you cap the well? [The] point [is], the well will *always* yield a benefit. . .

Breastfeeding works something like that. Its nutritional and immunological importance wanes over time. But there’s never, never a time when it’s not a good food or a good source of antinfectives. And, of course, this analogy doesn’t address the emotional value, the place breastfeeding has in the mother-child relationship4.

For the record, the American Academy of Family Physicians has said: “As recommended by the WHO, breastfeeding should ideally continue beyond infancy, but this is not the cultural norm in the United States and requires ongoing support and encouragement. It has been estimated that a natural weaning age for humans is between two and seven years.

So this idea of a mother breastfeeding her three or four year old as unnatural? It’s incorrect.

Breastfeeding can continue to be a normal, healthy part of your relationship with your child into toddlerhood and beyond. It has been one reason that my son counts my embrace as the most secure, loving place he knows. (He told me!)

Did you breastfeed past infancy? Why or why not?

References, and for more information

1. Jen Davis, <a href=”http://www.lalecheleague.org/nb/nbsepoct07p196.html”>Breastfeeding Beyond a Year: exploring benefits, cultural influences, and more</a> quoting Dettwyler, K.A. “A Time to Wean” in Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 1995.

2. For more on these studies, check out Breastfeeding Beyond a Year and the studies cited therein (along with the reference to physicians recommending extended breastfeeding), A Natural Age of Weaning by Kathryn Dettwyler, Natural Weaning by Norma Jane Bumgarner, and ChildInfo.org.

3. Extended Breastfeeding Fact Sheet (citing Goldman AS. et al., Immunologic Components in Human Milk During Weaning, Acta Paediatr Scand. 1983 Jan;72(1):133-4; Goldman, A., Goldblum R.M., Garza C., Immunologic Components in Human Milk During the Second Year of Lactation, Acta Paediatr Scand 1983 May;72(3):461-2; Hamosh M, Dewey, Garza C, et al: Nutrition During Lactation. Institute of Medicine, Washington, DC, National Academy Press, 1991, pp. 133-140)] The longer you breastfeed, the less risk you have of developing breast cancer, endometrial cancer, or ovarian cancer.[6. See Extended Breastfeeding Fact Sheet and citations therein, and 101 Reasons to Breastfeed Your Child and citations therein.

4. Nursing Past a Year at The Compleat Mother

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Dionna (20 Posts)

Dionna writes at Code Name: Mama, where she shares information, resources, and her thoughts on natural parenting and life with a toddler/preschooler.


{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen May 15, 2012 at 3:09 pm

I am still breastfeeding my four year old daughter. She nurses four about five minutes per day at bedtime, which helps her fall asleep. So the $100,000 well is now producing about $1 a day, and that’s fine with both of us.

I am appalled, however, by the TIME cover photo. Choosing a petite mom with a huge preschooler, and having him stand awkwardly on a chair, while his mom strikes a sexy and defiant pose was chosen only to stir up controversy, not to portray the natural, nurturing nursing relationship between mother and child. Your photo in this article would have been an ever so much more appropriate choice.

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Ruth M May 15, 2012 at 4:53 pm

I absolutely agree with you, the photo on the cover of Time was not chosen to “normalize” nursing beyond infancy, but rather was chosen because it was the most provocative of the 4 pictures of Mothers and nurslings that they had to choose from. And I agree that Dionna’s picture would have been MUCH nicer on the cover!! (The fact that she is my daughter and those two precious babies are my grandchildren have NOTHING whatsoever to do with my opinion of course!!! ;-)

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C. May 17, 2012 at 6:04 am

Karen,
Absolutely!

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Hillary May 29, 2012 at 8:29 am

Thank you for this perfectly stated comment!! It is exactly how I was feeling! I applaud you for your commitment to breastfeeding for so long, and I stand united with you in your frustration with Time’s choice of photograph. Did you see in the subsequent issue that they showed some of the other choice photos?? There were so many better options!!

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charlie May 15, 2012 at 8:59 pm

Another wonderful post, Dionna! I nursed all of my kids past 12 months but only 2 nursed at 24 months. The older three weaned during subsequent pregnancies. My youngest nursed regularly until 4.5 and sporadically until 6.

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bringingupbugandbee May 15, 2012 at 10:09 pm

I am less offended by the cover than I am by the headline. Are you mom ENOUGH? Implying women who dont do extended breastfeeding and not “mom enough”. I had complete milk supply failure due to insufficient glandular tissue (IGT) due to a hormonal disorder after my 1st daughter was born. If it was not for formula, my daughter would have starved to death. I tried the teas, LLL support, etc. Nothing would have worked. I did not have any breast changes with pregnancy #1. I was heartbroken and seeing an article like this back then would have crushed me. Fortunately with my 2nd pregnancy I grew some breast tissue and had milk for daughter #2. I had to suppliment with formula, but after she started solids it was just breastmilk. She weaned right before her 3rd birthday because my milk dried up. As much as I love attachment parenting, extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping, I have learned not to judge other people until you have walked in their shoes for as long as they have. So while I support the concept and the article, they could have gone with a less-inflammatory headline.

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Diane May 16, 2012 at 8:32 am

All she needs is a machine gun slung around her shoulder!

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Amanda Marks May 16, 2012 at 8:41 am

I am a breastfeeding consultant and sleep advisor. I breastfed my three boys, all up to 2 yrs old
They are rarely ill, our doctor wonders whether we are still patients, don’t understand when people talk about ear infections, gastric problems, wind, colic, reflux and amongst many 100′s more things that breastfeeding helps to ommit. I continue to learn how amazing this magic liquid really is and although I cannot put all their health experiences solely to exclusive feeding, I am more than happy to rely on the evidence out there and know I truly did my best for them and continue to pass this message through my work and help others to feel positive about feeding and support them through the early years :-)

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Gillian Boucher May 16, 2012 at 9:02 am

I breastfed my daughter until she was 2 1/2 and I took a lot of heat from on-lookers and simply un-educated friends and family. My natural desire to do it encouraged me to learn more about the benefits and so I always won the argument when faced with a silly comment about it. It’s so easy for people to have a negative but have absolutely no knowledge to support their ideas. Information is power :)

I’m now living in Turkey and women find the idea that we even have to discuss this completely silly. For them, it’s a natural part of their culture that has never been questioned. When I told a group of actively-breast-feeding women about the cultural struggle regarding nursing in USA/Canada, they just thought it was very sad. I agree.

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Jacqueline May 16, 2012 at 9:35 am

I sure do!! My son is 25 months old and is still breastfed. I’m so glad there are now people coming out and taking a stand for extended breastfeeding. Whenever I spill my nursing “secret” to people, even doctors (although not my son’s pediatrician…he’s VERY supportive), I’m ridiculed for still nursing my toddler. So I’m glad to find some support somewhere!

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Ellie May 16, 2012 at 11:37 am

I think the photo on the cover was a bit inappropriate because it did seem to sexualize it in a way that was odd. However, I as a child was breast feed up til four. Seeing how that was in 1993 in the western US, absolutely no one else around did that except my mom. The really funny thing is that I have never been able to figure it out why people think its so weird. I have never been ashamed by it, however, I have learned to not tell anyone I was unless I want them to start ostracising me.

The thing about my mom though is that she was always way ahead of her time. While the other new mothers started spanking for discipline when their child was still an infant, she instilled in me from a young age the very correct belief that hitting children is wrong. This lead to the other mothers she knew to tell her how I was going to grow up to be a wild, undisciplined brat. Of course they couldn’t figure it out when I turned out to be a billion times calmer, more cooperative and better behaved than their spanked child.

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Jantil Moon May 16, 2012 at 11:59 am

Wonderfully written – if someone who’s on the fence doesn’t ‘get’ it after reading this, then they never will!
If only the TIME article could have been so ‘right-on’ and eloquent.

I breastfed my son until just a couple of weeks ago – he is nearly 2.5 years old. Would have gone for longer if my ‘well’ hadn’t dried up due to pregnancy. It’s possible he will return to nursing when the newbie come – shall just have to wait and see!s

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Millgrove May 16, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Great post – thanks! I’m still nursing my 15 month old son, and plan to continue until one of us decides we’re done. Here in Canada we’re given the WHO guidelines of 2 years or beyond, so perhaps extended breastfeeding is a little less unusual, although a lot of moms wean around 1 year when their maternity leave finishes. I was breastfed for 2.5 years, and I watched my mum nurse my younger siblings for years as well…so I always figured that was how it worked! I know they were just trying to get attention, but I would have preferred a pose on the cover with snuggling…this seems to just be fuelling the fire.

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Seraf May 16, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Great post! I nursed my first two children to 48 months and 37 months. I am currently nursing my infants. Just today the doctor asked what my breast feeding goals were and I told her I would like to go at least two years again. I don’t think a baby’s nutritional and immunological needs change the day they turn 6 months, 12 months, start walking or talking. I also thought the nursing toddlers I’ve known were very well behaved. I don’t know that the behavior is related, but it seems possible.

Unrealted to all the points in this story, I have heard a few people refer to the magazine cover as sexualized. If that is what sex looks like, I have been doing it all wrong.

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Jasmine Hill RN May 24, 2012 at 8:52 pm

I was very pleased to stumble upon this website. I have discovered that I have embraced the AP style of parenting although I had never heard of it until today. I nursed my daughter until she was 3 1/2 years, co-sleeper until she was 5, wore her in a maya wrap through out toddlerhood, and responded to her cues before she needed to cry for her needs. I had no family members or friends who nursed, and was in constant conflict about my choices. I followed my natural instincts and did what I needed to do. I loved reading about other mothers that were drawn to the parenting style I am. Thank you for the support.

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Elaine September 2, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Fab posts…thank-you all. My daughter is 2 1/2yrs old and I am 8 weeks pregnant and, for the first time, finding feeding a bit painful. I am hoping that the breast tenderness will stop, but, in the meantime I know that it means a great deal to her, as well as to me and I was trying to decide what to do. ‘Everyone’ has been telling me that it’s past time that I ought to stop breastfeeding, but it still felt ‘natural’ to me. I have wanted to feed her in public still, and I have been, but I have been upset with some of the agressive/shocked/concerned etc responses from the public…anyone would think it was child abuse instead of normal, genuine, mother-child love and nurture. I think, however, that I will have the courage to face down ‘the public’ in future and let my daughter feed when she needs to, how she needs to. Thank-you all for the extra gumption you have all given me.

PS: re the sexualisation of the cover photo…my reaction is that it’s not sexual. However, I think it was meant to be sexual, as our culture does sexualise women’s breasts…so having an older male child looking to camera, with the young, slim, good-looking mum’s casual pose, was, I think, meant to cause a reaction in people who are only used to men being attached to (or fantasising about being attached to) women’s breasts in that sort of pose. I guess it did at least publicise the debate…

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Dionna @ Code Name: Mama September 6, 2012 at 7:07 am

Hi Elaine! Congratulations on your pregnancy! I’ve written a bit about nursing through pregnancy – maybe something in one of these articles might be helpful for you:
Breastfeeding During Pregnancy: Common Discomforts and How to Help Part 1 (http://codenamemama.com/2011/08/03/breastfeeding-pregnancy-1/) and Part 2 (http://codenamemama.com/2011/08/04/breastfeeding-pregnancy-2/)
There are also a couple that may help if you have concerns about safety (http://codenamemama.com/2011/09/07/bfing-pg-concerns-safety/) or supply (http://codenamemama.com/2011/09/10/bfing-pg-concerns-supply/).
Good luck!!

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jennifer November 20, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Hello, I am breastfeeding my nearly 3 year old son. He nurses once in a while during the day (especially likes to while reading stories) and a few times at night. He has always been nursed to sleep and then nursed back to sleep. My partner (unfortunately) feels I should stop all nursing. I don’t agree. I’d like my son to self- wean and maybe I will help him lessen his night ‘feedings’ (I’m getting tired)…I’m hoping to hear from other moms who nursed beyond two and when and if they’re child self- weaned or was it momma induced? thank you in advance. I’m also looking for support as no one I know agrees with my choices pertaining to breastfeeding…

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Dionna @ Code Name: Mama November 22, 2012 at 8:24 am

Hi Jennifer – I’ve been where you are :) I have a few links to share with you, I hope they will help.
First, you may want to consider night weaning, or something close to it. I was uncomfortable night weaning Kieran, because toward the end, that was almost the only time he nursed, so I would effectively have been weaning him. So I simply reduced access at night – he could still nurse to sleep, and he nursed cuddled up in the morning, but we didn’t nurse so much if he woke during the night. I wrote about it here: http://www.hobomama.com/2011/08/reducing-nighttime-breastfeeding.html
As far as whether to let your little one self-wean or whether to lead him into it, that is really up to each nursing pair. Remember, nursing is a relationship – it needs to be working for both people, and it is ok to make changes. I recently co-hosted a carnival devoted to weaning, there are many stories from mamas about weaning, and I put together several videos on topics like emotions surrounding weaning, how to wean, etc. You can see a round-up of posts here: http://codenamemama.com/2012/05/21/weaning/

I’d also welcome you to reach out on my Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/CodeNameMama – I’ll be happy to repost a question for you to get feedback from readers.

Whatever decision you make, I encourage you to be gentle on your child and yourself.

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paul baumann October 21, 2013 at 11:49 am

For what it’s worth, coming from a man, I’d say the front cover is bang on perfect. There are too many people telling women what they should look like, how they should stand, dress, talk and …. when and where they should breast feed. When I saw that photo I saw a woman proud to be a mum in her way, proud to be offering her milk and comfort to her son and saying ‘what about it?’ to anyone who dares suggest she’s wrong. There is nothing sexual about it, she is not overly feminist or mumsy, just a female human being saying she is proud to be a mum, not ashamed of what you see her doing and there ain’t nothing wrong with it. Cool down ladies – I think this woman has done your interests the power of good.

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