With all the talk about nursing toddlers raised by this week's Time Magazine cover story, I thought I'd share this post I wrote last year listing some common misconceptions about "extended" nursing.
So, here six common misconceptions about "extended" breastfeeding:
1) There is such a thing as extended breastfeeding. The concept of 'extended' breastfeeding implies that there is a standard length of breastfeeding and this is a lengthening beyond the normal. But the length of breastfeeding - historically and around the world - varies significantly. In much of the world 'extended breastfeeding' would be considered just regular old breastfeeding. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, the average length of weaning is estimated at 2 to 7 years.
2) After a certain point, breastmilk loses its value. One of the other contributors to this carnival put it best: At a certain point does spinach lose its value? I fairly regularly hear from moms who say that their doctor told them that breastmilk has less value after X number of months. This simply isn't true. Breastmilk continues to provide the optimum nutrition and immune protection to your child. And the changes that do occur to its composition do so for a reason. One of my favorite facts about breastmilk is that it increases in immune protection when babies are six months old. Why? Perhaps because the mother's body knows that the baby is starting solid foods and that this provides a route for pathogens to enter the baby's system. And when your breasts sense that feeding frequency is declining, they increase the immune protection in the milk. Nice system, huh?
3) It's all about the milk. Back before I had kids I worked with a woman who nursed her kids until they were three or four. I had never heard of this, and asked increduously, "But are they getting any milk?" She patiently explained to me that nursing at this age is really about connection and comfort than about milk. This fact is lost on a lot of people, including those who say things like, "After a year, put it in a cup!" (Note to self: Stop reading comments on breastfeeding stories when they appear on non-parenting blogs.)
4) Nursing a toddler is the same as nursing a newborn. Want to hear a new mother swear a blue streak? Mention that the WHO recommends two years of breastfeeding. She'll probably assume that this means that at two years she'd be nursing 12 times a day. But typically older toddlers nurse a lot less frequently - often just at nap and bedtimes. Yes, some do nurse more, but the assumption that breastfeeding looks the same at 3 years as at 3 weeks is generally a misonception.
5) It's sexual. So, if it's not all about feeding, then it's some kind of creepy sexual perversion, right? This view is a consequence of our culture's nearly complete sexualization of breasts. In cultures where this is not the case no one would conceive of breastfeeding a toddler being a sexual act. It's this sexualized view that leads people to say "When she can ask for it, it's time to stop." Of course, as one of the other contributors to this month's carnival aptly pointed out, babies can ask for the breast from the day they're born!
6) It's abnormal. Certainly, historically and currently around the world nursing for three, four, or more years is quite normal. But what about here in the U.S. now? It's actually pretty hard to say, since no one tracks breastfeeding duration past a year. And because it's so stigmatized (see #1-5), much of it is closeted. So while you may rarely see it in public, there may be more mothers than you think who are continuing to nurse into toddlerhood and beyond.