Note: This piece was written for and appears on the “Extended” Breastfeeding Project site. A project started by myself and Jamie from I Am Not the Babysitter to help normalize breastfeeding beyond infancy. Check it out.
By Tracy G. Cassels
When you have the belief that what is normal is that babies are breastfed (barring circumstances that don’t allow it) and are allowed to choose the time they wean (self-weaning), the term “extended” when attached to breastfeeding can seem not only wrong, but downright insulting. As someone who constantly discusses the evolutionary merit of things like breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and babywearing, I should of course be appalled by the decision to speak of “extended” breastfeeding. There is no such thing. Right?
Except we live in a world where the WHO recommendations to exclusively breastfeed for six months and breastfeed at all for 2 years or beyond (depending on the dyad’s wishes) are often ignored. In Australia, only 14% of mums are breastfeeding exclusively at six months (56% breastfeeding at all). In Canada, 14% of mums are breastfeeding exclusively and only 54% are breastfeeding at all at six months as of 2004-5. In Ireland, about 2% of children are exclusively breastfed at six months and only less than 12% are breastfeeding at all at the same time point. In the US, about 17% of infants are exclusively breastfed at six months while about 44% are breastfed at all at that time. According to the NHS Infant Feeding Survey in 2005, no infants in the UK were exclusively breastfed at six months while only 25% were getting any breastmilk at all (clearly there were infants breastfed in the UK as I know moms that were, but obviously the rates are abysmally low). If we start to talk about breastfeeding at a year? Well, forget it. There are so few numbers to talk about, why talk at all?
There’s a problem. And this problem is that we as a society push – both subtly and overtly – the idea that breastfeeding beyond a certain point is “wrong”.
It hinders independence.
It harms your child’s well-being.
Only freaks do it.
We’ve heard it all. And despite the fact that it is entirely biologically, evolutionarily, cross-culturally normal, our society freaks out when a mother decides to breastfeed her child beyond a certain point. This “extended” point if you will. And the use of “extended” simply reinforces this very wrong notion that we should stop breastfeeding at a particular point.
Though there is no meaningful average age of weaning worldwide, children in societies who are allowed to self-wean on their own typically do so between three and four years of age. And this makes any child who nurses beyond a year… normal. In our own worlds and sites, we use terms like “full-term breastfeeding” (or frankly just “breastfeeding”) as they are far more appropriate.
But why not here? Why not always? Shouldn’t we always use the right language? Don’t we do a disservice by not using that language?
Herein lies the dilemma: We live in a modern world where the internet – and in turn, search engines and keywords – rule the day and you have to pick your language very carefully based on who you’re trying to reach. When we’re trying to make mothers feel comfortable with nursing beyond a year, the goal is not to preach to the converted. It is not to make mothers who already do this feel better about themselves (though hopefully that happens too). The goal is to help moms who are searching for information on this feel welcome and comforted that they are not making the wrong decision. That they aren’t freaks. That they won’t harm their children.
These women, who aren’t immersed in a culture where “full-term breastfeeding” is used, will look up the terms they have heard. Often what they have heard are people speaking of “extended breastfeeding”. For their sake, we must make sure that a page like this is one of the first ones to jump up at them. Make sure that they reach a place that assures them to breastfeed your child beyond infancy is 100% normal.
And then tell them about language.
Tell them that the use of “extended” sends implicit messages about breastfeeding that we are trying to remove. That there is nothing “extended” about breastfeeding beyond a year. That for most of human history we have been breastfeeding for far longer than what we consider “normal” now. Biologically speaking, our children are being completely normal when they breastfeed into the toddler and childhood years. This is why we say things like “full-term breastfeeding” to each other.
Now that you are here and reading this, hopefully you will understand why using “extended” can make some of us upset, angry, and frustrated. Even better, hopefully you can stop thinking of it as “extended” and think of it as, quite simply, breastfeeding.