6 Reasons You Should Stop Calling It "Extended Breastfeeding"

As a nursing mom and a feminist, I'm a firm believer that when it comes to breastfeeding, we need to support whatever choice nursing parents and their children make. I believe it's totally OK not to breastfeed at all, or for a mom to stop whenever she wants. I also believe it's totally OK to keep nursing until your child decides to stop, which just so happens to be the biological norm. That's one reason I believe we should stop calling it “extended breastfeeding” when mothers and children mutually decide to nurse beyond some arbitrary cutoff, and just label all nursing as such, regardless of the nursing child's age.

According to the latest Breastfeeding Report Card from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 81 percent of new babies in the US have been breastfed at some point in their lives, a figure which drops to just under 52 percent by six months (with 22 percent being exclusively breastfed to that point). Given that, I understand that moms like me, who plan to nurse until our kids self-wean (or until I get sick of it, whichever comes first), are definitely in the minority. Numerically, in our society, we are nursing for an "extended" amount of time, though the not-extended amount of time is not exactly clear or readily agreed upon.

That strikes me as odd. After all, if we're going to define something as "extended" anything, there should be a clearly defined (and preferably, scientifically defensible) norm to compare it to. It also strikes me as problematic for a number of other reasons, mostly because it's hard enough living in a female body without another cultural concept floating around that makes other people feel like they're entitled to tell me what I should and shouldn't be doing with my own body.

Imagine the outcry if people started calling the choice to stop nursing before two or so years "premature weaning." People who chose to, or had to, stop nursing for many legitimate reasons would be rightly irritated, because the term implies that they're doing something wrong by deciding for themselves and their families when they needed to be done. That same logic applies to "extended breastfeeding," because:

It Implies There's An Ideal Amount Of Time To Breastfeed

Different organizations have made different recommendations regarding amounts of time that it's ideal to breastfeed in order to get certain benefits that have been identified in related research. For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children be exclusively breastfed, as in no other liquids or solid foods, for their first six months of life, and then breastfed along with appropriate solid foods for at least their first year. The World Health Organization (WHO) also recommends that children be exclusively breastfed for their first six months, but they recommend that parents nurse along with feeding solid foods for at least their first two years, and however long both mom and child want after that.

But honestly, on a personal basis, the true "ideal" amount of time to breastfeed is however long mom and child both want to, assuming they have access to other kinds of food and health care. That amount of time varies from mother to mother and child to child, but assigning a term like "extended" to some feeding choices instead of others makes it seem like there is a set ideal.

It Implies That Full Term Nursing Is Excessive Or Too Long

Our society already has really inconsistent support for and acceptance of nursing mothers and children. On one hand, the "breast is best" mantra is basically beat into every mother's head once she gets pregnant (if not sooner). On the other hand, many people still treat women's bodies with disrespect, and consider nursing children somehow indecent or improper. It's hard enough for nursing moms to have their rights respected in public places, in the workplace, and elsewhere, and it gets even harder as their children get older, because people still struggle to understand that breastfeeding isn't sexual. Implying that nursing beyond an arbitrary timeline is "extended" sends the message that there's no need to respect or guarantee their rights beyond that timeline, which is just plain wrong.

It Misleads People About What "Normal" Is…

Just like "extended breastfeeding" suggests that there is an ideal amount of time to nurse, it also leads people to believe that the time before breastfeeding is considered "extended" is the "normal" amount of time. That stigmatizes and confuses parents who find themselves approaching that time, yet they and/or their babies are nowhere near ready to wean.

Given the differing recommendations about how long to nurse, it again confuses (and in many ways, actively discourages) many people from pursuing one or more of those recommended goals (particularly the WHO's goal), by implying that nursing beyond a certain shorter amount of time is committing to nurse for an extra amount of time.

...And Centers A Specific Cultural Norm Instead Of The Biological Norm

Worldwide, children frequently wean anywhere between age two and seven. That's because, like everything else in child development, there's a really wide range of normal. So, the term "extended breastfeeding" assumes that the specific cultural and material conditions that middle- and upper-class contemporary Westerners experience — widespread misunderstanding and stigma surrounding women's breasts and children's biology; widespread availability of commercial formula; clean water to prepare it with; the time and space to wash, sterilize, and store bottles, and so forth — are "normal," while literally everything that has ever existed outside of this limited cultural experience and relatively short, unique period in time is somehow abnormal.

It Causes People To Over-Focus On The “Food” Aspect Of Nursing

Like the term “breastfeeding” more generally, the term “extended breastfeeding” causes people to focus mostly or totally on the nutrition aspect of nursing, rather than all of the other reasons why mammals nurse our young. ('Cause we are mammals, after all.)

Nursing isn't just about food, which is why it's still a healthy and worthwhile thing to do even after a young child has started eating solids. Nursing is also about helping children develop their own immune system (which moms and their young children basically share at first), develop healthy gut flora, comfort, and more.

It's Confusing

All other considerations aside, everyone seems to have a different definition of when breastfeeding goes from being just breastfeeding to being “extended” breastfeeding. For some, after it's six months, for others, it's after one year, for others it's after two years. When a term can mean too many different things, it just stops being useful, which means it's probably time to stop using it.