Extended breastfeeding shouldn't be a big deal

In response to the backlash against a UK mom who breastfeeds her six-year-old daughter, Jennifer Pinarski says parents need to chill out.

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Photo: iStockphoto

My breastfeeding journey was long and bumpy: I struggled with latches, thrush, plugged ducts, bleeding nipples and mastitis. I pumped, was bitten more times than I care to share and worried endlessly about my supply. My journey is probably not much different from yours—except maybe for the fact that my kids were walking, talking carnivores before they were weaned. My son was two. My daughter was three.

Extended breastfeeding, while a cultural norm in many parts of the world, is not common in North America and the UK. Right before Christmas, British newspaper The Mirror shared a story on 44-year-old mom Denise Sumpter and her decision to continue to breastfeed her six-year-old daughter, Belle.

“I’ll feed Belle as long as she asks,” she says in an interview. “I don’t know how long that will be. It will be the same with Beau [her 18-month-old son]. I don’t think there’s anything weird about it.” She continues: “Mums who feed for longer are often accused of being selfish. There are things I get out of it—like calm, happy children. But I can say with certainty I’ve done this entirely for the benefit of my kids.”

Anyone who has breastfed knows it’s not a selfish act. If anything, it’s the opposite (see: mastitis and biting references above). But it seems that the longer a mother chooses to breastfeed, the more selfish she’s perceived to be. While I didn’t face the amount of scrutiny and backlash that Sumpter did, I was called out for being disgusting when I revealed in a blog post I was nursing my then-toddler.

Instead of asking what’s “wrong” with parents like Sumpter or Jamie Lynn Grumet (who posed on the cover of Time breastfeeding her four-year-old son), what about asking ourselves what is right with the practice? Anthropologists Barbara King and Katherine Dettwyler did just that on NPRs 13.7 blog yesterday, and the discussion is fascinating.

Dettwyler, an anthropology professor at the University of Delware and an extended breastfeeding expert and advocate, writes:

“My research, and research by others on non-human primates and non-primate mammals, suggests that nursing large-bodied mammalian offspring for many years, until their first permanent teeth erupt (5.5-6.0 years in humans), is “natural” for humans. There is no research to suggest that normal durations of breast-feeding for humans as a species—2.5 to 7+ years—lead to ‘harmful emotional dependency.’ There is some evidence that longer-term breast-feeding (along with co-sleeping in childhood) results in children who are more independent and score higher on measures of social competence.”

I’ve written before about my spirited daughter—the one that is fiery and independent and pushes all my buttons. She’s also the one I nursed the longest, and because it was only a few years ago that she was weaned, she still has memories of being breastfed. They’re all happy memories that make her feel loved.

“I can’t wait until I have a baby so I can give her milk,” she told me the other day.

I can’t wait either.

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.

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