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Jeanne Ponessa Fratello Headshot

Extended Breastfeeding -- Time to Come Out of the Closet?

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Have you seen this week's TIME magazine cover? If you have a pulse and an internet connection, then of course you have. And after the massive firestorm it stirred up, it seems that lots of people have a problem with extended breastfeeding.

Yes, TIME did its part to stir the pot with that provocative headline, "Are You Mom Enough?" -- as in, if you quit nursing before your kid hits preschool, you're not doing enough. Ugh. Moms don't need or deserve that kind of pressure.

But the antipathy toward the photo shoot and the subjects seemed to go much deeper than that; as if the whole idea of nursing a walking, talking little person was taking things too far.

News flash: Nursing is a good thing. Lots of moms do it, for much longer than you'd think. Not every mom is quite as visually out there as what you see on the TIME magazine cover, but there are plenty of moms who enjoy this time with their little ones and have no set deadline for stopping.

Is nursing past infancy a good thing? Well, even the usually conservative American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child's life, and adds that "breastfeeding should be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond for as long as mutually desired by mother and child." And the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding for 2 years or more.

In the U.S., where extended breastfeeding is looked down upon, it can be difficult to quantify just how many moms continue breastfeeding past age one. But with CDC breastfeeding statistics showing that more than 23 percent of women nurse their baby through a full year, there's still plenty of room for a significant portion of the population to continue beyond a year. (Studies from the early 2000s show nearly six percent of mothers still nursing at 18 months.)

But can extended breastfeeding cause long-lasting psychological damage (as many who saw the TIME cover have suggested)? Not likely. There are no studies demonstrating any kind of psychological damage from extended breastfeeding. And why should it? It's a loving, nurturing act. It's not like, say, beating your child, which could have long-lasting psychological harm. And for that matter, it's not like... feeding your 3-year-old soda, which could cause a whole different kind of damage.

So why do we react so strongly when we see the TIME cover? Are we generally okay with the idea, but it's just that we don't want to see it? Or do we still, as a society, have a profound repulsion for extended breastfeeding? Here's an interesting test: How would the reaction be different if it showed, say, an obese mother lovingly giving her son a candy bar?

Full disclosure: I know Jamie Lynne Grumet, the TIME cover model. She and I are in the Moms LA blogging group together, and we've bonded over our sons. I wrote a guest post for her blog a few weeks back on my own experience with extended breastfeeding (I breastfed until both of my kids were 2). And even though we don't see eye-to-eye on every issue, I think she's a great mom and I admire her chutzpah for putting out there what so many extended breastfeeding moms feel they need to hide.

Can all of the still-nursing moms start coming out of the closet now?

Jeanne Ponessa Fratello writes the kids' nutrition blog The Jolly Tomato and tweets at @JollyTomato