Mayim Bialik‘s 4-year-old finally weaned himself.
Because my daughter just turned five, and she’s still going strong.
I know what you’re thinking: I’m just doing this for myself. You thought that about Mayim too. And that mom on the cover of TIME. But if you think giving a preschooler access to my boobs is something I do for myself, well, you’ve obviously never done it.
And why should it be about me? Our culture is perfectly comfortable with child-led achievement of other milestones (potty training? walking?), so what makes breastfeeding different? Why is it a good idea to let a child decide when she wants to quit diapers but totally inappropriate to let her decide when to quit the boob?
I’ll be honest: I’d love to let my daughter decide when to stop. But at this point, I’d also be happy to take the lead myself.
I just can’t figure out how.
It’s not that I can’t tell her no. I do all the time (she doesn’t have ice cream for breakfast, and she doesn’t watch TV all day, although she begs to do both). It’s certainly not that I’m clinging to her babyhood (I’ve got a younger baby who is also breastfeeding). It doesn’t help me lose weight (quite the opposite), and I don’t particularly enjoy it.
And I know she doesn’t really need it anymore.
It’s just that she still thinks she needs it. And like any other step toward independence, I’m not sure she’ll really thrive without it until she decides for herself that she’s ready.
She always enjoyed breastfeeding more than the average baby. As a newborn, she latched on within minutes and barely unlatched for a year. At her first birthday, when many of her peers were weaning, she was cutting back to once every two or three hours. Back then, nursing a toddler didn’t faze me. Most of the time I liked it. It was a powerful parenting tool. I could stop a tantrum mid-scream, end a fight instantly, or put her to bed in seconds, all with the magical power of mama milk.
But by the time she turned two, I was getting tired. She still nursed at least every three hours, more on some days. She could go without it — she went to preschool two days a week and managed just fine — but if I was around, she wanted my boobs.
So I added limits. I established a “nursing chair” and told her that was the only place we would nurse. Instead of grabbing my shirt and whining, she learned to climb in the chair and ask politely, “May I have mama milk now?” We stopped nursing in public, and I began to hope that maybe, soon, she’d be ready to stop.
But all the limits only seemed to make her want it more, and I couldn’t bring myself to refuse her entirely. The way her whole body relaxed into my lap, the way she gazed up at me with those big, adoring eyes, the way she snuggled into my arms — she didn’t seem like a big kid. She still seemed like a baby. My baby
The right moment to wean just never arrived.
After her brother was born, I cut her back to two sessions a day. We talked about how big kids don’t need mama milk, and none of her friends drink it. But if I hoped that peer pressure would embarrass her into quitting, I was wrong. It made her appreciate it more. Like she was getting cake while all the other kids ate vegetables. She started telling her friends the “secret” that she got to drink mama milk. She even announced in children’s church once, as they discussed gifts that demonstrate love, that “my mama gives me mama milk because she loves me so much.” Sweet, right? She thinks it’s a gift of love. I sank deeper in my chair and contemplated switching churches while I prayed desperately that no one would figure out exactly what she meant by “mama milk.”
She wasn’t embarrassed at all. But I was.
So I cut her back more. I replaced her bedtime session with ice cream. (Because that’s healthier, right?) It’s been a month since she nursed at bedtime, but she still asks for it. I rock her instead and sing her a lullaby, promising that she’ll have mama milk in the morning.
And while I do that, I wonder why. Because ice cream is certainly not better for her than breastmilk, and rocking a 5-year-old in my arms is much harder than lying down to let her nurse. And if you can forget about the hang-ups our society has about breasts, if you can think of them as just another body part, like hair, or a hand, or a foot — then you’ll realize, as I have, that trying so hard to wean her is a little ridiculous.
If your child wanted you to tell her a story every time she got upset, would you say she was overly dependent on you? If she begged for a story before bed, would you insist that she shouldn’t need that and ought to be able to go to sleep alone? No. You’d trust that she would outgrow that ritual on her own when she was ready. And if she didn’t — if she still asked you to read a chapter to her from her favorite book when she was a teenage — you wouldn’t refuse. You’d know the time was fleeting, and that she’d outgrow it all too soon.
Does that mean I’ll let my daughter breastfeed until she’s a teenager? No way.
But I’ve let her breastfeed this long for her. And when I finally persuade her to quit, I’ll be doing that for me.