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How I became that mom breastfeeding a 4-year-old

Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes from a Marriage.

The day she turned 5 was the day I had to stop breastfeeding my daughter

I never intended to breastfeed my baby until she was 5, but that is exactly what happened.

Ever was barely 2 months old when she was finally released from the hospital. She had been seriously ill with the RSV virus and poked, prodded, turned, exposed, squeezed and poked some more during her stay. She had blood removed and food entered through tubes, needles in almost every available place on her 12-pound body and a close call with a ventilator. With her home at last, my husband and I set up our baby’s breathing treatments and watched her chest to ensure she was breathing. Ever began to emerge from the shock of her severe illness and was again nursing greedily.

During the second day of hospitalization, she slept in a coma-like state, unable to suck, fed through a feeding tube. When she finally began to breastfeed again, it was with extreme prejudice. She would plant her kissably wide mouth around my nipple and glance up at me with those two-colored eyes, watching me steadily as she sucked.

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Her expression was heartbreaking: a mixture of desperation (please let me nurse, I really need this) and love (I need you, Mommy). Her miniature, pudgy fingers grasped the fat of my breast, and the length of her short body softened, finally.

It soon became obvious to me that the only time Ever could truly relax now — after hospitalization — was during breastfeeding. Since our return home, I had commented to my husband that Ever’s face had taken on a wizened appearance, as if she were continuously attempting to solve a riddle. What happened to me? she seemed to ask, searching my face as I held her body, bruised head to toe, in my arms. I cooed to her, slept next to her every night, held her all day, but it was the breastfeeding that gave her solace: the rhythmic sucking, the kneading of my flesh under her fingers, the sound and feel of my heartbeat against her pressed ear, the smell of my skin, the enveloping arms of her mother — every signal sent said to her that she was safe.

So began our youngest child’s fervent devotion to breastfeeding. We have four children, and I have nursed a total of 11 years among the three I birthed. Yet I never had a child so utterly in love with nursing as this. As the months and then years passed, I joked to my husband that I would be nursing this one in kindergarten.

Ever turned 5 at the tail end of last year, and the day of her birthday, we had a "no more nursies" party, where our last child said goodbye to nursing. Goodbye to all that, I said gaily, milk breath and cuddle bug falling asleep with droopy mouth and freed nipple. Eff that, our daughter might as well have replied, refusing to play the game. She took the presents and sulked at bedtime. Despite all this, her lack of true heartbreak made it clear she was finally ready.

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I loved nursing Ever as a baby and toddler and had a sentimental feeling about it as the toddler years came to an end, but sentiment is not love. I was ready for the nursing to be over, as my nipples had started to get sore and my body to feel irritated. At times I felt exactly like a mama cat we used to have, who began swatting her kittens in the head with a clawful paw once their nursing bodies became too bulky. But I could see clearly how much Ever received from it.

She is a bright and independent girl child, stubborn and impossible at times, staking her claim in a sibling unit of olds as the only true little, but when I tried to wean her at 3 and then again at 4, she wept piteously. I recognized a different urgency to her crying than with my other children. Ever was heartbroken to lose the act that had always provided security and comfort regardless of circumstance. I decided it was more important to her than it was to me and let her continue.

Still, I wanted to set the expectation. I had landed on her fifth birthday, as she’d be distracted with the celebration of her party and immersed in the local transitional kindergarten program. So after her failed weaning at 4 years old, I told her, “When you turn 5, that will be your last nurse. When you turn 5, it’s time to stop nursing. That’s how it works.” Ever nodded quietly, fiddling with my bra strap.

Throughout her fourth year, I was able to casually remind her of the approaching change and talk to her about how, as we grow older, we let go of some routines and replace them with others. After her last nurse, I made sure bedtime was still a place of physical affection and comfort. Ever flourished in TK , and the transition of weaning and school was wonderful. She did tell me, unforgettably, "Thank you, Mommy, for giving me nursies. I really loved it, and it made me happy.” I know, sweetie.

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Our relatively quiet and domestic story is just one of thousands upon thousands of stories of women who breastfeed their child past the typical year or 2 mark. Ever did not breastfeed until 5 for any reason other than I saw that it would be best for her, and so I embraced it. Many choices I’ve made over years of parenting have sprung from that same simple foundation.

There has been such a cultural fuss over extended breastfeeding, and yet to me and my family, it simply was. As Ever grew past 3, she rarely nursed outside of bedtime or during illness, and each time as her body grew limp with relaxation and her eyes — one blue, one hazel — met mine, that moment was nothing but love.

Before you go, check out our slideshow below:

The day she turned 5 was the day I had to stop breastfeeding my daughter
Image: MakiEni's Photos/Getty Images
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