Family Matters

Is It Weird to Breast-Feed a 3-Year-Old? Mayim Bialik Doesn’t Think So

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Breast is best, experts agree, but what about for kids who are old enough to walk, talk and attend preschool — like Fred, the 3-year-old son of actress Mayim Bialik, who blogged earlier this month about the process of gradually weaning him?

I stopped nursing my youngest daughter just last year, two months before her third birthday, so I figured little could surprise me when it came to extended breast-feeding. If anything, I’m an advocate for breast-feeding babies who are no longer technically babies.

I loved nursing my children. I was sad to wean them and happy that my daughter, Orli — whom I nursed the longest — was old enough to still remember and talk about the special time we shared. Plus, why would I care how someone else feeds her child? Breast or bottle should be a private choice.

And yet, here was Bialik going way public, talking about how she not only nursed Fred for years, but also “for a solid 12 months with no supplements, no solid foods, and not even a sip of water.” That brought me up short. Yes, breast milk is the perfect food — but for babies, not toddlers, right?

In a policy statement on breast-feeding, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that “exclusive breastfeeding is sufficient to support optimal growth and development for approximately the first 6 months of life.” So how to parse what was going on with little Fred?

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Ultimately, Bialik writes, he “got the hang of eating solids around 18 months, but continued to nurse all day (with bottles of pumped breast milk when I was at work), and on demand all night.” As photographic evidence, she included a picture of herself nursing a long-legged Fred — a really big-boy Fred — on the New York City subway.

Nursing even a hungry infant on the subway strikes me as fairly gross, albeit potentially necessary, but there was something else amiss about Bialik’s photo — it felt particularly exhibitionist, as if she were trying to prove that she is a Good Mother.

For sure, Bialik (TV’s “Blossom” from the early ’90s) is not typical: most mothers in the U.S. start off nursing their newborns, but just 13% stick with it for at least six months. For those who persevere, breast-feeding has a pretty clear trajectory. In the beginning, infants nurse every two to three hours. That slows to six times a day or so by the time a baby is several months old. As solid foods are introduced, babies naturally amp up their eating and rely less on breast milk, although the AAP recommends mothers continue nursing for 12 months.

But in the minority of cases in which mothers continue beyond a year, it would be hard to make the case that it’s developmentally necessary for their older children to be breast-fed in public. Perhaps it’s more that mothers want to breast-feed because they, like Bialik, subscribe to the concept of child-led weaning, in which the mom does what the kid wants.

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In truth, it sounds like Bialik has trouble setting limits. In her blog, she writes of “no less than four wake-ups and sometimes six” each night for almost three years. It’s hard to imagine how she managed to function each day — or how Fred did.

By the time my daughter stopped nursing, we were down to a daily session — once in the morning, when she awoke. It was akin to her morning coffee, a familiar and comforting ritual to jump-start her day. If she ever asked to nurse in public once she reached 2, I would gently explain that she’d need to wait until we got home.

It’s not that I was embarrassed about breast-feeding in public, in theory, but I figured it was my job to foster independence, to help her understand that she was a big girl who could drink from a cup. In my experience, when it comes to a child who nurses much past the age of 1, breast-feeding is more about emotional than physical sustenance; if it was reassurance or comfort she needed, I was there to offer a hug.

On BabyCenter.com, reaction to Bialik’s confession ranged from freaked out to supportive. “I think nursing a 3-year-old is weird,” wrote one reader. “Just because a child wants to breastfeed, doesn’t mean they should,” noted another. “They would also eat sweets all day if you let them (or jump on the bed, climb bookshelves, etc.)!”

Yet when one mom said the thought of nursing her 3-year-old gave her “the willys,” another observed, “Trust me, it feels perfectly normal when you have nursed from the beginning and never stopped.”

Perhaps Bialik is onto something? According to the AAP, breast-feeding should continue “as long as mutually desired by mother and child.” Moreover, “there is no upper limit to the duration of breastfeeding and no evidence of psychologic or developmental harm from breastfeeding into the third year of life or longer.”

In much of Africa, for example, children are regularly breast-fed into toddlerhood. Could it be the rest of us who get it wrong?

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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