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Reactions to weaning

It came as complete surprise: Mary (22 months) bluntly refused to take place in the shopping trolley, where she used to seat herself like a princess. She wanted to walk, at any price. There was nothing for it but to let her walk. A complete surprise: since, up to now, Mary was very a very compliant girl. When she was forbidden something, she immediately looked out for an alternative. But, this time, she was utterly unreasonable. I even could not have her sit on the trolley just for a moment, when moving to the next department of the store: I had to carry her on my one arm, while pushing the trolley with my other.

Some days later, the same thing repeated itself elsewhere: I could not possibly get her in the bike seat. With a repeated 'Walk! Walk!' she indicated that she wanted to walk to the horse in the meadow, some half a mile away. I tried to convince her 'The horse is far away. First ride, and then walk!’ ‘No! Walk!' she replied. I tried to seduce her with a more appealing destination: 'Are we going to the geese?' 'Yeeesss!!!' ‘With the bike?' 'Yeeesss!!!'. But, when I took her up to get her in the seat, it appeared that she had meant that I should bike and she would 'Walk! Walk!'

On a closer look, it was not a question of walking as such. Rather did she seem to enjoy that she could push her will through. For, when I wanted to put her in the bath she equally protested 'No! No!', however enthusiastically she had mounted the stairs in expectance of for her most cherished splash party. And although, this time, her pleasure in refusing soon subsided: her enthusiasm for the bath was to strong.

Mary's 'stubbornness' was always accompanied with an increasing predilection for forbidden things. She would go looking for food in the kitchen, time and again. She would open the refrigerator to get something delicious, so that we were obliged to take it away. And when she did give it up, she immediately proceeded to the drawer to get the saltshaker.

Gradually, it began to down on us that it must have something to do with the fact that she had been weaned some month ago. Mama had gradually replaced her last breast with a bottle. It looked as if Mary had put up with the new situation without apparent problems. In the previous months, she had equally accepted the replacement of breast with bottle during the day without any resistance...

Nevertheless, she must have gradually realised that she was missing something. When going to sleep, she was no longer content with the sole bottle. She had to have a blanket and her 'mouse' as well. During the day, she began to ask increasingly for a bottle, especially when a problem was looming up, or when she found that her mother was gone: on which occasions she invariably got an uncontrollable outburst of sucking. While, up to now, she always ate what we dished up, she now began to refuse especially consistent food. Instead of soup, she wanted the bottle. And when we prepared a sandwich with cheese, she claimed one with ham. Or she wanted yoghurt when we offered her a cake, and when we granted her the yoghurt, she claimed .... the bottle! She also developed the funny custom to always want to eat from other people's dish. When she realised that the same food was lying on those dishes, the habit changed in the propensity to take place on her neighbour's seat. Preferably, she wanted to sit on her brother's place, which nearly concealed the fact that she wanted to take place on her mother's lap, to be fed like a baby...

Also during the night the consequences of weaning showed up. We had managed to let her sleep the whole night through without drinking. But now she began to toss and turn. Sometimes, she woke up crying 'No! No!': her first 'nightfoals'. More often, she would wake up and cry for her bottle. Sometimes she then immediately slept in, but on other occasions, the bottle would not suffice: she wanted to cuddle herself against her mother, just like in olden times, when she got the breast. And also her noon sleep stood under attack. While she used to sleep some one hour and a half, she now woke up after some half an hour, crying for her mother. She was still visibly tired, but she wanted to be with her mother at any cost.

Gradually, the whole puzzle began to fit: obviously, she had embarked upon her quest for the grail. That one overwhelming no of her mother - the 'refusal' of the breast - initiated a cascade of ever changing little no's. No bottle, but a sandwich! Don't open the refrigerator! For heavens sake, leave the cupboard! Don't eat from your brother's dish! Not surprising that Mary eventually summoned up her own avalanche of 'no's'. Especially in the supermarket, when she had to witness all those precious things pass by without being able to even touch them!

We decided to react properly: give in when her demands were justified. But, conversely, having her give in when she was unreasonable. So, I granted her walk in the supermarket. She immediately began to drop all kinds of things in my trolley. Step by step, I could convince her that we did not need all those things.Gradually, her obsession took normal proportions. But she would not stop refusing to take place in the trolley. After a while, she found an honourable compromise: she stepped on the flap where you put bins, or she would push the trolley herself.

With the seat on the bike, her resistance was not so strong. First, I promised her a sweet when she would take place in the seat. The next time, I omitted the sweet and replaced it with an interesting destination: the peacock! She did no longer resist. Underway, she began to sing: it was marvellous spring weather. I said: 'Do you see now how nice it is in the seat?' and I concocted a song 'Mary in the seat, papa on the handlebars, so do we ride across the meadow!'. The next day, she came asking me to go biking of her own: there was no stopping us now!

That things went so smoothly, had everything to do with the fact that we also tackled the underlying problem. For, many a demand of the child is in fact a

displaced demand.

And you cannot gratify such displaced demands: it matters to do something about the need.

The first task was to make Mary conscious of the fact that she wanted to suck on the breast. When one of the displaced demands popped up, I reminded her of the fact that her mother would no longer breastfeed her. 'Mary is a big girl now, and big girls do not drink on the breast anymore, they eat sandwiches and soup'. Up to now, we used to say that the breast was empty. Although she surely could read from or intonation and our expression that this 'empty' was not just an ordinary 'empty'. Granted: we did not make ourselves clear: we only wanted to circumvent an overt explanation for stopping breastfeeding. For, there is no such thing as a natural moment for weaning, it is a decision that you have to take deliberately, sooner or later. The milk continues flowing as long as the breast is sucked: think of the wet nurse whose breast continued flowing for years. And our lack of clarity only made it more difficult for Mary to accept the decision. Whence our new - plain - phrasing: 'Mary does no longer get the breast, because she has become a big girl now!'

There are many means to sweeten that pill.When a displaced demand appeared, I always tried to present her a more attractive alternative. When she was about fetching another bottle of milk from the refrigerator, I proposed: ‘Come, Mary, let us eat an apple' I took an apple, cut it in parts, and fed her one quarter. She immediately got the point and began feeding me in her turn. Exit her demand for milk!.

And that points the way to another, more general approach. Every loss is at the same time always also a gain. And it helps to emphasize the gain. Just as you can accept the idea of dying when you have had a successful life, just so can you give up the status of a baby when you become a mother yourself.

But, behaving like mother is something of a problem as long as you do not have breasts. That is why Mary, when playing in the bath, stopped from letting the dolphins suck on her nipples. But she found a better solution herself: she began feeding her dolphins with the bottle. Thus, the bath became her privileged place to stage her problems with weaning: she could not stop filling and emptying pots and bottles. These breasts never got empty: they could always be filled again. Water everywhere!

We also had to explain to her that mama's 'no' was not meant to harm her, that it was only for babies to get weaned. And, with all those lambs here in the vicinity, that was not much of a problem. I showed her how mother sheep was not always inclined to lactate the lambs, and how she sometimes abruptly turned away, so that the lambs had to resign and content themselves with grazing The bigger the lambs, the more they looked for their own food, just like their mama. Mary was thoroughly interested in that spectacle. When the lamb was rejected, she looked disappointed. But that expression soon gave way to a amazement, when the lamb went grazing without any protest. I said: ‘That lamb is already big! It can already graze for itself'. And it began to dawn on her that there might be a connection between growing up and weaning.

Also a last problem must be tackled. After weaning, the child often develops a kind of abhorrence for the nipple, comparable to the repellence for other people's saliva. That repellence goes often hidden behind aggression, especially when the child continues to harbour the feeling that her mother is no longer prepared to feed her out of malice. But apart from the aggression - and increasingly as it releaser - a kind of inhibition is imposed on sucking. The inhibition consists of a reversal of the affect: attraction is transformed in abhorrence. Such reversal is deep-seated, as is apparent from the revulsion an adult feels when confronted with milk flowing out of the nipple. Whereas, in a sexual context, there is no inhibition at all in touching and licking the nipples, a strong resistance has to be overcome when it comes to tasting the milk coming out of it when your partner is breastfeeding. Mary showed no signs of aggression against the breast. But when her mother once offered her the breast in the guise of comfort, she turned her face away. She no longer wanted to drink from it. Until, one day, she had found a solution for her contradictory feelings: she took a toy calf and let it drink on mama's breast in her stead.

All these measures, foremost our clear formulation that the breast were not just empty, but that mama was no longer prepared to breastfeed a child that had grown up, were successful. We already described how her 'stubbornness' subsided, and how displaced demands were replaced with new solutions. Also the frequency of the outbursts of displaced demands diminished. And above all: no new forms of stubbornness showed up. The proliferation of misbehaviour as a consequence of weaning had been checked. Increasingly, Mary became the happy and compliant child she had always been.

There were also significant changes in her playing. After she had already begun feeding the dolphins in her bath, she finally started to feed the doll with the bottle we had bought her. How much she had progressed, was also apparent from the fact that, when going to sleep, she no longer asked her blanket and her mouse. Although she now enjoys her bottle more then ever: when she gets it – when she is really hungry - she triumphantly walks around, head swung backward, like a trumpeter, sometimes staggering for pleasure...

Although we surely will have to continue struggling to keep things like that...

© Stefan Beyst, March 2003 (translation March 2004)

Reactions (in English, German of French)
: beyst.stefan@gmail.com

See also: 'Alteha Solter: Crying, from demand to release of tension'

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