15 March, 2011


When I was pregnant with my daughter, I read a lot of books. Probably too many books, which filled my head with the ideal scenarios and situations and images of the ideal newborn experience from which, of course, our reality was a far, far cry. But before the baby was born, I made plans. And when you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.
I was completely onboard with breastfeeding my child from the get-go and planned to nurse her for at least two years. I would do the on-demand feedings for the first few weeks of her life, but my plan was, a short time after that, to nurse her only when she woke up or was awake and not to nurse her to sleep. The purpose of this plan was to not make her dependent on nursing to fall asleep and to let her learn at an early age to self-soothe. I learned this idea from a Baby Guru woman’s book whose name I can’t remember but whom a friend of mine, who had a wonderfully quick six-hour labor birth in a tub, told me about.
Well, I didn’t know several things. First, I didn’t know how much utter exhaustion takes away one’s determination to implement plans. And second, I won’t speak for all babies, but mine simply loves nursing herself to sleep. She wanted to fall asleep at the boob from the very start with a passion that equals men’s desire for sex. In fact, after all we went through to get her out of my body, when she should have been so exhausted and traumatized as to not care about feeding, or after which, at least, a lot of other babies would have been disoriented and would have needed to take several stabs at suckling before they got the hang of it, my newborn girl latched on to my colostrum-filled breast like she’d been nursing for years, her lips open wide over the entire areola and her nose just barely touching me while suckling happily until she fell asleep right next to the soft roundness of my bare skin.
I was so exhausted from the extra-long labor and c-section and, of course, I loved the feeling of her nuzzling into me like that, and since she was brand new, I didn’t even think about the fact that we slept together in the hospital bed, which is a rare enough experience since the nurses don’t like that sort of behavior because they’re worried a tired mama will smother her child. Then, maybe a half-hour later, when my baby daughter nursed for the second time in her life, she suckled rapidly and I felt my uterus contract and felt that gush of blood. The blood felt like an animal running out of my body, or really a litter of animals, weasel-like animals, running out of my body, and then everything after, the team of people to save my life, and my daughter snatched up from my breast while nestled there. She screamed from the utter disruption of her peace and contentment.
When I hemorrhaged, my newborn baby was completely interrupted from the one passion she already had going, and I think the experience affected her deep in her little psyche. With all the afterwards complications that happened, all she cared about was nursing. Every day, in the hospital, then out, she nursed like a champ. The only real trouble we had was that for a while, maybe a week, my milk came in too fast for her and she choked and spit, not able to handle the speed of the let down, but we tried a few different positions and learned how to manage. For the first week or two, I didn’t worry too much that she fell asleep at my breast many times; I said I’d implement my plan later.
However, what I didn’t know was that actually getting her to go to sleep without the boob took an act of congress. We tried everything to get her to sleep sans breast – walking, swaddling, putting her in the vibrating chair and then, my husband’s idea, to put the vibrating chair on top of the rickety clothes drier while it ran, which worked for a few tries. But in her little mind, I think she knew we were trying to fool her, trying to distract her from her passion. Before her birth, I said I’d never use pacifiers because I didn’t want my child sucking on plastic, but after nights and days of no sleep for anyone, I gave her a few pacifiers to try to help soothe her off to a restful slumber; she spit them out, far enough they’d hit the side of the crib, and then she’d look at me like “are you kidding me with this thing?” She was not accepting substitutes.
I remember sitting up with her one day when she was exhausted and needed sleep so bad she was in complete meltdown mode, crying and wriggling her little hands right out of the tightest of swaddles. I finally, at that moment, gave in about my plan, at which point I let her nurse herself to sleep, where she fell asleep with that blissed-out eye rolling look that little nursing babies get. I called my friend, a mother who did the whole “no going to sleep at the breast” thing with her first daughter, a child who later would sleep three hours for naptime and twelve hours straight at night. I complained, “My baby wants to fall asleep at the boob.” My friend, misinterpreting what I said, thinking I meant that my baby accidentally fell asleep at the boob and therefore wasn’t getting enough milk, said “Oh just strip her naked so she’s a little cold and will stay awake.” At which point I said, “No, you don’t understand, the only way she wants to fall asleep is at my boob.” “Oh,” my friend said, knowing I was screwed for the next several years.
So, needless to say, I never got less exhausted, only more so, and while I tried and tried to get my child on a schedule, and put her to bed in her crib night after night and nap time after nap time with a fuzzy toy and soothing songs and low-lighting and a white-noisemaker, she resisted for seventeen months. For seventeen months, I stood over her crib, patted her back, even left her for an entire week to “cry it out,” which really did not work for my child; she’d press her face against the crib, her lips mashed, her eyes devil-red, her scream desperate until I swear she foamed at the mouth, crying out nothing but crying herself into a frenzy. And even if, by some miracle, she did go to sleep on her own, she’d wake up twenty minutes later, or maybe an hour if I was lucky, and be wailing for the boob.
Seventeen months of all of this non-sleeping. What can I say? I gave in. I threw my plan in the toilet. I said I didn’t care if I turned into a human pacifier. I’d tortured her long enough. And the toil on both of us had worn me out. I could not stand the struggle one more day and I could not stand getting up several times a night for one more night. I told my husband, “sorry,” made him buy us a king-sized bed, and nursed her to sleep in our bed.
After that, she’d nurse to sleep every nap time and night time and never cry. I sold her crib. Her bedroom became a playroom. By sleeping with us, she rarely woke up, and if she did, usually during times of teething or if she’s got a cold, I’d just roll over and let her have a little boob and she was out again and I stayed horizontal and felt far more rested when I got up. Even if she had a cold and couldn’t nurse because her nostrils were too stuffed, if she had her face by my boob, her open mouth breathing on my nipple, she still fell asleep with little hassle or fuss.
When her two-year birthday came around, I thought for sure she’d be interested in weaning, and though we certainly nursed a lot less and for only a short time, she was still nursing. She’s now two years and four month and she sometimes simply falls asleep while I’m reading her a book, and for a while over the holidays when she was sick, she didn’t nurse for several days in a row. Recently, she’s gotten into this set-up of liking to fall asleep with “book and boob,” where she nurses while I read, which is sometimes awkward.
I worry sometimes that she’s never going to wean herself and some day I’ll just have to force her off the boob. But at the moment, I’m not interested in traumatizing her more. I’m interested only in healing her from that initial trauma of being ripped away from my breast by allowing her time and energy when she needs closeness to her mom. Really, her time at the boob, which for some reason in the last week, she’s taken to pronounce as “be-ub,” like she’s a French-o-phile or something, is quite small, a few minutes at best. And until she’s totally comfortable on her own, I’m here for her. I just hope she’s comfortable on her own before, say, her ____ (fill in the blank) birthday…


Helen said...

Hey Nancy,
Your latest blog is so timely for me, I'm doing my final exam presentation in Infancy class on newborn and infant sleep theories/problems/options etc. IMO the prevalence of the sleep discipline school and the no-falling-asleep-at-the-breast school have done more to ruin a mommy baby relationship, torture both mother and child, and exhaust everyone. I'm SO glad you threw it out the window. Thanks again for a great blog!

Rose said...

Love this post! Hoping it wasn't me who gave you that advice?! Especially because I never really made it work either. And the second time around my little one has never slept in a crib alone and uses my boob as a pacifier while sleeping in our bed all night. I suffered no sleep deprivation this time! I guess I learned from my first that these babes of ours will grow in spite of us and our plans and ideas. (Soren is asleep and nursing as I type this!)
Much love to you all!

Nancy Slavin said...

Yeah, Rose, they not only grow, but get what they need. I encourage my daughter to keep on being persistent about her needs, because, in truth, I admire her persistence. Me, I'm perhaps too old and tired to be persisitent. Thanks for reading, all.