Sunday, June 12, 2011

Boob Salutations, Co-sleeping with my Toddler, and Trust

“I finally figured out what my breasts are for,” I said to my husband the other night. For feeding my little suckling pig, of course! Sometimes these days the way my son lunges for them and sucks reminds me of a little animal. And no longer will I ever look upon my breasts as some sensual, yet essentially “useless” fleshy, doughy appendage. When my son nurses it is utterly obvious now why they were created—not for my partner’s pleasure, much less for the ogling eyes of men on the street, and not even for my own enjoyment. Breasts, hands down, are for babies.

When Cedar was first born they grew huge, hard, and sometimes clogged with milk. For six months—or more like nine—I wore nursing bras religiously, accepting their less than flattering support for the convenience of being able to whip out the breast at a moment’s request. Eventually, though, I realized that they’d shrunken back down to my pregnancy size and that I could fit back into a couple of my nicer bras. Cedar also wasn’t nursing as much by then, so I could usually just nurse him at home and there’d be no emergency need to feed in public—which exposes more flesh than I’d prefer, especially when not wearing a nursing bra.

It’s been a relief to not have to nurse quite as much in public, simply because it’s a hassle to have to stop what you are doing and find a comfortable, clean place to sit down yet still be discreet. That said, I don’t plan to stop nursing anytime soon. I still love nursing--and as my baby undeniably makes the transition to toddlerhood, I appreciate this ritual that much more.

Nursing has changed since when Cedar was a baby. Long gone are the days when he’d just lie there inert for over an hour sometimes, and gone are the days when he’ll easily fall asleep at the boob. Now, at times, nursing can feel more like an acrobatic sport. We still mostly nurse lying down on the bed, only now Cedar will stick his butt up in the air and nurse in a “downward dog” position. Or, he’ll want both breasts to be out and accessible so he can switch back and forth as he pleases. He’ll let me know this by signing for milk, tugging at my bra, or simply grunting in his all-encompassing language, “Uh.” (Amazingly, I almost always know what “uh” means.) I indulge his requests, as long as he is actually nursing and not say, patting at my other boob, biting, or pinching my other nipple. That’s where I draw the line. Mostly though, his antics amuse me. He can be a goofy kid, and I am more prone to indulge silliness than stifle it.

Cedar nurses the most in the morning when he wakes around 6:30. I am usually still half-asleep, so I’m not sure how long exactly he nurses for, but it feels like a long time—half an hour, sometimes more? On both boobs. Lying down, draped across me, downward dog, moving through all the positions—call it “Boob Salutations.” Then during the day he usually only nurses for five minutes or so at a time, before or after his two naps. Before bedtime, he nurses for another 10-30 minutes depending on whether he’s in the mood to fall asleep that way or not. And although I’ve tried not to nurse him every time he wakes up at night, I’ve recently gone back to just wanting him to fall back asleep as quickly as possible (in order to gain back more of my evening with Matthew or to go back to sleep myself), so that means that I usually nurse for about 5-10 minutes every 2-3 hours throughout the night.

For those who co-sleep, this may not come as a big surprise—a fourteen month old who still wakes and nurses through the night. For others, it probably sounds like hell and you are probably quietly thanking your own wisdom in choosing not to co-sleep. For me, by now, I’ve pretty much accepted this situation. I went through a few periods of “we’ve got to change this night waking problem!” resolve, but Elizabeth Pantley’s ‘”no-cry sleep solution” nipple removal techniques didn’t seem to reduce his waking, and nor did my husband’s intervention (we’ve been having him go to Cedar when he wakes before we’ve gone to bed ourselves, and although this has helped Cedar learn to go to sleep better without me and the boob, it can also take forever and has not helped him wake any less).

I know I would sleep better (duh) if Cedar wasn’t waking so much still, but that said, I am mostly only half-waking when he half-wakes, and unconsciously putting the boob in his mouth for a quick fix before we’re both snoozing quietly again. I know Cedar isn’t hungry. I know that this is now a firmly entrenched habit (or call it ritual if you want it to sound better). I know that it could potentially be broken with “only” a couple weeks (or more) of night weaning torture (especially since we are not planning to stop co-sleeping any day soon), but frankly I’m not ready to put us through that yet.

I am all for doing what’s easiest, as long as it’s still working for us. There were periods when Cedar was waking even more than he is now when I wasn’t so sure it was “working” anymore. But now, it’s been several months with no real complaints from me, aside from the occasional off night. Cedar no longer wakes from gas at night, unless I happen to have been testing eating or feeding him some new food that doesn’t settle well. Mostly now, I think Cedar’s waking now just comes with the territory of co-sleeping.

When Matthew and I were trying to decide whether or not to co-sleep, I read all kinds of literature that proclaimed how mama and baby both sleep better when co-sleeping-- yet I also read things that said they both sleep lighter and wake more. Contradictory? Perhaps. I don’t want to fully debate the merits versus shortcomings of co-sleeping here, but suffice it to say that since we didn’t and don’t plan to switch to a crib, we’ll never really know if Cedar would have slept better that way. Sometimes I think he would, because sometimes me and Matthew’s movements or sounds (when first coming to bed at night, for instance) wake him. Also, even though we have a king-sized bed, sometimes Cedar rolls over virtually on top of me, and then I have to move him and then he stirs, nearly wakes, and so I nurse him quickly so that he won’t wake for real.

And yet, despite all this, I’m still tempted to believe that co-sleeping was the best choice for us all. Not only was it a practical choice since we have a tiny house, but I also can only imagine what it would have been like to have to get up each time he woke during the many hard months when his intestinal issues would cause him to wake crying in pain in the middle of the night, and how long it might have taken for both of us to fall back asleep. And now, even without his gas problems, I can’t really imagine giving up co-sleeping. Ultimately we chose to go this route because we wanted to. And now, I’m as attached to it as Cedar is.

For those who choose to co-sleep, there is undeniably something we love about it, something we grow close to, something that ingrains itself in us over the many months we do it. When you grow used to being so close to the soft breath of your baby upon drifting to sleep, it feels strange and wrong to have him elsewhere. When you grow used to those morning snuggles and nursing sessions and the “wolf pack” feeling of all being in one bed, it seems like it’d be hard to arbitrarily pick an age when the baby is moved into a separate space. Of course, if you didn’t enjoy anything about co-sleeping in the first place, it’d be a no-brainer to boot the baby, for you’d gain back luxurious space to stretch your limbs and freedom to make love or read or whatever else you do for pleasure at night in your bed.

It’s not a black and white issue for me. There are definite pros and cons. I don’t know if we would do it differently if we were to have another one. A part of me says, yes, definitely, we would move that baby into a crib after that initial, intense newborn stage of constant nursing-- by four months perhaps… or maybe six. But then I wonder if I’d really be able to. Perhaps if turns out to be a really hard transition getting Cedar out of our bed and if he goes on to have trouble sleeping alone, I will rethink this strategy. And yet, I’m not really that worried about this transition; beyond the initial getting used to, I think that most kids who co-slept as babies and toddlers end up doing just fine on their own. Mostly, it’s just hard to imagine doing things differently than whatever you and your partner have chosen. We gravitate to what we know. It’s easier to go with the status quo than to tempt the unpredictable results of executing change.

Some might be surprised to learn that even the most stringent sleep-training experts (think Weisblaum and Ferber) now both have sections in their books that allow for co-sleeping as a viable, healthy option. Weisblaum talks about how if a mom chooses to nurse immediately upon demand at night and the baby consequently doesn’t wake all the way, then the baby’s sleep cycles are not disturbed and so there is no “sleep problem.” Along these lines, I feel Cedar is well-rested (except for the occasional off night). And hands down, he’s got a secure attachment to me, to us. Hands down, he’s got a cozy bed.

But what about you, you say? What about my sleep cycles, I say? Well, most days I feel fine. I have plenty of energy, and only drink a couple cups of tea a day—not coffee, but tea! Of course, I’m not required to use my brain that much or sit in meetings or talk to other adults, so it is entirely likely that if I had a different “day job” I might discover that my mental capacity is sub par—but that’s what coffee’s for, right? I go to sleep at 10:30 or 11 most nights and I get up around seven. I get a decent night’s rest, even if you should probably subtract an hour or so for the nightly interruptions of my sleep cycle (even if I am not technically even awake for an hour).

True, I admit I am also excited for the day when Cedar moves to his own bed and when I am not waking (briefly) every two or three hours. But I also know I’ll miss co-sleeping. Just like I’ll miss nursing when Cedar is eventually weaned. I’ll miss that snuggly feeling of fitting inside each other’s bodies. I’ll miss the way he throws his foot on top of my belly and leg, I’ll miss the way he rests a hand on my breast. I’ll miss the perfect way in which we fit together within this act of nourishment.

My body makes the perfect nutrients for you, my little one. Nutrients that have kept you healthy, with only one cold the entire fourteen months of your life, not to mention providing a major source of your daily diet that is free. I don’t have to worry about you not getting enough to eat, because I know you will make up for it when you nurse. And although it has no doubt been challenging to have to restrict my diet because of your sensitivities (I’m still not eating dairy, soy, garlic, onions, citrus, tomatoes, coffee and chocolate—with an occasional exception), I choose this any day over having you wake in pain or get a red itchy rash on your face.

I’ve never considered not nursing you. First of all, there’s no easy solution since you couldn’t even have dairy- or soy-based formulas to supplement. But mostly, breastfeeding just seems like the most natural, bonding act for me. You came into this world with the instinct to root and nurse, and despite all the ways in which you are growing and changing from a little baby into a little boy (oh my!), nursing is this seamless link that we have, this way of connection and love. You’ll have your whole life to be more “independent” and weaned. What’s another year at the breast?

I know plenty of moms who are still nursing and co-sleeping with their toddlers. In our Seattle culture, it is not so strange; even the World Health Organization recommends nursing until at least two. But I know that the older my son gets, the more strange our choices may seem to others—and I admit, I don’t really want to have my son run up to me on the playground for a quick nip. So the older he gets, the more seldom we will nurse, until eventually one of us will decide that it’s time to stop altogether.

Which will come first—weaning from the breast or weaning from co-sleeping? Hard to say. I wouldn’t be surprised if they happen close together. Maybe not at the exact same time, so as to ease the transition. But they are tied together for us. It would be hard to wean while still co-sleeping, though not impossible. And it would similarly be hard to move Cedar to his own bed and simultaneously deny him this great source of comfort he’s known since birth. So we’ll see, keep taking it day by day. Keep making the choices that feel right for us.

At a certain point, I just stopped caring what the books said—whether they were of the mainstream variety or in the attachment parenting vein. I found that all the reading, questioning and plotting based on someone else’s recommendations just made me feel stressed out or guilty about my own choices that diverged from the norm. I found that once I accepted that I was doing things the way I was because they felt right, and not because I could rationalize them into being right, then the arguments for pros and cons dropped away.

I am learning to accept that in parenting there is no “perfect” way to do things. There is only the one winding, messy, and unique path that you and your family carve out for yourself. And this path is based on way too many variables—both the seen and the unseen—to follow any one singular guide but your own.

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