The Big Sleep Post, part 2.
If you haven’t read part 1 of this post, I insist you go back and start at the beginning.
When we left off, I had transitioned Joan from baby-wearing, to napping in a bed without me. We were also feeding a lot less during the day. Everything was going really well, but we still needed to address the night stuff.
Offering Joan breastmilk when she woke overnight had been an easy and effective way to keep us all happy and well-rested. Until it wasn’t. Somewhere around the 10th month of her life, Joan began waking more and more, and by the time she was 13 months, she was sometimes waking every hour. And it was different to when she woke due to developmental leaps or teething, she appeared to be waking out of habit. We were exhausted, and I knew that Joan needed better rest, too, so I spoke to friends who were going through (or had already gone through) similar things, which is how I came across Dr Jay Gordon’s recommendations for night weaning babies over the age of 1 (side note: this guy is pro co-sleeping, which is rad, but he’s also anti some vaccinations, which is not how I feel). I showed the article to Ben and we agreed to try it in December, when Joan would be just over 15 months old. I insisted that Ben take some time off work or work from home, as I expected we would be up for hours in the middle of the night, and I didn’t want him driving into work excessively tired. I also didn’t want to do it alone, and assumed he would need to take over the role of comforter, as I worried Joan may not be able to separate me from milk. You can read more about the process Dr Jay Gordon recommends via this link, but essentially you select a 7hour period where you won’t offer milk (we chose 10pm-5am), and either side of that you feed as much as you want. Over 10 days, you gradually do different things when bubba wakes. For the first three nights, you still feed them when they wake, however you remove the breast before they nod off completely, so that they begin to get used to falling asleep without it. After that, you don’t offer them milk when they wake, instead you pick them up/rock them if they need comfort. Three days after that change, you don’t get out of bed when they wake, you just pat their back or verbally tell them it’s time to sleep. Eventually, they start waking less (what’s the point without milk, right?!) and when they do wake, they are used to falling asleep without the breast. There’s a reason Dr Jay Gordon suggest waiting until babies are older and ready, as they are very secure and it is easier to comfort them in other ways. As he says, they may be upset and annoyed when you don’t give them milk, but they’re not distressed. They just need some time to learn the new routine. I still worried, however, that Joan would be distressed if I refused milk, and I knew in my gut that if she was, I would give it to her and wait a couple of months before trying again.
When the first evening of “no milk when they wake” arrived, I fed Joan to sleep as usual and then cried in Ben’s arms. I didn’t want to stop breastfeeding, but I also really wanted to stop. My gut was telling me two things, and I just had to accept my dichotomous feelings and go with what felt most right, which was to transition. It was hard. And when Joan woke and I said “no milk now bubba, it’s time to sleep”, she cried. But it wasn’t how I feared it would be. She wasn’t wailing for me and desperately screaming “MUUUUMMMMMMMAAAAAAAAAA!!!!”, it was more of a grizzle, like she was pissed of with us in an “Oh, come ON?!” kind of way. Ben picked her up straight away, and she instantly fell asleep in his arms. Joan woke a number of times that night, and Ben rocked her back to sleep every time with ease. The following night she woke around midnight and we did the same thing, but after that she only woke once more before 5am (her golden hour to drink milk and hang out on the boob as long as she wanted). The next night, we didn’t even get out of bed to rock Joan, we just patted her back and she fell asleep. Each night, we went to sleep anticipating a lot of tears, but they just didn’t come. Though there was certainly grizzling, and on a few occasions Joan cried loud and hard, which hurt my heart. This happened when we had been awake for some time, attempting to sing Joan back to sleep while patting her back. Bubba would get close to falling asleep, but not quite there. She was frustrated and tired and lost it. The thing that stopped her tears was Ben offering to pick her up. As soon as we said, “Joan, sweetheart, did you want Daddy to rock you to sleep?”, she climbed into my arms and settled. Joan loves Ben, clearly, but there’s nothing like mumma magic to comfort her at night, and the thought of Ben taking her away from me was enough to make her content with being in my arms, and we would fall asleep snuggling. Day by day, Joan started waking less. Ben and I don’t have particularly good singing voices and she wasn’t having milk, so she started sleeping for longer blocks, which meant that we were, too. We never got to the sleeping-through-the-night stage, because Joan is a normal human who wakes for various reasons throughout the night. These days she will wake anywhere from 2 to 5 times, twice if it’s a normal night, more if she’s going through something developmentally or is unwell. But now, when bubba wakes, she generally won’t need us to do anything. Sometimes we may say, “It’s still night time, Bubba”, and she’ll go back to sleep, and if she grizzles, I may need to bring her to me and snuggle, but that’s cool. I’m savouring the cuddles before we transition Joan to her own bed in her own room, which I expect we’ll do at some point in the next 6 months. We bought a single bed frame from IKEA and have cut the legs off so it’s close to the ground, so that if she wakes and rolls, she won’t go far (and we’ll put the bed rail up, too). We will start with day naps in her big bed (update: we had our first one yesterday! She was so excited, squealing, "Beddy!!!!"), before tackling the night transition. And because I hope to fall pregnant in the future and don’t fancy 4 people in my bed (at least not in the beginning when bubba is small), if Joan wakes up and needs one of us, rather than bring her into our bed, one of us will go to her (and snuggle all night long if we have to). That’s the plan. I’m not quite ready for this stage to end, though. Lately, when Joan wakes during the night she will call out for me, “Mumma?!”. “I’m here, sweetheart”, I reply, and she’ll fall back to sleep. Hearing my voice is all she needs. It is the sweetest thing and I will miss it dearly.
CUTTING THE MORNING FEED
For our family, sleep and breastfeeding went hand in hand, so I cannot end this post without finishing our weaning story. At this stage Joan was 16 months old, and for a few weeks had been feeding just twice a day - first thing in the morning (at 5 or 6am) and before bed. I ummed and ahhhed about whether to cut the morning or evening feed first. Joan was loving her morning breastmilk, yet in the evening she would constantly pull away while feeding, shaking her head before going back on, only to stop and shake her head again. It was weird. I wondered whether the hormonal shift I was sensing could be altering my breastmilk…perhaps Joan wasn’t digging the new flavour? I asked friends whether they had experienced something similar, and some had. One smart girlfriend told me to taste it (duh!) and indeed the milk did taste different from the early days (have you ever tasted breastmilk? It is so SWEET). Whatever the reason, I decided that even though she wasn’t loving the night feed, we would cut the morning feed first. Ben was about to travel for work and I didn’t fancy removing the magic sleep balm that is breastfeeding. It was still Joan’s primary sleep association at a time of day when I am generally tired and want an easy fix to get her to sleep, so I decided to make it easier on myself. Sometimes my gut tells me to put myself first, and I’m cool with that. I knew I would need to gear up for this transition, as bubba would certainly be hungry and thirsty when she woke. Joan was used to blissing out while drinking milk and snoozing for another hour in a dreamy, milked-up daze. And so, in the hope of making the transition as pleasant as possible, I purchased her favourite yoghurt and a box of our beloved Medjool dates. If not milk, she’d have the next best thing. I also cooked a big batch of banana pancakes the weekend before we started, in case she wanted something more substantial. The night before we were stopping the morning feed, I made sure to go to bed early, anticipating that I would need to be on my game at 5am, and indeed, Joan woke around that time wanting milk. Over the previous days, I had explained what would be happening, but naturally she was tired and thirsty and wanted milk because that’s what we did. So she cried. It was hard. Ben darted to the kitchen and came back with food, which thankfully stopped the tears. Joan ate yoghurt and sipped water in bed, and appeared to find the whole exercise rather amusing, looking back and forth between us with a smile that said, “Ha! This is funny and delicious.” Oh, and we only turned the gentle salt lamps on, in an effort to remind her that it was still night-time. When she had eaten enough, however, she remembered that she was still tired and not snoozing on the boob, so she cried. I tried to get her to go back to sleep, but that wasn’t going to happen, so we got up and ate pancakes, followed by an early nap. The next day was harder. Joan woke just after 4am wanting milk, and kept crying for it. We always have water by the bed but she wasn’t interested, and yoghurt had lost its appeal. Thankfully she was thrilled to eat a date and eventually had some water, and was happy cuddling in bed while I sang. But Bubba couldn’t fall back to sleep - she was out of routine and confused, and so the tears returned. It was 5am at this point, so I strapped her into the ergo carrier and headed outside. Thirty minutes in, she fell asleep peacefully, and I enjoyed a long walk in the dawn light, while listening to podcasts and dreaming of coffee. The same thing happened over the next 3 days: a 4/4:30am wake up, followed by a snack in bed and an attempt at falling back to sleep, before eventually heading out for a long, early morning walk so bubba could continue sleeping. I did a lot of walking and drank a lot of coffee that week. But then Joan started falling back to sleep after her 4am snack…and then the 4am snack became a 5am snack…and then she stopped waking for a snack at all, and would sleep until 6-6:30ish, which is her usual wake-up time. That’s where we are now. Occasional Joan will wake for water throughout the night or around 5ish, but she’ll generally go back to sleep.
The entire morning transition took just over a week, and the first half was probably the hardest part of this whole sleep/weaning process. Around this time, Joan had started having the odd meltdown. Typical toddler stuff, like when we had to close the fridge because we’d finished packing away the shopping but she wanted to keep playing. I knew that having and expressing intense feelings was normal, but I also knew it could be a result of weaning (it was a big change for bubba), and so a few days into the morning weaning process, while talking to my mum in the middle of a school fete, I had a mini meltdown myself. I was worried that by removing her comfort and refusing to give her milk, I was damaging her sense of trust in the world. I was exhausted and conflicted. But, I’m a talker (clearly), and speaking with my mum helped me clear my head and see that Joan didn’t act this way when I cut the midday feed, and that this toddler behaviour was already starting to happen before we weaned. And even if this change was causing her to have these feelings, Joan was very secure and knew she was loved, and I needed to allow her time to adjust to this transition without projecting my fears onto the situation. So I gave myself grace and reminded myself that Joan being cranky at 4am is not surprising, and she was likely overtired in general. Then, in terms of the toddler feelings stuff, I re-listened to a bunch of Janet Lansbury, which always makes me feel confident in how to communicate with Joan and practice empathy. Because growing a brain is a big deal.
Cutting the night feed was easier. About a week and a half after I stopped giving Joan breastmilk in the morning, Ben and I attended a wedding. My parents looked after Joan at our home, and she fell asleep without milk (while mum and dad drove around the neighbourhood), and so I decided to continue from that point. I felt it would be easier on Joan AND my breasts to not offer it again. I’ll quickly notes that in term of how my breasts adjusted, it was a mixed bag. The left one was totally fine, even though that was the one I had a mild case of mastitis with during my initial attempt to space out feeds last year. The right one, however, became very engorged. I’m not an expert, so please contact the ABA for personalised advice, but I managed this by lots of hot showers and massaging my breasts. I also expressed tiny amounts when I really needed to relieve some of the pressure. I was still quite full 6 days after stopping, which concerned me, but then, almost suddenly, it got better, and now they’re back to normal. Well, that’s not true. They’re tiny. Boy, do our bodies changes when we have babies. Our body shape, our weight, sagging skin, stretch marks… even our insides are different. And of course they are! Growing a baby, giving birth and feeding a baby with your body is no joke. More than ever, I am proud of my body and appreciate what it can do.
Some people say you don’t know when your last breastfeed will happen, that you will suddenly realise your last feed was in fact your last one after it has already passed…but I knew. It was a bittersweet moment that will be forever burned in my heart. The act of feeding your baby to sleep is so often discouraged, however watching my baby drift off to sleep in this way, feeling so safe and content, turned out to be one of my favourite parts of mothering a small child. I had explained to Joan, while we were playing on the floor the morning after the wedding, that we weren’t going to be having “milk from mumma” anymore. I said that we would be saying “Bye-bye” to the boobies and having special things like smoothies instead, plus lots of cuddles and songs (p.s. I never planned on calling breasts “boobies” in front of Joan, as to me it sounds as though I’m a giggling, 12-year-old boy, but Joan started saying “boobies” and she sounded so darn cute that we now totally encourage it). In the afternoon I mentioned once more that we wouldn’t be having mumma’s milk anymore and Joan looked at my chest and said “Bye-bye”. At bedtime, I made her a smoothie and explained that we would be having this instead of my milk (read the start of this post for more info on Joan's drink and what cup/straw we use). We brought the smoothie into our bedroom and sat on the bed, drinking and reading books. While sipping, Joan said “Bye-bye” to my chest a couple of times without prompting, which gave me hope that she would be ok. She was also hugging her toy fox that I had brought out earlier in the day during one of my toy rotations. It had been months since she’d seen Foxey, and all day she hadn’t let him out of her sight. Previously no toy, blanket or shirt was of comfort to Joan at bedtime, but now that she was transitioning away from me as her sole comforter, I thought Foxey might be the perfect sleeping pal. After a few books, bubba was sleepy and told me she wanted to lie down (Joan makes a “shhhh” symbol with her finger to tell us she wants to sleep. She started doing this suddenly around 14 months, after I went “Shhhh” while reading a book that had a sleeping baby in it). We put the smoothie and books away, and lay out heads down on the bed. I sung songs and patted her back and hoped the shit wasn’t about to hit the fan. Joan wriggled around and occasionally sat up, and I’d just lay her back down and keep singing or start a new song. After fifteen minutes, bubba was moving around less and her eyes grew heavier. I kept singing and patting her back, and soon after, she fell asleep with Foxy in her arms. She didn’t reach for my chest once. I walked into the kitchen and cried in Ben’s arms, feeling overwhelmingly grateful that Joan seemed to be ok with saying goodbye to breastfeeding. I think we got lucky with how that played out.
The second night took longer. I had to sing a bunch of different songs for almost an hour and at one point, Joan grizzled and reached for my chest. I said, “No more milk, bubba. Would you like some smoothie?”, but she shook her head and moved into a different position, so I kept on singing, and eventually she fell asleep. And now, smoothies and books and songs are our new normal. Joan reached for milk perhaps one other time that week out of a reflex, but I remained consistent and loving and it wasn’t a big deal. What IS a big deal, is my serious lack of songs. Joan is a tough critic, and I’m honestly struggling to find songs that effectively lull her to sleep (unless she’s SUPER ready to konk out, then she’ll take anything). Mid-song, Joan will often tell me “No!”, and I change it up, or she’ll ask me to incorporate her loved ones names by saying “Harvey” or “KK”, and I end up singing the most random songs to help her tune out her busy mind. Lately I’ve been singing the alphabet in German, but last night she wasn’t into it. This will all change, I am sure, as we transition Joan into her bed. Over time she will need less and less assistance. But compared to how things used to be, gee whiz, we’ve come a long way, baby.
Before we weaned, I was worried about losing my breastfeeding bond with Joan. During our final feed, I quietly cried while cuddling my babe, and told her through song how lovely and special it had been, assuring her (myself, really) that we would do many lovely and special things together in the future. But, to my surprise, it’s been fine. We just don’t have breastmilk anymore. Now I savour new moments, like how Joan sits on my lap to drink her smoothie and read books before bed…and how most nights, she falls asleep with her arm around my neck... and how in the morning, bubba will search for me, wrap her arm around my neck again and nuzzle into my pillow with our heads touching. There will be more changes in our future, as Joan grows and life happens and our family also grows. There will be new moments to savour and no doubt new sleep challenges. We haven’t reach any end point, Joan hasn’t “learnt” to sleep through the night because it doesn’t seem to be in her makeup to do so at the moment. Maybe when she moves into her own bed, she will. Or maybe she will wake more. Whatever happens, I know that we have built a safe and loving foundation for Joan, and I am proud of that. Next time, I won’t worry about encouraging "bad habits". I will surrender to my baby’s needs with patience, respect and empathy, and I will call on loved ones for support and strong coffee when I need it. And I will unabashedly follow my intuition, because that, I have learnt, is the way to keep our family content.