sleep & night-nursing: doing it the "right" way
There are so many questions that surround parenting, and breastfeeding brings with it even more -- especially in the haze of no-sleep, when your days are blending into each other and you don't remember the last time you got a full eight hours and didn't smell like rotten milk, and especially when your baby is six months old and no longer a newborn. Nothing is quite so discouraging as hearing the comment, "your baby still isn't sleeping through the night?" and "well, little Pinecone has been sleeping ten hours straight since he was two hours old!" (Pinecone sounds like a nice, progressive name, right?)
Night time parenting River when he was a baby meant I got very little sleep and we nursed constantly all night long. He woke up every hour to nurse until he was 18 months old. Literally, every hour, sometimes more. I remember several mornings thinking, wow... River woke up nine times last night. Not being entirely sure I actually slept, or if my entire night was spent in that uncomfortable place between sleep and wakefulness. Meanwhile, I had friends whose babies were sleeping five, six, seven hour stretches.
I tried everything to get the child to sleep longer. I tried bed-sharing, putting him in the crib, putting him in the swing, bouncing him in the bouncer. We tried to get him to use a pacifier, but he was uninterested. I tried offering bottles of water at night instead of nursing right away, and breastmilk mixed with cereal before bed at the suggestion of friends. We put him on a strict bedtime routine for a time, and while that helped him get in the "mood" for sleep, he was still waking several times. Nothing helped him sleep longer. During the day, he wanted to nurse all the time. He nursed for comfort, for a meal, for a snack, for a drink, out of boredom, when he was scared, when he was overwhelmed; in other words, for every emotion and in every situation, he wanted to nurse. This need to breastfeed didn't just go away in the middle of the night. I was his security, and he was a mama's boy. (Still is!)
But it wasn't just at night -- even during the day, I couldn't get him to sleep longer than 20 to 45 minutes. Even as a brand new baby, he only cat-napped. And on top of that, nursing was the only way he knew how to fall asleep. Looking back, I'm just lucky he was my first and not my second or third child! He was a happy, bright baby who rarely cried, but he was restless and demanding and needed me... a lot. Part of the reason he never cried is because I was always there to nurse him when he wanted it!
I felt fairly confident in the way I handled our night times. I was tired -- yes, so very tired -- but as a stay-at-home mom to one, I had time to be tired and it didn't take a toll on me physically or emotionally. I knew I wanted to bed-share, and besides, I had tried other things and they didn't work. I knew I wanted to breastfeed on demand, and since the pacifier hadn't worked out, I just told people I was practicing ecological breastfeeding when they commented on how much he nursed. To top it all off, River wasn't interested in solids when we introduced them at 5 months, and again at 8 months, after which I kept offering while he kept refusing, until I finally just gave up and figured he would start eating solids when he decided he was ready -- which happened when we night-weaned at 18 months. He was practically exclusively breastfed until then.
No mother should feel guilty, or be made the feel guilty, about how much her baby is or isn't sleeping. Believing a baby should sleep through the night is a very new, Western way of thinking, and it's simply not the norm for most exclusively breastfed babies. (I say most, because no two babies are the same!) Breastfed babies need to eat more than formula fed babies as a general "rule" because breastmilk is easier to digest than formula, which means they need to fill their bellies more often. That said, here is the one piece of advice every mother should consider: follow your instinct, because every baby is different.
While my first was a very restless sleeper, my second child put herself on her own 3-hour schedule when she was about three months old, but still nursed very often at night until she was about six months old, then went to about 3 or 4 times -- which was fantastic to me, because I was used to nursing ten times a night! She hated pacifiers, but also didn't like nursing if she wasn't hungry. Now my third baby is four weeks old and she is the best sleeper I've had yet. She sleeps about twenty hours a day and already only nurses once or twice at night. During the first week of life, I had to wake her up to nurse, because she would easily go six hours and I wanted to make sure my supply was established before I let her sleep that long.
I couldn't have made my children like this if I tried! There is absolutely nothing I am doing differently with Chase (my best sleeper) than with River (my worst sleeper). I bed-share. I offer pacifiers. I nurse on demand. I nurse for nutrients as well as for comfort. I hold my babies, I wear my babies, I don't let them cry-it-out, I have them with me 90% of the time. I have parented all three of my babies exactly the same. Chase nurses just about every two to four hours, but still nurses for comfort. And some nights she wants to nurse more. And that's completely normal, too.
Breastfeeding through the night well past the newborn stage, and to have absolutely no feeding routine, is very natural and normal for the breastfed baby. If your baby wakes up ten times a night to nurse, you are not doing anything wrong. If your baby sleeps through the night one night, and wants to nurse all night long the next, you are not doing anything wrong. By not trying to get your baby to go longer at night between feedings, by letting him nurse when he wants, by nursing him several times at night -- you are not doing anything wrong. And there is nothing abnormal about your child or the way he or she is receiving comfort and nutrients.
Even though the constant night-nursing worked for me and my first born, I still felt guilt sometimes, like there was something wrong with the way I was handling night nursing. But guess what! To this day, River still wakes up in the middle of the night to go potty or to give us a middle-of-the-night kiss and hug, and Austen sleeps soundly for a full twelve hours. Having three children has just proven for me once again that all babies are different, and some babies need to nurse more than others, period. If you are nursing your baby all night long, to me, it sounds like you are following your child's cues and you understand his or her unique needs, and that makes you one awesome parent. Here's how to tell if you are night-parenting the right way: parent the way that makes sense to you, settles well in your heart, and meets the unique needs of your little person!