Sleep deprivation and Weaning a Toddler

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I’ve hadfour people ask me about gentle weaning and sleep in the last 24 hours. I figured it was a sign that I really needed to write this post. My goal in sharing my story is to help moms that are feeling some degree of desperation, aloneness, and exhaustion. I’ve been there. And when I was there, all I wanted was someone, anyone—in person or on the Internet—to tell me to hang on. That even though there’s no telling when, things would get better.  That those mamas lived through those hard, sleepless nights without giving up their convictions, and that I could too.  So this post is for you bleary eyed moms that need some encouragement.

Just so you know I REALLY get it, here’s a history of the last three years of sleep with my daughter.

By the time AnaBella was 8 weeks old, she was sleeping through the night, in 10-12 hour stretches in her Arm’s Reach co-sleeper. But by the time she was 4 months old, the stretches began to shrink, until at 6 months old, she was sleeping between 20-90 minutes at a time. I was nursing her each time she woke, and by then we’d resumed the safe in-bed co-sleeping that we started when she was born. I remember those late night googles – was this pattern normal? It certainly wasn’t according to my family, formula-feeding or sleep-training friends. But when I came across Kathy Detwyller’s article about sleeping through the night, it was reassuring to know that breastfed, co-sleeping babies generally don’t sleep through the night until age 3-4, and that it’s biologically NORMAL. It didn’t help with the sleep deprivation though.

Once AnaBella reached a year old, I expected to see a change, even if slight. Change, I did see. She began waking at midnight and staying awake until 3 or 4am! I tried everything I could think of: rocking, carrier, nursing, bouncing on a ball, shortening naps. I spent most evenings pacing our living room floor with AnaBella in a Boba, (incredibly comfortable for late night wearing…) singing softly, and praying silently, knowing that this too shall pass.

I read The No-Cry Sleep Solution. Didn’t work for us. Nobody got it. Most people’s comments boiled down to one thing: it was my fault she wasn’t sleeping. She needed fewer naps, more exercise, less dairy, darker room etc. Or tears. The general consensus was that I was completely insane for not letting her just scream in her bed til she tired out. But I wasn’t willing to take the risks to our relationship or her health. So we just kept on, keepin’ on, praying, and catching sleep when we could.

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And indeed, it did, after several months. We transitioned her into her own bed (with me sleeping in it for most of the night) at 18 months, but at this point she started teething, (yes, you read that right, she STARTED teething) and was waking every hour or two. But she was still nursing hourly at night, and only nursing to sleep. She was also nursing every hour or two during the day until about two and a half. A little after 2.5, when I saw the daytime nursing start to wane a bit (meaning only 6 times during the day instead of 10), I tried night weaning, using the book, Nursies When the Sun Comes Up, but it didn’t go quite as smoothly as the Amazon reviews said. There were lots of tears, and we didn’t fall asleep most nights until…the sun came up. I posted on Facebook, and tweeted, and asked random strangers at playgrounds when and how their child started sleeping through the night. I just wanted a little bit of hope from someone who had been there, done that. But I seldom found anyone who had. Most toddlers were weaned by this point, or at least sleeping more soundly than my girl. I cursed that advice where people would say, “Just tell them, boobies are going night-night. Worked like a charm for me!” Really? Really?! It did not work for us. In fact, it infuriated AnaBella to hear that. So, when after a week of the attempted night weaning, AnaBella developed a pretty serious eye tic,  I immediately backed off. She clearly wasn’t ready. I felt like my only recourse at that point was to pray.

Yes, I was tired. Yes, my husband was likely tired of me sleeping in AnaBella’s bed all night. But I just kept reminding myself that this is normal. Breastfed babies drink milk at night. Babies like to sleep near their mothers, and that’s normal. And GOOD. And very counter-cultural here in the U.S.  I also had to keep in the forefront of my mind that this entire scenario was about expectations. Because we like our babies to sleep long and deep from day 1, I had to constantly read articles and books about the rest of the world, where babies are given permission to sleep when and where they want to, and how it all evens out eventually. But when you try to blend two ideas, like co-sleeping, and western notions about independence and that marital intimacy only happens in a bed….it’s a big mess. For everyone.  We found that if you want to make it work, you can. You find ways to be creative, and for many, you acknowledge the fact that maybe baby years aren’t going to be your wildest lovemaking, or your longest date nights. You love each other, and know those days will come back in time.

Right before AnaBella’s 3rd birthday, my doctor suggested I take her to a sleep specialist for my own health. I ended up calling Isis Parenting, and doing a sleep consultation. They developed a plan for me that didn’t involve crying, and honestly, it was really good. They were thorough, gentle, and really considerate of my desires. I just really wasn’t jazzed about the idea of being up for a big chunk of the night while we readjusted her sleep for several weeks. Though, I wanted her to sleep when SHE was ready, time was ticking. We wanted to have another baby, and this was the last duck I was waiting to get in the row. I simply knew I didn’t want to nurse two babies in the middle of the night, and I wasn’t emotionally or physically able to be pregnant and nursing around the clock. My husband works long hours and isn’t able to help much, so I felt like it was up to me to carry this situation.

I started preparing for a month before I wanted to implement the sleep consult ideas. (Read: I was stalling.) At that point, I had decided I wanted to see how AnaBella did if she weaned entirely. I always thought I’d nurse her until she chose to stop, but I was feeling overly ready at this point. I was committed to not making it a traumatizing experience though, which meant I was prepared to continue nursing if the ideas didn’t go over well. So, I distracted her during her waking hours, as she was still nursing several times throughout our day. Stickers! Park trips! Trampoline! Books! Special videos! That was pretty easy. Then, I cut nap/night nursing times back little by little. Over the course of a month, we went from a 20 minute fall-asleep nursing session to a 5 second one.

I also introduced alternative ways to fall asleep. AnaBella loves to have her back tickled, hear stories, and have me count. After she nursed, I would offer to do one of the above, and if she chose counting, she could try to have a little more milk after I reached 200. The first night, when she fell asleep at 90, I felt like God gave me my own little miracle. I honestly couldn’t believe it, the first 20 times she fell asleep without a boob in her mouth. But the nights I did get to 200, I gave her milk! I wasn’t interested in manipulating her. This wasn’t a trick. It was a way to show her that she could, indeed, fall asleep on her own without milk. And sometimes she wouldn’t. When she woke up, I would just snuggle with her first, instead of automatically offering her milk. If she cried, I gave her “mimi’s.” My goal was  to not be up for hours on end. After several weeks, to my complete surprise, AnaBella was sleeping from 10pm – 5 or 6am. Although I did a few things to help, I attribute this dramatic shift to the power of prayer and developmental readiness! A week after my first full week of sleep, I found out I was pregnant.

My milk supply completely vanished almost immediately, and though AnaBella still asks for a sip when she’s really tired, she seems to have moved on from the idea completely. It’s bittersweet, but mostly sweet. I love getting to snuggle with her now. I love having my body to myself for a bit before the next baby comes.

It’s hard to separate weaning and sleep for us. It’s our story.  It worked for us. So mamas, be encouraged. Your story won’t look like ours, but just like it had a beginning and a middle, it will have an end, and eventually your child will wean, you will sleep through the night again, and hopefully, you will encourage others that they’ll do the same.

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Megan McGrory Massaro is a mother, freelance writer, dreamer, and author, catching up on her sleep. She wrote The Other Baby Book: A Natural Approach to Baby’s First Year during those sleepless years, to empower women to make the best choices for their families.

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13 thoughts on “Sleep deprivation and Weaning a Toddler”

  1. Wow our breastfeeding stories are very similar! Except mine is still going on with a 4.5 yr old! He didn’t start sleeping through the night until about a yr ago, but then with a new baby he began waking up again for the bountiful milk supply I had and I was tandeming even at night!The only problem is he won’t wean! We attempted a weaning party and after a couple days I gave in to his requests again and we’re right back where we started. I just need to decide to go cold turkey because limiting him has never worked for me. Thank you for sharing and giving me hope that yes they do wean, some later than others.

    1. Hang in there, mama! Every baby is different, and it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. Each time I feel like I want to do something drastic, I try to picture what I want to look back on. Is it a happy, healthy child nursing a little longer than I expected? Or a battle of wills, for what reason? Sometimes the reasons are valid! I definitely did need more sleep, and wanted to conceive. But I think the timing had to be right too, which is why it was pretty much no tears. Good luck!

  2. You’re right, the reassurance does help! My 17-month-old wakes several times per night (twice on a “good” night, but usually more and almost never less), and I’m usually pretty okay with that. He’ll sleep for longer stretches when he’s ready, and babies develop sleep maturity at their own pace when allowed to, and all that jazz, but some nights it’s hard! He’s still young yet, and at this point I’m staying committed to letting him work out sleep habits at his own pace. Still, thanks for this today. Always reassuring to hear that my baby’s sleep habits are “normal.”

    1. Thankyou for this article!has made me feel like maybe I’m not insane for not wanting to let my 14 month old scream it out!so relieved to hear your situation was so close to our life right now. Has given me such a boost today xxx

  3. It is so sad the way you have allowed your children to rule your lives! Feed them and put them to bed. They have to learn to self soothe and DO NOT NEED to nurse that often. You are being used! Good luck raising these children to be self sufficient! I don’t know how your spouses can deal with this . . .

    1. Rosa, perspective is everything, eh? I appreciate your strong opinion and I’m so glad you have found a parenting style that works for YOU! That’s so important to keep us kind, sane, compassionate individuals.
      I wouldn’t change a thing about our journey, to be honest! My daughter is sweet, confident, sensitive, outgoing, funny, and a joy to be around, and I believe it’s because she’s had a strong foundation of having her needs met and responded to. And I’m not really sure what you meant about “needs.” What is your definition of “need?” We don’t “need” our partner to say they love us in order to live, but we do to thrive. I could give countless example where we don’t outwardly need certain things to survive, but they quite obviously make our quality of life oodles better. So, in that regard, my daughter did need to nurse as often as she liked, and I would venture to guess that as her mother, I’m really the only one who can identify that need. It’s likely pretty hard to make a sweeping statement that you are an expert on all babies’ needs, eh?
      In regards to learning to self-soothe, we learn best by watching models. So as we soothe our children, they learn to REALLY self-soothe, as opposed to shutting down, and later “self-soothing” using drugs, alcohol, finding identity in sex, or other destructive behaviors.

    2. Are you being rude because this is the Internet or are you really like this in real life? How many adults have you observed in a psychological study with regards to “self-sufficiency”? I highly doubt it. You’re giving your opinion that is baseless.

      Every recognized children’s groups/associations have states that breast feeding until any age will not psychologically harm children.

      Take a survery of adults who are not self-sufficient. It is highly likely that many of them had moms who fed them and put them to bed. Just because a toddler is needy DOES NOT mean they will always be that way. In fact, there is large evidence to support the idea that being sensitive and compassionate in these early years creates a more independent adult! I’d much rather put in the extra effort earlier on.

      I’m one of those kids who nursed until I was 4. It was a mutual weaning, nudged by my mom. I slept in her bed every night until middle school. Then guess what happened? I was ready to stop around 12 years old when I felt comfortable with it. She and my dad didn’t push me out and they are still happily married. I went on to do an immersion program in Spain during high school and continued to travel abroad every summer until I landed a job with the space shuttle program. Doesn’t sound like a self-sufficy problem to me!

      You can give out all the advice you want, but we will have to wait another 20-30 years to see how these breastfeeding toddlers/preschoolers turn out. im almost 30 and i dont have independece issues.

      Megan was sharing HER story, not asking for advice.

  4. Congratulations, Megan!! What an incredible story and journey for you and family! So glad to hear that you were able to do the almost impossible! Congratulations again, you really are a wonderful mama! AnaBella is a very lucky little girl! Good luck with the pregnancy! We miss you tons!

  5. Thank-you so much for sharing your story Megan. I have a 9 month old who wakes up very frequently (sometimes as often as every 45 minutes) sometimes just for snuggles and sometimes for a little nip. It is very hard to find moral support when you don’t want to let the little ones cry it out. It’s always helpful to know we aren’t alone :)

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this. My nursing story is very similar, and sometimes i just want to go cold turkey but i absolutely cannot bear to do this to my 2 1/2 year old. we co-sleep too, although she has moved into her own bed but I am still in here every night. it is so nice to know that other mommas feel the same way I do and that there is an end eventually. and when it comes, i will probably miss it more than she will. :) thanks again for sharing and for giving us some support! and i would not change a single thing about our nursing journey! It has been one of the most rewarding and enriching experiences of my life.

  7. thank you so much for taking the time to write this. I so so so badly wish I was as confident as you! I’ve felt so much pressure to wean, and tried to too many time so that it’s made bad memories for us that I really regret. I’m really pressured by disapproval if it’s over things that I’m uncertain of (like what is normal and healthy for my family and what is not). And that has robbed us of so much peace. Talk about anxiety and depression. We could have had so much more happiness, peace, comfort in our home if I had this confidence and understanding from the beginning. Thankful to God that I’m understanding this now and I hope I can overcome that fear of disapproval. Thank you SO MUCH!

    1. Oh Jessica, I completely understand what you’re going through! Those are the hardest decisions to make – the ones where you’re genuinely not sure what is best. I’ve been there many a night and continue to have those thoughts with various areas of parenting. I try to look at the big picture and not make decisions based on how I feel in moments of crisis, fatigue, and a general sense of overwhelm. (Otherwise, yes, I may have weaned about three years earlier if I’d have listened to what others said!) So, though I have no pat answers, just a big hug and a “This too shall pass…” Keep up the great work, mama! ~Megan

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