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.
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.
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.