Monday, November 16, 2015

Breastfeeding Babies to Sleep: the Best-Kept Secret of Motherhood

Oh, don’t DO it!  they cried.  You’ll REGRET it!  they cried.  Your baby will turn out TERRIBLE!  they warned.  All egocentric and DEMANDING!  they prophesied.  

What are they talking about?  Giving your baby a cigarette or a little nip of gin?  Placing your baby on a pedestal and literally worshipping it?  No, my friends.  Such doomsday prophecies are, in our sorry culture, levelled at the woman who breastfeeds her baby to sleep, when it pleases her to do so.

I hear it from other western mums.  “I guess I should put her in her bed…” one said with sadness, as her cute ball of delight nestled sleepily into her shoulder.  “I fed her to sleep, I know it’s bad,” writes another mum, who has now added guilt to sleep deprivation.

I’ve heard and read the rationale many times over.  The baby will get in a habit.  He or she will not learn to sleep on their own.  You will be guilty of “child-led” parenting, when the child gets what they want when they want it, and thus turns into a nasty spoiled brat faster than you can say peek-a-boo.  The joyous alternative to this dastardly state of affairs is “parent-led” parenting, where you (as one endowed with far greater wisdom) make the best choice for your child - which is, of course, that they fall asleep on their own, in a darkened room, in a cot, at roughly the same times every day, with no breast in sight.  These blessed children may scream their heads off at times, but they will grow up to be upstanding citizens who always, always, share their toys.

It sounds fair enough, doesn’t it.  So I tried it with baby 1.  He did OK, I guess.  I didn’t have to put up with toooooo much of him screaming and crying, while my maternal instincts curled up and died on the other side of the door.  But neither did he sleep through the night until he was 2 years old.

I did it less with baby 2.  She needed more cuddles because she had food intolerances that made her wake up in pain, and I felt it was only fair to cut her some slack and give her the odd breastfeed to help her go back to sleep.  She did OK, I guess.  In the end, she didn’t sleep through the night until she was 2 years old.

Then came baby 3.  After a birth experience where well-meaning doctors messed up the beauty of it, I felt a stronger desire than ever to be near to her, and to stick it to the professionals who think they know better than a mama’s instinct.  So it didn’t take long for me to fall into a pattern of feeding her to sleep.  At first I pretended I wasn’t, because I didn’t want to argue with everyone.  But after a while, something amazing happened.  I realised it was working.  It was really working.  Ta daaaa!  So THAT’S why every single culture in the world (except ours) has done it this way for millennia!

“It’s working?  What do you mean by that?”  I hear ye cry.  Allow me to elaborate.  First, I realised it was making her happy.  She is cute and happy.  She is relaxed, despite crazy things happening in her short life.  Her net crying time is very little indeed.  She is healthy and growing fine, and not exhibiting early signs of narcissism, or other ills I was warned about.

And then, it makes me happy.  Looking at her tired eyes and watching her drift to her happy place as I cradle her against my skin is a beautiful, sensual, wondrous thing.  I am safety to her, I am the comfort of bed, the warmth of love, and the smell of intimate relationship.  She strokes my arm.  How blissful!  (Until she bites… ouch.)

And then, it makes our life work, too.  The first two kids really couldn’t go to sleep anywhere except their cots, or a moving vehicle.  Number three can go to sleep wherever I am - in a cafe, in a noisy train station, at a friend’s house, in an aeroplane.  If she has me (or a moving vehicle), she can sleep.  Wow.  It’s so terribly convenient!  I can take her out, and if it overlaps with her nap, who cares?  I didn’t have that freedom with the other two, which meant a choice between a more housebound mum, or grumpier kids.  Neither are too much fun.  

And in fact, while the proponents of Getting Baby to Sleep Without You say it is more parent-friendly, I don’t find it so - you end up running your life according to the desperate need to be back home in 25 minutes for baby’s terribly important darkened room experience.  And, if your uncooperative 4 month old wakes in the night (which they assure you he/she won’t, but I assure you he/she might well), you actually have to stand up and walk into another room, rather than just rolling over and pulling up your jarmie top.  And this makes a difference to maternal sanity in the morning, believe me.  

Finally, if you follow the Getting Baby to Sleep Without You method, you inevitably have to hear a fair bit of crying from time to time (as babies tend to like their mums), and you miss out on a big fat load of oxytocin from the delicious sleepy-eyed cuddles.  And heaven knows we can all do with a bit more oxytocin in our lives.

So, there you have it.  I’m flying the flag for breastfeeding babies to sleep, if that’s your idea of fun.

Incidentally, I’m sure you’re dying to know… number 3 does OK, sleep-wise.  I’m guessing she’ll sleep through the night when she’s 2.

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