By Julia Dewing
I preface my story by saying that it may seem that my current sleep & parenting “solution” is related to weaning, and I would like to make clear that I am 100% pro-breastfeeding. I plan to let our daughter fully wean herself once we place the personally appropriate (for her and me) limits on our nursing relationship, which has gone from feeding on demand for 19 months of her life to SLOWLY adjusting to our new norm which is what seems to be helping her the most. I also whole-heartedly believe in nursing to sleep with the calming sleepy hormones it releases, and it being so natural. I am not saying that I would stop nursing to sleep in infancy, for me and my beliefs it makes sense to do so only once they can comprehend and respect “not now love, boobies are asleep”.
I am writing this at a pivotal moment in our nursing, sleep, and general parenting relationship with our 20 month old daughter. I always thought I would wait until the story was complete to write this down (when is that really though?), but I find myself hearing the story being written in my head right now at this turning point. I write this on the fourth morning of the “Dewing Night Weaning Protocol” (you will not find a hyperlink here as it is just that, our personal family night weaning process, non-prescriptive, not following a guideline, but based on us, by us).
I am writing this for all of the parents who are in the midst of trying to stick to their parenting principles and choices but are wondering when it will get better, when will the sleep improve, when will I be able to leave the house in the evening, or even at naptime for that matter? When you are only 6 months in and you read that most people who bedshare will “not get their kids out of the bed” until at least 2.5 years old, that seems a long ways away. The internet is a marvelous place though, we can subconsciously choose our desired outcome, set forth to (easily) find support for that outcome and the steps we must take to arrive there, and thus feel confident that we are doing the right thing. Our confirmation bias allows us to only seek, find, and believe the information that supports our beliefs. What we need out there is more stories that confirm that it is a long road, that it is difficult, but that it is so worth it.
We were the parents searching in earnest for these stories and this support about 8 months in when we needed someone to tell us that it was OK to bring our daughter to our wedding night rather than enjoy it alone “as we should”. It was the Evolutionary Parenting Facebook page that first set me in the right direction of making a matching wrap so I could wear her and keep her with us over the course of our wedding night. We started on this journey by waiting the latter of the commonly recommended 4-6 weeks to introduce a fake nipple, before beginning the long road of trying half of a dozen expensive breastfeeding supportive bottles, to attempt to give her pumped milk daily for the next 7 months hoping that she would not ‘need’ us on our wedding night. But in the end, instead of deserting her (when she wasn’t ready), as it is “only one night” as we heard from so many, we had a sitter join us at our venue so that when she refused the bottle for 6 hours, I could nurse her down, and then have her in the carrier fast asleep at 3:00am waiting for our ride home. We were the parents looking for stories to help us keep going, so here I offer one.
Day 3 of her life:
Let’s start from the beginning. Everything we have done to try to help our daughter sleep starts from the 3rd day of her life, when we realized that our newborn could not, and would not sleep or rest for more than 15 minutes on her back alone, but could sleep for hours if she was snuggled into my nook (which is what I call the perfectly sized and comfortable space between my bent knees and bent elbow under my head, while lying on my side). So on day 3 we purchased and both read Dr. James McKenna’s “Sleeping with your Baby”, and in that moment we ditched the bassinet with it’s perfectly tailored sheets made by my mother, and became a bedsharing family. This is something we never thought or planned to be. Of course at that time we were sure we would only bedshare for 6 months, then 9 months, then 12 months, and so on…we are now 20 months and counting with our daughter in our bed for at least part of the night.
Once we began bedsharing, we then continued to follow various other AP/EP friendly parenting approaches which all felt natural to us, nursing on demand, baby wearing, skin to skin etc. (in fact a favourite quote from my very supportive (yet a bit shocked by our ways) mother, was also on Day 3 when she asked “when are you going to put some clothes on that baby??” while my husband and I took turns wearing her in a wrap, her in a diaper, us topless).
What have we tried – aka ‘the Baker’s Dozen’:
Besides practicing parenting beliefs we believe to be natural and that should support natural normal sleep patterns, the actual attempts to improve her sleep began when she was 14 months old. This is when I could no longer handle 10 wakes per night and started to wonder if her sleep was detrimental to her and if something needed to be “fixed” to help her rest better.
- Cranial Sacral (CS) therapy – they cleared her of any CS issues so we didn’t continue
- Regular naturopathic doctor appointments
- A multitude of homeopathic remedies one after the other
- Food sensitivity testing and elimination diet for me and for her (no gluten, cow dairy, eggs, almond, citrus, tomato, etc.) which eliminated her eczema that only developed around her first birthday
- Daily probiotics for a happy gut
- Various sleep arrangements, including: bedsharing, then once she seemed to want space we dropped her crib mattress to the ground so I could nurse her back down sidelying and sneak away. Then once I couldn’t sneak away during a bad winter cold, we got a single mattress for the floor of our room where in all honesty and regrettably (in the sense of missing my husband) I likely spent more time there than in our bed for 5 months (days turn into weeks and months without you even noticing that you need to make a change), and finally, a toddler bed using her crib mattress beside ours where she can easily climb up into our bed and rolls down happily back onto hers, and where I have remained back by my husband’s side
- Introduction of a lovey and regular sleep sounds (we all enjoy “summer night” all year long)
- Chiropractic assessment and regular adjustments by a chiropractor who specializes in infant/toddler treatment (we truly believe this to have improved her sleep from a usual 8-10 wakes for the first 14 months of her life, to 4-5 on average)
- Chamomile tea, lemon balm tea – with a multitude of means to get these into her as she doesn’t like to drink anything other than water and to breastfeed – finally figuring out that she likes to have her tea “slushy” style with tea frozen as ice cubes and then blended into an icey slush she eats with a spoon J
- Sleepytime bath by GAIA
- Homemade sleepytime gummies (honey, salt, tart cherry juice)
- Essential Oils in her bath, in a massage oil, in a diffuser (Lavender, Chamomile, Ylang Ylang)
This was all accompanied with endless rows and columns of excel spreadsheet data to track any progress/improvements to find the key to sleep…
Do I wish one of these would have been a magic key that would let her rest peacefully and regularly for even 4 hours every single night? Yes of course, but I would like to fill you in on my true realizations.
What I believe to be the Magic Key:
- READINESS & MATURITY by the child (of course in a relative timeframe of say an infant to a toddler and to a preschooler) &
- a ton of PATIENCE by you
I truly don’t think that our daughter, in her ways and with her personality, could have handled what we have been working on over the past month, even a month or two earlier. She was the type that if it wasn’t me who joined her and attempted to calm her in the middle of the night she would get worked up to the point of throwing up at times. It is working NOW because she is ready and because we stood by her until now.
What is working?
At one week shy of 19 months we started putting “boobies” to sleep after a max of 10 minutes of nursing before bedtime and naptime. It was very hard at first, a lot of rocking with both hubbi and I singing her favourite song, with her almost mourning her closest best friend, that is until she realized she gets her “Mona” (her name derived from “more milk” I believe) back again. She got it, she understood, she could and would kiss each boob goodnight and we learned to fall asleep on our own!
My diary notes from the first night:
“Our first night: …complete calmness, moving around trying to find comfortable position, eyes blinking looking off into distance, then near stillness looking off, body coming calmer, she said “mum” and her hand touched my face gently and 30 seconds later she is asleep…. No singing, no rocking, nothing for last 18 minutes just lying near her, hand on her letting her do her thing…I’m crying, of joy and pride and sadness and relief, I’ve never watched her fall asleep other than in the car or stroller, I’ve never been able to be inches from her face and watch her drift away. I’m so proud of her.”
Some other notes from my sleep journal from the first week:
“Amazing first stretch of 4 hours!!! Lately her first stretch of sleep has been only: 1:40hr, 1:49hr, 40min, 1:50hr!!!! Huge shift, more than doubled!!”
“I’m so proud of her, I just spent an hour with her, WITH her, rather than just nursing her, instead I was laughing with her, kissing her, her kissing me, playing, cuddling, reading, it’s almost better time for us, Wow what a realization, she will feel it too, she must”
“5:25hr stretch & only 2 wakes!!!!! First in…EVER??!! Wow :)”
“6:14hr stretch & only two wakes – longest stretch in her entire life on night 5!!!!!!!”
SO we waited until we perfected not nursing to sleep before going on to our next step of our partial weaning plan which was to limit day nursing. We nurse when we wake and not again until before nap, we have a nurse and cuddle after nap but not in the sleep area so she doesn’t go back to sleep (she would gladly nurse back down a few times even for nap), then not again until her daycare friends leave for the day (I am a provider), and then not again until before bed. If you knew our daughter, you would know that this is a LOT less nursing than before this began when it was based on her demand, but she is OK with it! She respects it, and is so happy once it is our time to nurse, rather than using it as a crutch every single time she is uncomfortable or overwhelmed. Now rather, we still have the quick cuddle, eye contact, kiss on the forehead and she jumps back in to playing with her friends.
We perfected this and then we moved to eliminating nursing her back down for her first wake of the night. “Mona is still asleep love”, we hug, cry, whine, and roll around writhing in unhappiness, and for our first night, one hour later she was fast asleep for another two hours and was welcomed with Mona when she woke. We are now slowly working on eliminating night feeds with the goal of no milk until the sun is up.
How do we know it is helping her?
You might want to hear that she is sleeping 12 hours straight 1.5 months into this (or much more realistically for my family, even 6 hours every night!), sorry to break it to you but this isn’t happening yet, and isn’t even what we are looking for. The first night of actual night weaning she went a total of 8 hours without nursing. Second night, three wakes in a row without nursing, for a total of 9 hours without nursing. Third night a total of 9.5 hours without nursing, and we just completed the fourth night where she went 10 hours without nursing, she only woke twice and had a seven hour stretch of sleep – the first in her ENTIRE LIFE!
Length of sleep isn’t the only way we can gauge success. She is generally very attached to me, and my daily gauge of baby steps of success was that yesterday morning (after a hard night of night weaning) my hubbi let me sleep in, covered breakfast, playtime, went to the farm and to the park etc. and she didn’t whine for me once for more than 3 hours when a month ago she would have done so every 10 minutes, going from room to room searching for me, saying “mummy”. She is growing, she is becoming more independent from me, at 1 yr 8 months which I see as a much more realistic and appropriate age (yet difficult and lengthy to arrive at!), rather than what some people believe needs to be nearly right away! Just watching her put herself to sleep is something I didn’t think even possible a few months back, this in itself is an extraordinary step.
What you need to do:
TRUST your intuition, trust your gut, trust your little glimpses of interesting ideas, and never stop trying. Know that there will be hiccups in every ‘sleep improvement’ hope, and you need to roll with them, her 4 eye teeth coming in and a viral cold going to her mouth causing lesions on her tongue led to a few nights of 12+ wakes and a few weeks of not even attempting to bedtime wean. Know that these diary entries also exist:
“Hardest one yet, I was in tears at one point. She wasn’t sobbing in pain or anything she just wanted to be there on boob, eye teeth coming, two are through. I just needed to break the cycle, for her to relearn she can do this on her own, with my constant love and support, she fought me so hard, kicking me :(, it was heartbreaking. She had moments of clarity and reading books and cuddling and then anger and sadness and just wow …This is so hard. Two hours to fall asleep, longest yet, hardest yet.”
But don’t worry your success will always come back if you stick to it and be there for them!
“6:06hr stretch – almost longest sleep ever!!
“…so peaceful never even asked for Mona just drifted off on her belly :)”
“…just lies on her own not moving comfy and slowly closes eyes. Beautiful.”
My final point is to be there for them, there are nights with on/off crying, fits, anger, frustration, but I am talking her through it, hugging her if that is what she needs and also letting her flail and lie alone away from me if that is what she needs. Always there, always supportive. Crying is allowed, it is natural, a normal release of tension and angst, but why would they ever have to do it alone behind closed doors? This has been a long journey, with endless hours of just plain out supporting her and I believe that she will grow up knowing that her emotions, both big and small, are valid, accepted, supported, and never ignored.
My husband has always been very supportive of my instinctive parenting choices which have wonderfully fallen into the AP/EP umbrellas, though his sense of humour still prevails and he often uses the phrase “well, attachment parenting…” in a laughing tone when we have more difficult moments based on our parenting style. I know though, that one day when our daughter is 10, 20, and 30 and we are awe-struck by how independent, confident, and comfortable she is in her own skin, that he may one day look at me again, with a laughing tone and say “well Hun, attachment parenting!”
Julia Nichol supports families in Ottawa, Ontario, as a Postpartum Doula and an Infant Sleep Educator. Her website (www.intuitionparentin