Sunday, 29 June 2014

Tears Before Bedtime

I'm pretty lucky in that I have a baby who sleeps. He's always been a good sleeper, ever since we came home from hospital; never waking more than once or twice and sleeping right through until morning from about twelve weeks. However, we have had one stumbling block that we just haven't been able to overcome: bedtime. 

Bedtime in the Meaney household has been traumatic ever since Blake stopped falling asleep at the breast and going to bed only when I went. Soon he wanted to sleep from around seven o'clock, but was too big to snooze in my arms while I waited for my own bedtime to roll around. Sadly for all of us, Blake is not a fan of being put in a room and having his parents walk out of it, no matter how tired he is. Before long, bedtime had become a tear and stress fuelled dance of rock-sleep-cot-wake, in which I would be backwards and forwards to his room for up to two hours before he finally gave in; both of us exhausted and upset. Cuddles would soothe him, the transfer back into his cot would wake him and we'd start all over again. When I did manage the transfer without him waking, he would inevitably rouse himself in the middle of the night, suddenly aware that he was alone, and howling would commence. More than once I have ended up sleeping on the spare bed in his room, cuddling an overtired and emotional baby to me, feeling pretty overtired and emotional myself. 

Something had to change.

It was after a particularly frustrating evening in which I didn't even have time to feed myself between comforting baby, that a friend suggested I tried Jo Frost's Controlled Timed Crying method. I was unsure; crying it out is a fairly controversial technique these days, with many preferring a much more natural and intuitive approach. However, I know at least one child who was allowed to cry it out as a baby, and who has never once had an issue with bedtimes (she's now nearly three). But I was at wit's end and decided that I had to at least try it, my intuition was getting us bloody nowhere.

Last night we took the plunge. As recommended by Jo, I let Blake cry, comforting him (briefly without picking him up) at increasing intervals until he fell asleep. He cried, I expected that, and then he got angry, I also expected that, but to my surprise he was fast asleep within half an hour. He woke around an hour later, at which point I comforted him in the same brief way as before and walked away; he was asleep within minutes.

I awoke this morning at 6:40, hearing a happy little boy chattering to himself over the baby monitor; a pleasant change from the desperately unhappy wail that usually wakes me at 5am. I went into the nursery and was greeted by an enormous smile and the happiest morning we've had together in weeks.

But was it just a fluke?

Tonight was day two of using controlled crying. I put Blake to bed at around 7pm. I gave him a kiss and told him it was time to sleep and, having done so for the past three months or so, I offered him his dummy. He refused it. I was stunned; Blake never takes a dummy during the day but it is nigh on impossible to settle him at night without one, yet here he was happily indicating that he didn't want it. I turned on the monitor and went downstairs, waiting for the inevitable to begin. After about ten minutes I turned to Mr Meaney, "I think he's asleep...".

We crept upstairs and peered through a crack in the nursery door. He was indeed asleep, and neither of us had shed a single tear!

He has just woken up and I'm currently on the four minute interval, desperately straining to hear our movie over the wailing through the monitor, but he's already starting to lose momentum. I expect him to be asleep before I make it upstairs to comfort him again. 

Crying it out (or controlled crying, as in our case) is difficult at first, but it works. Crucially, my son didn't hate me this morning. He was rested and happy, whereas he's usually tired and grumpy and one hundred per cent holding me responsible for the whole sorry mess. It's tough, but it's bloody worth it. 

Jo Frost claims that the crying will stop altogether within seven days, with baby effectively (and happily) soothing themselves to sleep before the week is out. I'd be amazed if it takes us more than a few days, and I'd emphatically recommend this method to anyone. 

Oh, as I wrap this up, the monitor is silent. Baby boy is sound asleep...

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Extended Breastfeeding: The Great Parenting Taboo

I recently shared an interesting article about extended breastfeeding with my facebook friends. I had unthinkingly clicked 'share' after reading and then gone to bed. When I woke at 6am and checked my notifications, I found a fierce debate had taken place on the post, one that had become really quite heated in places, and I was genuinely taken aback.

In all honesty, I don't know why I was surprised; extended breastfeeding is, by nature, a deeply controversial topic and incites a passionate response from both camps: those in favour of it and those that think it's downright creepy. I didn't really get involved with the debate (in fact, I found myself trying to smooth out the many ruffled feathers), as my own feelings about it are complex and not entirely clear even to me. However, after mulling it over for a couple of days, I decided that it's something I wanted to explore.

For those who aren't familiar with the term 'extended breastfeeding', it simply refers to continuing to nurse past the World Health Organisation's recommended two years, sometimes right up to school age and even beyond. I think that this is the part that makes people squeamish. The fact that, at this age, breast milk is no longer perceived to be essential to the child's nutrition and development means a shift in how comfortable people are with it. Extended breastfeeding is seen much more as the mother's choice, and is often regarded as an attempt to stunt the child's independence. I also think that, once a woman no longer has a small baby to nurse, her breasts are once more seen as a sexual organ that should be covered up and kept away from children.

Before having Blake, I too thought that extended breastfeeding was a bit creepy. I would cringe whenever I saw someone feeding a child older than about one, dismissing the entire act as completely unnecessary. However, since beginning to breastfeed my own child, my attitude to this enduring taboo has shifted enormously. I've developed an understanding for these women and children that I never would have had if I didn't have my own breastfeeding experience. 

I've come to learn that extended breastfeeding often tends to happen by accident. It's not an active choice by the mother (who would probably quite like to start wearing normal bras again now, actually) to feed until a particular age, but rather a choice to allow their child to self-wean. Often this will happen before two, sometimes almost as soon as the child begins to take solids. However, a child will occasionally continue to nurse until a much older age, as in the case of the woman writing in the article I shared. It's only now that I can understand why a mother would want to indulge that desire. After all, once weaned, we acknowledge that they still require milk and encourage them to take dairy for their calcium needs; yet it actually makes more sense to continue giving them the milk that was not only designed for their species, but also tailor packaged to them individually.

The thing that I really loved about the article was that the mother in question was able to comfort her very unwell daughter in this uniquely special way. At the risk of repeating myself, this is something that is absolutely impossible to comprehend if you've never experienced breastfeeding first hand. Don't get me wrong, I've bottle fed babies and it comes close, the eye contact, hand-holding magic is still there for formula fed babies, but breastfeeding goes just a little further. Blake will sometimes nurse when I know for a fact that there's no milk to be had; it's a comfort thing, almost like a really connected, intense cuddle. The thing I took from the article was that her mother's nursing had helped the four year old to recover from major surgery on her skull, which seemed to negate the argument about whether the whole thing was appropriate or not. For this family and for this sick child, nursing was an absolutely necessary part of her healing process, which essentially takes away any right that society has to comment on it.

Here's the thing: like every element of breastfeeding, the age at which you stop is a deeply personal thing and influenced by a hundred different factors. Is it for me? Honestly, I don't know. I plan to nurse Blake until he's two, in line with WHO recommendations, although I find myself qualifying this decision with "but I'll probably express and bottle feed in public so as not to creep people out." I doubt that I will, I hate pumping with a passion and Blake isn't keen on waiting for a bottle, but I feel I have to say that to calm the horrified expressions I'm met with when I announce my goal. However, extended breastfeeding is rarely a planned path and if Blake wants to carry on, I know I'll be powerless to deprive him of his need.