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The Last Feed? Part 1

Our boys nursing their bunnies to sleep
Four months ago, I published an article all about my rejection of the sleep training culture, extolling the virtues of following my baby’s lead, the second time around. The liberation from rules and schedules was the birth of my maternal instinct and true enjoyment of motherhood.

When my eldest was just six months, he slept through the night, 7pm-7am every night. To outsiders, we’d discovered the holy grail of parenthood. Yet there were major cracks under the perfect, unbroken surface of sleep.  To achieve this, I had to leave him to “self soothe”; I rarely witnessed that magical moment of watching him pass from wakefulness to sleep; I had to rouse him if he fell asleep at the breast for fear of “bad sleep associations”, but I didn't dare break out of this, too worried about giving our child "poor sleep habits".  But if you’ve read my other blogs, you know all about this.

When our second boy was born, all those rules went out of the window for both our children, choosing to listen to their needs instead, to follow their lead. Another two years on and we’ve cuddled/massaged/sung our boys to sleep every night.  We’ve been there at every wake up, every nightmare and every moment of sleep.  Our almost-four year old occasionally says that he can go to sleep by himself and we take our leave. Our youngest has fallen asleep after a breastfeed most evenings and has napped out and about in the sling or buggy.  However, since his second birthday, his needs have changed and I’ve tried to respond to these changes.

Age two, the breastfeeding- alongside a full balanced diet of good food- increased during the day, especially when in a new environment or when hosting a houseful of guests.  He would crawl into my nap and request “my mummy milk”.  His molars were coming through, he woke up every two hours through the night, he could become very tearful without warning and he became intensely possessive over everything.  “Welcome to the terrible twos” most people would quip but what a world of wonder he was discovering anew. His language skills suddenly exploded with new words, he was forming more complex sentences and his understanding had clearly improved.

Another six weeks later, in his 26th month, he gradually stopped asking for milk from me during the day. He sometimes skipped his daytime nap and was consequently falling asleep very quickly by bedtime.  His night wakings reduced to just once per night and the teething calmed.

By this time, I was pregnant with our third child and wondering what might happen to my milk. Breastfeeding through pregnancy is perfectly normal but I do know that this is when many older siblings self-wean as their mothers’ bodies change through pregnancy. Many report pain and discomfort; milk can dry up or nurselings can reject the colostrum produced later on, ready for the newborn. However, many mums do choose to continue to nurse both children, tandem feeding their toddlers and babies, allowing their children to form a unique bond of trust and care.  With my two year old feeding every evening and at least once a night, I had to adjust to the idea that this could be us. I tried to romanticise the tandem feed and spoke enthusiastically about the idea to friends and family, preparing them and me for this possibility.  I began to dwell on those picture-perfect photographs shared in the Facebook support group for 'Breastfeeding Older Babies and Beyond', normalising Natural Term Weaning and tandem feeding, especially where siblings tenderly held hands while co-nursing.

However, deep down, I was anxious about this idea. I’d night fed without a break for over two years and was struggling with exhaustion and sickness during this pregnancy. I was happy to feed both but not during the night. Something had to give.  I’d read about  night weaning and was interested in other mothers’ experiences.  Friends were starting to night wean their toddlers.  But for us, it never felt like the right time. His bedtimes were so swift and I could get him back to sleep within seconds with another feed, lying side-by-side, both relaxed and content. Taking away this vital sleep-maker seemed like a ridiculous and counter-productive idea.

But then the migraines began. Crippling debilitating headaches that lasted all night and resumed in the day.  Caused by tiredness, pregnancy hormones, diet, screen time...? I don't know.  I was waking for more water, re-positioning cushions, loo trips, paracetamol and tiger balm. Extra wakings and nocturnal breastfeeding were suddenly frustrating. I couldn’t do it anymore but to suddenly stop was not an option.

I waited another week or two and spent the time talking about the night-milk finishing and persevering with  cow’s milk, just like his big brother enjoys.  I'd limited his bedtime feeds to one side only and used countdowns to try and shorten the feeds.  I bought the beautifully illustrated (yet flimsy and over priced) publication Nursies When The Sun Shines to try and help him to prepare for the change.  This was a big waste of money: every time I began to read it, he closed the book and picked up a different book.  I collected photos to make a story book for him, saying goodnight to all his family and friends.  We bought a different bottle which he'd enjoyed drinking milk from while at a friend's house.  But, above all, I talked about the change and used role play to help him to understand.  My intention was to only stop night-feeding.  I wasn't completely ready to say goodbye to this particular nursing journey.

Then the inevitable night finally came.  I'd been struggling with another bad headache, linked perhaps to the ice-cream I'd enjoyed.  I'd fed him as usual at bedtime and although I tried not to let him fall asleep at the breast, he was soon snoozing away in my arms.  The last thing I'd said was "mummy milk is finished now." I hadn't necessarily planned to start the night-weaning that night but sometimes these things happen by themselves.

***

[Coming soon...  The Last Feed? Part 2- Night Weaning Begins]



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