My first year of motherhood felt a bit like trying to stay in control of a runaway train. Breastfeeding did not come easily to me and so I was delighted to reach the milestone of feeding my daughter for a full year.
But I had grown to hate breastfeeding.
My daughter was feeding throughout the night almost every hour, sometimes more. She breastfed only occasionally during the day but as soon as nighttime came the 24-hour diner was very much open for business.
We were co-sleeping and she seemed to be permanently attached to me. I had forgotten what deep sleep felt like.
I grew resentful about waking to breastfeed.
I grew resentful of the constant night wakings. I was exhausted and my body didn’t feel like my own. But, I had no plan. I didn’t know what to do about it so I carried on, dreading each night, and fantasising about a full night’s undisturbed sleep.
I did not know how to get more sleep at night without causing upset to my daughter. I was committed to attachment parenting, and it felt intuitively right to stay physically close and meet the needs of my baby but that came at the expense of my own need for rest.
The only alternative seemed to be putting my needs first by using controlled crying or sleep training. I knew it wasn’t an option for me to leave my daughter alone to cry so I resigned myself to sleepless nights.
Matters were taken out of my hands and our breastfeeding journey sadly came to an unexpected and abrupt end for medical reasons when my daughter was 14 months old. Although this was a difficult time for us, I was also relieved that I was no longer breastfeeding.
And then baby number 2 arrived.
My daughter was four when her little brother arrived. This time, breastfeeding got off to a good start. I co-slept with my son and fed him on demand throughout the day and night. As he grew older I hoped he would be one of those mythical babies who slept for five hour stretches.
As he approached a year old, he was waking frequently for night feeds and once again I was exhausted and unsure of what to do. I did not want to stop breastfeeding my son but looking after two young children while sleep deprived was taking its toll on me.
I was short tempered and impatient with my daughter and unable to give her the attention she was craving.
However, this time there was hope.
This Time Around I Had HopeI had recently been introduced to Hand in Hand Parenting and I was slowly bringing its listening tools to my parenting. I began to understand that I could respect my son’s need for closeness and my need for sleep, without leaving him to cry on his own. I realised if my needs were met, I could be more available to my family by day.
I thought about setting limits on my son's night feedings.
I spent time in my Listening Partnership exploring how difficult it was to put my own needs first and I thought about the fears I had about saying “no” to my son. By making sense of my own feelings on breastfeeding, I was able to think more clearly about the present situation.
Next I worked on boosting our connection. I started to do daily Special Time with my son for ten minutes before bedtime. Although he was too young to fully understand Special Time, he delighted in my attention and playfulness as I made silly faces and rolled around the bed with him, following his lead. Throughout the day I tried to notice what made him giggle. He loved separation games where I would look around the room and pretend I couldn’t see him and then act surprised when I finally spotted him right in front of me.
I also began to notice the times during the day when he was upset. This was often when he woke from a nap. Instead of carrying him downstairs straight away, which would distract him from his feelings, I stayed with him and listened to his upset as often as I could. I knew that the more I listened to his crying during the day, the more he could drain his feelings during the day, rather than at night, when I felt less resourced to listen.
I decided I would begin with a five hour stretch at night when I would not feed my sonAt 12-months-old I knew my son was old enough to safely make it through the night without a feed. To reassure myself I decided I would begin with a five hour stretch at night when I would not feed him.
I gently explained to him in advance that when he woke up that night I would help him get back to sleep without feeding him. I fed him as usual at 11pm, when I went to bed, and then I decided I would not feed him again until 4 am, a five-hour stretch.
I enlisted my husband’s help and he agreed to sleep in the spare room and then take the children downstairs for breakfast in the morning so I could get a little extra sleep. When my son woke at 1am for a feed, I gently explained to him that I wasn’t going to feed him and there would be more milk in the morning. I lay close to him, offering him my eye contact and softly told him I loved him and he wasn’t alone.
My son had a huge cry that night and for the next few nights. He was upset with the limit I had set. I did not try to minimise his upset, I did not try to talk him out of it, I did not distract him with rocking or shushing or rubbing his back. I said “no” to nursing him but said a big “yes” to my presence, my warmth and my love.
Of course he was upset. This was a big change for him. I supported him to express his emotions safely in my loving presence.
I continued to set limits and Staylisten each time my son woke for the next two or three nights. When I felt too tired or unable to Staylisten calmly, I explained to him that I would listen to his feelings another time. Then I fed him back to sleep as we normally did. I wanted to be flexible in my approach and stay connected to how I was feeling and my capacity to listen. I allowed myself to go at my own pace based on how I was feeling in the moment rather than on a rigid timetable of how I thought things should be progressing.
My Son Was Sleeping Through the Night in 10 DaysAfter two or three nights my son began sleeping soundly for a five hour stretch. After that I was able to set a limit on the 11pm feed and after ten days my son was sleeping through the night. If he did wake up I made sure he was warm, dry and comfortable and then I told him it was time for sleeping and he could have more milk in the morning. He would roll over and very quickly go back to sleep.
My son was relaxed and happy during the day and I noticed he was napping more easily and for longer as well.
I felt deeply rested and I no longer resented breastfeeding.
We were both relaxed and flexible about breastfeeding and I continued to breastfeed my son until he was 3 years old.
By paying attention to my own needs and with the help of the Hand in Hand listening tools, I was able to balance my need for sleep with my son’s need for attachment in a way in which we both had our needs met.
I was able to gently set a limit without compromising our bond or my son’s wellbeing, allowing me to continue breastfeeding without any feelings of resentment.
Setting limits around breastfeeding can be an emotive topic. We all have different needs and opinions when it comes to feeding our children. There can often be a lot of judgement from family members, friends and other parents when it comes to our choices. By getting clear on our own needs and values we can make decisions based on what is best for our unique parenting situation.
If you are thinking about setting limits around breastfeeding, a great place to start is by exploring your feelings in Listening Partnerships. You may be considering night weaning, like me, maybe you wish to set limits on frequent daytime feeds or you may be ready to wean completely. Either way, the process is the same.
Check in with yourself and give yourself the space to decide what feels right for you and what changes you wish to make. Think about setting limits on breastfeeding, and talk about what feels difficult for you. Go over how you were cared for as a young child and any fears you might have about setting limits on breastfeeding.
Once you sort through your own feelings, you will be able to make clear decisions about whether you wish to set limits on breastfeeding and how that might look for your family.
Children often have big emotions attached to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is about so much more than nutrition, it brings comfort and closeness. It is normal for your child to feel upset when you set a limit on how or when you feed them and it is okay for them to express this upset.
You can gently say “no” to breastfeeding while continuing to offer the closeness and comfort of your presence.
I had so many doubts about how I could set limits on breastfeeding my son without causing harm to our relationship, but I look back and see that by tuning in to both our needs I could stay deeply connected to my son and get the sleep I desperately needed. Now my son is a happy and affectionate five-year-old who sleeps well and feels safe enough to share his upsets with me.
Set Limits on Breastfeeding with these five helpful steps
By using the Hand in Hand listening tools, you can do so in a gentle and respectful way which actually encourages good emotional development in your child and strengthens your attachment relationship.
Are you wondering if it’s time to set limits on breastfeeding? What is one thing can you do today to get closer?
This article was first published on the Hand in Hand Parenting website here
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Pamela works with parents, supporting them as they strive to raise conscious, respectful children.