Saturday, 22 October 2011

Burnt Out and Broken from Breastfeeding: One Gentle Method for Survival

I wrote this post a few months back when Father Earthly and I were rolling blearily from one sleepless night to the next, while I became more and more touched-out by constant feedings and girl Earthly's need to be near me 24/7. The sleep starvation and general ill-health that I was suffering made me extremely reactive to her need for closeness and it became quickly apparent that we needed to break the cycle of hourly feedings and wakings before it seriously affected my relationship with her. This is how we went about it: I hope this may help some other poor tired mammas (and papas!) out there.
As readers of my pages know, we have been really struggling with night-times the last few months. Our littlest munchkin has gone from being an almost-perfect sleeper (going to bed at bedtime, no-fuss, and waking a few times a night for feeds but going straight back to sleep afterwards in her hammock) to a complete insomniac. I wrote a while back about a technique we tried with her which worked for a while where we both put her to bed at night together - so she felt secure in the knowledge that neither one of us was missing. 

Sadly, that has since stopped working! And so followed more months of torturous nights where girlie would take hours to get to sleep, typically involving several attempts by both and/or each of us in turn to soothe her, only to wake up again every hour or so. By 2-3am she would no longer settle back down at all and basically kept us until 5am, at which point she decided once and for all it was time to get up! I'm sure you can see the problem...

I did not want to night-wean but by now I was a wreck and so touched out I didn't even want to be near her. And that feeling was spilling over into the day as well. If things went on any longer the way they had been I was in serious danger of inadvertently weaning her completely.

So we devised a plan whereby Father Earthly was to take her whenever she woke - away from me and into another room if needed. We had tried this with girlie about a month beforehand but it really hadn't worked - she just wouldn't settle with her Dad at all.

The Magical 9 Month Mark
It's said that by 9 months, baby is becoming much more independent and beginning to release herself from her maternal ties. Most babies by now have learned to crawl, cruise or walk, and move in all kinds of interesting and terrifying ways; can eat copious amounts of a wide variety of foodstuffs by themselves; babble away to whoever will listen (including themselves), and are generally pretty fascinated by life. Of course, while they're learning all this they can naturally become regularly frustrated as well as deciding they'd rather practice their new found skills than sleep when you'd like them to!

But by 9 months, quite often they have settled into their new-found freedom a little, and it's a good opportunity to try and get them back into some kind of routine. We decided to do things as gently as we could under the circumstances. Father Earthly put her to bed after a last feed from me, and we agreed that he would sleep in the next room so that when girlie awoke I could take her straight through to him, rather than waiting for him to rouse himself enough to move (by which point girlie would be well and truly awake!).

And so, at the point in the night when missy Earthly would no longer settle with me (currently about 2am), I'd take her through to her Dad and he'd settle her for the rest of the night.

To our utmost astonishment and gratitude, it worked like a dream. No longer distracted by the smell of milk and mummy-ness, she settled quickly (most of the time) with Father Earthly and without fuss. Not only that, but for the first time, she has taken to typically sleeping through between around 8pm and 4am. Incredible, given that previously she had been waking almost every hour for a feed.

To every attached mummy, I know what you must be thinking - that poor girlie is literally being severed from her natural and instinctual berth beside me and that her sleep is in fact a plaintive denial of my abandonment of her. Or is that just my innate motherly guilt talking?

Equally though, I do not think for a moment that we "spoilt" her with our co-sleeping or regular feedings. It was clear from our previous attempts that she was not ready to leave the nest, and that she really would have been distraught without me close by. Of course, this is a call every mother has to make at some point - and we all choose our times based upon our own circumstances and our own unique babies - but I do believe that 9 months is an excellent marker for such a change given their broadening outlook and intrigue in the world at large.

Whilst practicing this new regime, I realised another blessing which I never thought possible. I found I loved slipping into bed next to her at night again (she'd outgrown her hammock and would not move into her cot, so for the time being she slept on top of our bed, in Father Earthly's space), just us girls together. With the extra space afforded us and the slight separation of blankets, I found I could enjoy her closeness without feeling trapped or hounded. It felt so very special and has really helped to heal the strained bond between us.

There are drawbacks to this method of course. Most importantly, there have been no nightly adult Earthly cuddles and that has on the whole put a bit of a strain on our relationship - often the only time we really get together just now is last thing at night as we're falling asleep. Secondly, having to physically get up and move her down the boat in the night rather than just rolling over and feeding her, means I wake up fully and then lie awake listening anxiously as Father Earthly attempts to settle her. Often he and his girl will be snoring away long before I've managed to drop back off! Thirdly, she still likes to wake properly by 5am, and as Father Earthly leaves for work about 6.15am, this means I am obliged to take over ;-/

Last of all, finally getting more sleep actually makes you more tired in the short-run as your body starts to refill its sleep bank. But know this: it will pass, and you will feel better!

About 2 months on, girl Earthly has transitioned to her cot. She self-settles (after a bit of a fuss) and usually sleeps through between 7pm and 5am, at which point she believes it's time for breakfast ;)


  1. Oh my I remember those days, still get the odd batch of night wakings and it really does me in now! All four of mine did patchy sleeping through babyhood and beyond, I really empathise..even tho sounds like it's getting better now!

  2. Clare Kirkpatrick23 October 2011 at 12:10

    This really touched me! Took me back to my days of breastfeeding babies. Hope you don't mind me sharing it on my links post today:

  3. Thanks Clare - so happy it touched you and hopefully brought back good memories :) Thanks for sharing!

  4. I can't believe how grateful I feel that the worst has passed... even though she will still be restless some nights, I love knowing that I am more likely to get sleep than not!!

  5. onelittlebuffalogirl23 October 2011 at 22:38

    Reminds of a beautiful still sunny morning calm after a night storm. Hurray for you! :-)

  6. It is such a relief when you find that balance and get some sleep again! I know how you feel--both of my babies had looong periods when they woke every 30-60 minutes during the night. And you know what? My 9-month-old just started getting better about 3 weeks ago. Maybe there IS something magical about the 9 month mark!

    I think your idea about taking the baby away from you and the smell of milk is a great idea. She is still being comforted, and daddy gets to practice his version of comforting! I know that Little M wakes up a LOT more when I'm next to him than when he's sleeping by himself. And even when he wakes up from a nap, even if he just nursed 45 minutes before, if I pick him up, he arches down for my boob. If his dad picks him up, he's totally cool and doesn't seem to want to nurse at all.

  7. Imogen @ Alternative Mama9 November 2011 at 11:04

    Thanks for linking to this on my page, hun. I think we are really going to have to do something like this soon but I just feel so awful about having to ask my hubby to do the night wakings. I know it's only temporary and he would be fine about helping but he's so tired already, I fear adding 5-7 night wakings to the mix would be the end of him :/ how long did it take for things to start improving for you guys?

  8. Hi Immi, I totally understand and really do empathise. I felt AWFUL guilt about asking hub to help out when he had to get up and go to work in the morning too. And I felt SO incredibly lucky to have someone who was willing to help! That's not to say we didn't have grumbles and snipes (heck we're all frazzled, what do you expect?). But you know what? It's for the benefit of the whole family in the end because you will all work much better together and you will ALL get some sleep!

    And in fact, the change happens pretty quickly. If you're not there, baby should settle with Daddy more easily. It may depend how much he already helps out and helps settle him, but honestly the night wakings thing really is all about the smell of mummy and milk - past a certain age. I see it again and again and again. And as much as I feel baby should be next to mummy and get as much comfort as he/she needs, there comes a point when the sanity of mummy has to come first! By going to Dad, baby is getting comforted in a different way. And he WILL complain about it at first, but he'll soon realise that Daddy is a pretty amazing comforter too!

    With both our kids the dramatic change happened pretty much overnight. That's not to say you're both going to go to bed at 10pm and wake up totally refreshed at 7am, but a change will take place. Like all things with babies I have already forgotten the details, but I do remember thinking in both cases "WHY DIDN'T WE DO THIS SOONER???" Elizabeth Pantley did NOT work for us and this did... and within a week she was sleeping through - same with the boy before too.

    Believe me I know how hard it is asking this of your partner. That's why it took us so long to try it, both times. My husband was having to get up at 5.30am to go to work and I was asking him to get up in the middle of the night as well! But for the most part, Father Earthly took the little miss when she woke, cuddled her into his chest and fell asleep with her. She'd complain for a while, and I'd lay awake in the other room feeling wretched and selfish whilst at the same time dreading having to get up and feed her again - and then they'd fall asleep together :)

    Give it a go. Maybe someone else could help instead or as well? At one point with boy Earthly we got his granny to help out a bit. Mammas need to learn to ask for help when they need it - it's what we used to do and in this modern age we feel we should somehow miraculously be able to do it all ourselves. That's not healthy for ourselves as mammas, nor the family as a whole ;/

    Much love and hugs - and passing on the Zzzzs to you :) xxx


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