The Road (to Sleep) Less Traveled
• For how many months (or years) should I nurse my baby?
• When should I wean my baby and how?
• Where should my baby sleep?
With so many commercial interests in our society telling us what kind of parents we should be, whether it comes to conceiving, birthing, feeding, or sleeping with our children, even people who want a natural approach to parenting and feel an instinctive pull toward what they believe are healthier, more intuitive ways, will have to dig to find information that resonates with their desires and supports them in living their dreams of parenthood.
Since my early 20s, I knew I wanted to have a natural childbirth, nurse my baby approximately two years, and stay home to care for and raise her—which I am now doing, twenty years later at 43! However, I empathize with those who opt for the templates created for us (meaning a more mechanized and medical approach to pregnancy and motherhood), because before I was pregnant, I didn’t know how to answer those three questions above—and others so important to the experience of parenthood.
Not all parents want to do things differently from the norm—but I believe that with more information and support, thousands, if not millions of them, would indeed choose a different approach.
I have found some excellent resources that I will discuss and share with you in this series, called “Postpartum Elation.” Here in Part 1, we’ll consider the topics of co-sleeping, nursing, and weaning as discussed in Good Nights.
Where Should My Baby Sleep?
I set out on a journey of discovery that led to a magical place… a natural pregnancy; a beautiful home birth with a midwife and doulas in attendance; a 40-day postpartum recovery and bonding period (called a Sitting Moon in Traditional Chinese Medicine) with a postpartum doula; and 18 months—and counting—of nursing and co-sleeping with my baby.
I read dozens of books, conducted anthropological studies, watched every DVD I could find, interviewed OB-GYNs, midwives, doulas, and sat for great lengths of time asking myself, what feels right?
The question Where should my baby sleep? led to highly contradictory sources of information. By the time my baby was born, I’d purchased a crib, a bassinette, a breast pump, baby bottles, a pacifier, and a small device with bumpers used for newborns to sleep in bed with the parents (that was recalled for safety issues by the manufacturer before she was even born).
Which of these did I use?
Not one. All the contraptions gathered dust. I used nature’s bumpers: for the first month of her life, my baby slept nestled between my breasts. Thereafter, at my side, tucked between my ribcage and my arm, and from time to time with her foot upside my head!
If you’d asked me ahead of time, I would have said that even if I wanted to sleep with my baby like that, I would have been too afraid to do so. And that’s not to imply I was completely without fear while doing so, in the beginning.
Too afraid? Fear?
How have we become afraid of what is our most natural response as parents—to guard, protect, and cuddle with our offspring, day and night? We even have a label now—“attachment parenting”—for simply “the way things used to be.”
There are some powerful economic forces working non-stop to create that fear and to sell their related products and services.
Before becoming a mother myself, I thought babies waking every two hours to nurse for the first several months of life, and every 4-5 five hours until 18 months (at least in the case of my baby and the way we chose to nurse), was a joke Mother Nature had played on women—along the lines of bleeding a week a month for 40 years as a function of our reproductive system.
(The menstrual cycle: I’m still not sure why it has to work the way it does, but I know Mother Nature has wisdom and purpose even if I don’t understand it—but there are commercial interests offering products to make even that stop if women so desire!)
As for the non-stop nursing schedule, I couldn’t believe nature would set up a scenario where we need 3x the energy we normally would, but actually have 50% of the energy we usually do! After living it firsthand, I realized… we’re supposed to slow down, and nature helps out by forcing us to do so.
We’re not intended to rush back to “life as usual” the week after our baby is born. Our life has changed—and nature in her infinite wisdom assures we won’t ever have our “old life” back… if we work in accordance with her dictates.
Well, that’s fine and good when you’re reading about it, but when you’re living it… it’s another story.
Somewhere around my baby’s 6th or 7th month birthday, I thought I couldn’t continue with my plan. I hadn’t slept a night through since my second trimester, and with teething coming on strong, my baby was waking—in some cases—every few hours for several nights in a row. I was a zombie. I began to wonder… is this what I’m supposed to be doing? Maybe I should consider the commercial baby stuff again: crib, pacifier, sleep training methods, etc.
I jumped online. My search led to books, DVDs, and people who offered “training services” to get my baby to sleep—alone—and through the night.
(This is where that word “controversial” is going to kick in.)
Most striking was a conversation I had with a sleep “coach.” She told me that there was absolutely no way I could wean by baby while sleeping in the same room with her, because she could “smell me” and wouldn’t ever go to sleep without nursing.
(I knew immediately that we were speaking a different language. What she said simply wasn’t the case, as I’d seen babies sleeping with their parents in almost 50 countries around the world: some in the same room, and many in the same bed. Somehow those babies and parents had figured it out. They must know something we don’t. That was the information I was looking for!)
As testimony for the efficacy of her technique, she told me, “My 20-month-old is very sick right now and has a fever. But she knows that’s no excuse to cry or to get to sleep in my arms. I put her in her crib upstairs in her room an hour ago, said good night, and she’s fast asleep.”
For me, the ideas she proposed and those I read in the books and other sources were an affront to parenthood, with all its joys and challenges. Without going into detail on many of the sleep training methods and how babies and their parents respond to them, let it suffice to say that nothing about any of it felt natural to me, and nothing felt loving. Yes, those parents achieved the goal of their child sleeping alone and quietly (sometimes), allowing them to do the same (but often feeling wretched)… yet, at what price, for what gain?
However, that realization didn’t help my situation. I was still in desperate need of sleep.
Then—and I remember the exact moment, sitting in my bed and searching online—I found Good Nights: The Happy Parents’ Guide to the Family Bed (and a Peaceful Night’s Sleep), and ordered it immediately, overnight shipping, early A.M. delivery!
Good Nights, Indeed
In Good Nights, I found information, opinions, and guidance on co-sleeping, nursing on demand, and eventually (meaning when baby is 12 months or older) weaning from nursing multiple times during the night—even while continuing to co-sleep. With every idea and suggestion I read, I could feel a solid foundation of what I knew was most important for me in making decisions on this subject: congruence with nature and the knowledge that our babies are intelligent beings who can help us make the best decisions—if we’re paying attention.
The authors address the subjects of how co-sleeping is beneficial for baby and parents; how to make sure it is safe for baby; how parents can keep their love-life intact with a little one in the bed; ideas for coping with the naysayers (if that’s a concern); and numerous stories of babies, toddlers, and even grown children naturally and happily making it to their own beds.
The lessons in Good Nights are what we should have learned by watching our grandmas, aunties, and every woman in our village as they had their children and passed on their knowledge verbally and by example. But we don’t live in villages anymore (even if we live in dense communities) and nuclear families are on their own in learning how to be parents.
When I pay my knitting teacher for a lesson, I joke with her (but mean it) that I’m paying her to be the grandmother I should have had. In the case of Good Nights, I paid Jay Gordon and Maria Goodavage to be the tribe of women I should have had… and it’s the best $10.98 I spent on “baby stuff.” In fact, for me it’s worth the $1,000 I wasted on a crib!
In this book I found all the science, but most importantly, the common sense approach and techniques that I needed to confirm that co-sleeping and nursing on demand were congruent with my desires and what I believe to be nature’s intention.
There are stories of parents who started with their babies sleeping in a crib, then switched to co-sleeping, and then they and their babies got more sleep. As I was already co-sleeping, the information in Good Nights didn’t necessarily help me get more sleep, on the first read. But what it did do was to confirm my belief that what I was doing was best for my baby and me, and to help me feel better about not getting more sleep. That made all the difference and gave me the energy and courage to stay the course.
Then, when we were ready for the next step, I re-read Chapter 7 of Good Nights.
Dr. Jay’s “Ten Nights” Technique
One year later—last month—I decided it was time to use Dr. Jay’s “prescription” for the “Ten Nights” technique.
This is a ten-night plan for reclaiming seven hours per night for nurse-free sleeping while continuing to co-sleep. Some children will require fewer than ten nights, and many will require more, but essentially it’s a gradual weaning of nursing and support (holding, rocking, soothing) to fall asleep—while continuing to co-sleep.
What resonated most for me with this technique was that it assumed intelligence on our babies’ part. The premise is that while, yes, babies may indeed have acute olfactory senses and a great desire to nurse, especially if mama is right there, they are perfectly capable of learning a new routine, if taught in a gentle and gradual way and one that doesn’t involve fear.
We rarely expect adults, much less infants, to change their behavior overnight. When we do, the process is often frustrating and the results marginal. If the expectation and process of implementing instant change also involved fear to the point of hysterical screaming for hours, vomiting, and head-banging, it’s likely that most adults would opt for a different approach—if they knew one.
Before I embarked on the Ten-Nights routine, I made sure that I was ready to commit to the plan, I had a discussion with my daughter and explained the benefit of the new routine we were implementing, and told her that I expected her to cooperate, for both of our benefit. As it turned out, she was on-board after three nights and we’ve had our longest stretches of sleep since she was born… nearly tear-free. I was ready, she was ready, it was time… and so it was easy. Naturally!
As with childbirth itself, there may be moments in raising our infants where it feels overwhelming and we’ll want to look for shortcuts, painkillers, or ways out. But those moments, just as our babies’ infancy, are over in a flash. Ask any parent with a teenager—they’ll tell you their child was born just last year.
For those who wish to treasure the moments and willing to work through the challenges with a more natural approach, Good Nights will feel like a best friend, holding your hand and telling you: you’re doing great… keep going!
As I look back on the 500+ nights so far, sleeping with and nursing my daughter, I’m full of JOY—even if I wouldn’t have said that each and every blessed night.
When I write about home birth or natural birth, it’s not to persuade those who feel safer in a hospital to change their minds. It’s to support the women who, as I did, know they want a natural experience and are looking for ideas and inspiration.
Here, with co-sleeping, breastfeeding, and weaning, the same principle applies.
About Allie Chee
Allie is a certified TCM Nutritionist and author of New Mother: Using a Doula, Midwife, Postpartum Doula, Maid, Cook, or Nanny to Support Healing, Bonding, and Growth