Guest Post by Lesli Mitchell, MSW
While we need to encourage mothers to breastfeed more and for longer periods of time in the United States, we also need to acknowledge their personal thresholds and circumstances so that we [as Lactation Professionals] can better support them.
We mothers are a diverse group with different coping styles, personalities and sleep requirements. It is both ideal for moms to breastfeed for as long as possible and to function as well as possible .
As I reflect on my years as a breastfeeding mother, I think about the ways I functioned and the pressures I felt to continue night nursing despite feeling exhausted. I also put a lot of pressure on myself to be the “perfect mom.”
As a prior therapist, I felt pressure to make sure that my daughter had her emotional needs met 99.95% of the time. This article sheds light on the pressures new mothers face and discusses how these pressures overpower our own mothering instincts. It also emphasizes 8 ways to be a good mother instead of a perfect one, which really hit home for me.
Because breastfeeding was SO good for my baby, I felt that I HAD to do it as long as possible no matter how I felt. I also felt pressure from other moms, pediatricians and breastfeeding professionals. Some moms sneered at me for even considering night weaning, while other thought I was crazy for nursing so long. I never knew what sort of reaction I would get from a pediatrician, so I’d often brace myself for their response about tooth decay or sleep issues. Breastfeeding professionals were often so thrilled about my extended nursing that questions about my personal functioning were largely ignored.
Thinking back, I would have liked to hear more inquiry about my coping. I would have liked to know that breastfeeding professionals had an arsenal of resources, options and suggestions on how to help me make changes in my breastfeeding routine if I needed or wanted to. I wanted more ideas and support as to how to transition from night nursing as my daughter got older.
Knowing that breastfeeding professionals will be there to provide nonjudgmental options on how to make changes in the mother-baby feeding relationship, moms might even breastfeed longer. I met many women that didn’t want to nurse for too long out of fear that it would become a habit for the child, too exhausting and too hard to stop. There were times that I felt ashamed for trying to eek out personal space or more sleep at night for fear that I would be perceived as a lazy or weak mom.
It is important for us all to remember that we moms are human and our day to day functioning with our babies also matters. Alertness, connectivity, attachment, attentiveness, and driving safety are also critical components of mothering.
For many years I worked as licensed clinical social worker with children and families. I worked with people trying to cope with very painful, challenging experiences. Most people are aware when they are not functioning well and typically seek help. Breastfeeding mothers seek out professionals to help them manage better. As a social worker, I was trained to look at people’s lives like a large puzzle, composed of many parts. Some of the those parts include things like their marriage, mental health, social support systems, physical health, past history, childhood, belief systems, coping skills etc.
Considering their “life-puzzle” helped me gently guide my client’s on their personal journey of empowerment and transition. While breastfeeding professionals are not therapists, a mothers life puzzle or life circumstances have a huge impact on her breastfeeding journey and should be considered.
I quit my job as a mental health therapist when I was seven months pregnant and gave birth to my daughter at the age of 37. My husband and I decided that I would stay home and mother our one and only child. I breastfed my daughter until she was almost 3 years old and night nursed her until she was 23 months. I moved into her room so that my husband could get enough sleep for work and ended up staying there until she was 4.5 years old. My whole life had changed. My husband and I were dedicated to giving her our all.
The nights were especially rough. The first year was doable, but as I moved into the second year of on-demand night nursing it started to have more of an impact on me. My daughter would wake up every 2 hours to nurse and then wake up at 5am ready to start her day. It was additionally hard at “nap time.” I nursed her to sleep for nap time but If I left the room she would wake up. I was not comfortable with the “cry it out” method and so I stayed in the room. I remember not wanting to lay down again and breastfeed for nap time. I didn’t want to go to sleep in that same bed again in the day time, I wanted to sit up and read or just rest in my own space. I was already going to bed early at 7:30 at night. I was yearning for personal space. I resented the idea of sleeping during her nap time. I opted to drive my daughter around every day until she fell asleep. I had the front seat to myself, the radio, elbow room, reading materials. So, once she fell asleep in the car, I would park and have my space. It felt healthy for me.
In retrospect, I needed someone to help me plan out what I was going to do. When you are sleep deprived it is hard to come up with coherent plans and execute them.
It would have been healthier for me to take that nap with her in the day, but I just couldn’t do it. When I look back at my decision, it was more out of desperation. I felt like I was safe to drive and function, but as I learn more about sleep deprivation, I was likely not as alert as I should have been.
There are dangers of sleep deprivation for moms and babies. Sleep deprivation can have an impact on memory functioning, accidents, family dynamics, existing health (physical or mental) and mood. Most of the time, I got through, but I had a few rough patches that likely were a result of sleep deprivation. I once fell down the stairs and bumped my head on the front door while holding my baby. She was fine because I quickly tucked her close to me to keep her safe. I got in two car accidents with my daughter in the car. We were both fine, but it was nevertheless stressful. And once, I fell over a pot not looking where I was going while holding her in an outdoor shopping mall. Can I say that each of those incidents were absolutely a result of sleep deprivation? I can’t totally prove it, but it is very likely. It is hard to know how sleep deprived you are sometimes. I sort of thought that it was just the “mom culture” to be exhausted all the time.
One day I called a breastfeeding agency for some ideas about coping with sleep deprivation and night nursing. The woman’s response on the phone was very simple—keep night nursing, take a nap during the day and let the baby self-wean.
When I told her that I was tired and that I needed some personal space in the day, she was adamant about me continuing for the baby’s sake. I was proud of the fact that I had night nursed for so long and I felt hurt that I wasn’t acknowledged for the work I had put in. She basically ignored my needs and said that I wasn’t doing enough for my baby. My exhaustion and need for personal space didn’t matter. There was no compassion or understanding that the human part of me was suffering. It was all the end product—the thriving baby that seemed to matter. I wanted her to congratulate me, ask me how I was feeling and how I wanted to proceed. She had no other options, no compassion, no resources for me to consider. I hung up feeling like a wuss.
Thank goodness I knew better, but it still hurt. I knew I had to transition from night nursing and so I figured out a way to do it in my own way that felt right for me. But I feel sad for women that might hear that all or nothing message loaded with judgment and take it to heart.
I proceeded to write and illustrate my own book, Sally Weans From Night Nursing, to help my daughter night wean.
I felt like I was being told that my best wasn’t enough. Not all moms will be able to night nurse indefinitely, and that is okay. Being a mom is not only about breastfeeding. Yes breastmilk is awesome, but so is cuddling, playing, singing, healthy emotional interactions and a mothers attentiveness.
In the end, we all have to keep breastfeeding in perspective. Sometimes moms need to make changes so that they can function. We all have different thresholds, personalities and coping skills. Some of us need more sleep, more alone time, more time with other adults, or more adventure. We have to support women in how they function best and try to balance that with helping them nurture and care for their baby.
A one size fits all agenda is not realistic for our diverse populations of mothers. Liquid Gold is awesome, but it is not the only thing that makes mothering wonderful.