The World through My Child's Eyes
Ottawa ON Canada
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 23 No. 6, November-December 2006, pp. 256-259
The decision was made months before my son, Mihaly, was born: I would breastfeed him on demand. At the time, just the thought of this would flood my body with a warm fuzzy glow of self-approval -- a good mothering decision well made. Of course, my husband, Simon, and I had no idea that this small step would prove to be the guiding force behind almost all of our parenting choices after the birth of our child. What I have found most interesting about this whole experience is that the initial decision to breastfeed on demand naturally led us down a path of attached and gentle parenting. In fact, this decision served as a beacon of light in the otherwise dark wilderness of those first few weeks and months as a mother.
To be perfectly honest, I had not spent much time at all preparing myself to be a parent. All my energy had gone toward preparing physically and psychologically for the birth. And was I ever ready for that. "Bring it on!" I remember saying with a smile as I felt the first twinges that morning. Of course, at the time I was only vaguely aware that this might be the sort of pride that invariably precedes a much-needed and sobering fall. But the labor went so well, and my baby was so beautiful. Surely these things were proof of my supreme mothering abilities. The elation and self-congratulation were to last only a couple hours, which I remember now as an innocent and peaceful time. Looking back, I can see that these were the hours of calm before the dreadful storm.
By the time Mihaly latched on for his second nursing session, the midwives had taken their leave (it was a home birth), and the relatives had cooed, congratulated, and also departed. The three of us were, both wonderfully and terribly, alone. Previous to her departure, I had asked the midwife how often my son might want to nurse since there would only be colostrum available to him on this first day. She had replied that he may want to nurse every two to three hours, or he may nurse even less than this. She suggested that I simply follow Mihaly's cues. Well (insert exasperated sigh here), my little pumpkin latched on at 6 pm and didn't let go until 3 am! When I attempted to break the suction and put him down after he seemed to drift off to sleep, he would awaken almost immediately. If not then, within about 15 minutes of me putting him down. And when I say "awaken," I mean "screaming his little head off." He was easily pacified at my breast, however, so I could only assume that was what he wanted and needed. Breastfeed on demand indeed -- it was not at all what I had anticipated!
It was this initial experience that set the tone for one of the most harrowing and special endeavors of my life. Whatever my plans had been (and I had many), little Mihaly had his own, and his were more urgent, more necessary, and much more intensely vocalized. I had planned to have him sleep in a very expensive bassinet beside my bed. By 3 am of that first morning, I could see that this was not going to happen, and -- ignoring all warnings of the "dangers" involved -- I finally laid my baby down beside me being frightfully careful to keep all pillows and heavy duvets clear of his little body. As I gaze back on the person that I was that morning, worn with exhaustion and emotion, even now I find myself breathing a huge sigh of relief as I remember that moment when I abandoned my own insistence on the separate sleeping arrangements and allowed myself to actually listen to my tiny son. He was also very tired, but every time he fell asleep, I would separate him from me by placing him in the bassinet. I can see now that the only way he could find to remain next to me was through his very vocal demand for nursing.
This simple concession in sleeping arrangements (which I must emphasize flowed naturally from our particular breastfeeding experience) was to start us all down what some may refer to as a "slippery slope," but what I prefer to call a wonderfully pleasant slide toward gentle and attached parenting. It was through many daily breastfeeding experiences that I came to know my son in those first few weeks. Because I was always there to breastfeed on demand, I became familiar with every slight grimace, moan, and cry. I knew that a low growl meant he was uncomfortable (usually in the arms of someone else) and was a precursor to an all-out wail. I came to know when he needed to be held and when he needed to be carried. He would not sleep peacefully in the stroller and still won't. In fact, much to his father's dismay, for the first few months, his beautiful stroller was more of a torture chamber than a delightful mode of transport. Needless to say, little Mihaly was carried everywhere. And so the first month passed with both parents attending to his every cry.
Like many new parents, Simon and I did experience some moments of doubt and reassessment. Neither of us had ever had first-hand experience with this type of infant care. It seemed natural and right to us, but to others it was indulgent. Employing alternatives such as the various incarnations of the "crying-it-out" method proved more difficult than anticipated and were immediately abandoned. Once again, I am thankful for my decision to breastfeed on demand. The act of breastfeeding made it incredibly difficult for me to leave my baby to cry for any lengthy period (just a couple of minutes would be enough to break my heart). By this, I certainly do not mean to imply that it is impossible to ignore a baby's cries as a breastfeeding mother, or that a formula-feeding parent cannot provide loving, sensitive, and responsive care. I simply mean to say that my own experience has led me to believe that breastfeeding and the physiological changes that accompany it do make it emotionally difficult for many mothers to ignore a baby's cries.
Mihaly is now 16 months old and while his wants are not always his needs as they once were, Simon and I find that our parenting is shaped by the manner in which breastfeeding has affected our decisions thus far. Certain principles were learned early on, such as the idea that an upset child is one in need (although that need may not be as obvious as one might wish). We've had to completely reappraise the idea of "misbehavior," and are constantly seeking out the real causes of Mihaly's distress -- whether it's fatigue, hunger, overstimulation, teething, or a need to be held close. Likewise, ideas of "being in control" or feeling "manipulated" had to be discarded early on in our breastfeeding and parenting career in order to tend to our infant's well-being.
We are by no means the perfect parents: we certainly do not always know how to handle the new and often frustrating situations in which we find ourselves. Sometimes we forget, but it seems to me that our difficult parenting experiences are usually overcome (or at least understood) when we make an effort -- and it's often a great effort -- to listen to Mihaly and attempt to view the world through his bright little eyes. Breastfeeding on demand has encouraged this type of parenting through its bonding effects and the opportunity it has provided to practice reading and responding to our child's cues.
At 16 months, Mihaly still enjoys frequent nursing both day and night, and I feel extremely fortunate to be able to continue nursing him into his second year. At our last well-baby checkup, the doctor asked me how long I intended to continue breastfeeding. I had to reply that breastfeeding was too valuable a tool in my parenting kit to be discarded anytime soon.