As I type this article I am sitting in a hospital bed recovering from the surgery I had the previous night and spending my second night away from my boys (the only nights I have ever spent away from them). Luca is 2 ¼ years old and Jonah is almost 11 months.
About six weeks ago I developed a uterine prolapse, requiring surgical repair and a two night stay in hospital. If the thought of that wasn’t stressful enough, I was also warned that I would not be able to pick up anything heavy (like a Jonah) for six weeks following the operation. Clearly that was going to pose some problems! My first thought was ‘How is Mark going to cope getting up to Jonah all through the night?’ My body was used to the lack of sleep. His wasn’t.
At the time of diagnosis Jonah was waking every hour or two through the night (as he had been for most of his life) and I was breastfeeding him back to sleep each time he woke. I decided I needed to put some steps in place to help him to learn to self-settle a bit more in the night. When I was pregnant with Jonah I went through the same process with Luca, so I had some idea of how I was going to go about it.
The first step I took was night-weaning him. I started this off by only feeding him at around 11pm then again at around 4am. During his other wakes I would cuddle him in my arms until he fell asleep and then place him in the cot. He coped so well with the change that I decided, not long after, to cut out the 11pm feed and only offer him the breast after 4am. It really didn’t seem to faze him. One issue, however, was that he frequently had an hour long wake period in the middle of the night, and despite being night weaned he was continuing to wake most hours of the night.
The next step in my (dear I say it) ‘sleep training’ attempt was to put Jonah into his cot awake so that he would learn to go to sleep in the cot rather than in my arms. Admittedly there were a couple of nights of him crying on and off for about 20 minutes (never alone, of course) before he decided it wasn’t so bad going to sleep in his cot… so long as Mum or Dad sat next to the cot and offered a hand to snuggle through the cot bars. Now he typically plays in the cot for about 20 minutes then cuddles into mine or Mark’s hand and goes to sleep. Wonderful!
Just as I had hoped, as a consequence of him learning to self-settle at the start of the night, Jonah suddenly started sleeping for longer periods. The final step I took to improve his night sleeps was that when he woke I would pick him up, give him a quick cuddle then place him back in the cot awake. To my amazement he would quickly go straight back to sleep. Within two weeks of doing this he slept through the night (from 7am until 5am) for the very first time. Wahoo! That happened to be the night before my day of surgery.
I was admitted to hospital at 4pm, so on the day of my operation Jonah and Luca were only denied one breastfeed – their pre-bedtime feed. Luca wasn’t in the least bothered by the change in routine – out of sight, out of mind, I guess. And Jonah wasn’t too bothered either. He has recently taken to eating a huge dinner so his bedtime feed is, I am guessing, far more to do with comfort and relaxation than it is to do with hunger. Mark offered him some expressed breast milk via a bottle (the first bottle he had ever encountered), and although he drank a little, he wasn’t overly interested. He happily went down to bed for his Daddy. Yay!
At 5.15am on the morning following my surgery, I was treated to a visit from Mark and Jonah. Jonah was very pleased to snuggle up for a feed, and my breast was very eager (read: full) to accommodate him! Unfortunately Jonah had woken every hour in the night. However, Mark was really chuffed that Jonah settled quickly and easily for him at each wake, seemingly not bothered that his Mum was unavailable.
During my two day stay in hospital (I am now five days post-surgery, by the way - chipping away at this post bit by bit), Mum and Mark took it in turns to bring the boys to me for a visit and a feed. I knew that if they were both to visit at the same time that they would both want to feed the moment they saw me, and I didn’t feel that my poor battered and bruised body would be up for an attempt at tandem feeding. They both seemed to cope really well with the changes that took place while I was away which certainly made my experience of it all a lot easier. Still, I think the three of us were pretty darn pleased when we were all back home together again.
A couple of weeks prior to my operation Luca had to undergo some surgery of his own. Two of his teeth had developed devastatingly big cavities. They were causing him a lot of pain and the dentist informed me that there was no real choice but to remove them under general anaesthetic. Just four months earlier the only sign of trouble was a little brown spot in each of the affected teeth. I had taken him to the dental therapist who said it was likely to be due to hereditary weak enamel and made an appointment for me to bring him back in six months.
I was gutted when I was informed of his need for surgery and despite being told that those teeth would have come through compromised, I felt like a terrible mother. The fact that I was still breastfeeding him made the whole issue a lot more bearable. For the couple of weeks leading up to his surgery Luca’s mouth was so painful that he ate very little. I tried feeding him mushy foods that he wasn’t required to chew but I think the pain he was experiencing was reducing his appetite quite significantly as well. Fortunately breastfeeding provided the nutrition and comfort he needed during this stressful time.
We prepared Luca as well as we could for the day of his surgery. The night before, we’d warned him that he wouldn’t be allowed his usual breastfeed when he woke but instead he could open a little present (we’d bought him a sticker book similar to one that he already owned and loved). This worked brilliantly. I dressed him in his fireman t-shirt and reminded him that at the dentists a mask would be put over his mouth and nose just like a fireman’s mask. He role-played beautifully come the time for him to be anaesthetised and I pretended as best I could that I was totally fine with everything that was going on. “You’re going to have a nice sleep now Luca and when you wake up you can have a feed and cuddle with Mummy.” (Goodness knows Mum will be needing it!)
The surgery was over in a flash and I was with Luca as he was roused from his anaesthetic. I snuggled him up with me in a comfy armchair and waited as patiently as I could for the nurse to give me the okay for Luca to have a breastfeed (they wanted the gum holes to clot a bit before Luca fed). This was by far the hardest part of the morning! Luca desperately wanted the comfort of a feed and the five-or-so minutes of waiting felt like an eternity. The relief we felt when he snuggled and suckled was instant. Our bodies and faces relaxed, Luca’s trusting eyes looking into mine as he fed. Thank goodness that ordeal was over!
Over the past couple of months there have been numerous occasions where Luca and Jonah have needed a breastfeed when we have been in the company of strangers. Luca has reached an age now where I am sure that a lot of people would find it odd to see him being breastfed (especially in public and especially when he has a younger sibling who is breastfeeding), but I am happy to report that I haven’t had any disapproving looks or comments from doctors, nurses, dentists or passengers aboard the fairy to Tiritiri Matangi Island. In fact it has felt positive in that Luca, Jonah and I have been doing our bit to spread the word that extended breastfeeding and tandem feeding does go on… and that it would appear to be beneficial to all parties involved.