For many years, I nursed him in the middle of the night. As a baby, of course. Sometimes just a few times, sometimes every hour. Often, he was hungry. Sometimes he was teething, and nursing soothed his sore gums. Sometimes he was learning a new skill and I would nurse him while I held down his jittery body. Sometimes I didn’t know why he wanted to nurse again but I was too tired to guess and I knew nursing would get us both back to sleep quickly. As he got older, a nursing toddler, he began to tell me things then, in the middle of the night. My mouth is sore or I dreamt about the snakes again or What was that sound? Usually no words were spoken — he just needed to nurse.
Slowly, over many months and years, he stopped nursing in the middle of the night. Some of the nightwakings didn’t require a nurse to go back to sleep, just a cuddle, a touch on the back. We had a crib sidecarred to our bed, and he would roll in and out of our bed, into the crib. Sometimes I saw him in that crib, tossing and turning, putting himself back to sleep. Sometimes he did, other times he rolled back into bed and cuddled or nursed. He nursed in the middle of the night until he was about three years old.
Even after he stopped nursing in the middle of the night, he nursed to sleep.
Our days were filled with hustle and bustle, the full life of a curious, growing, young boy. One month he was obsessed with The Beatles. Then swimming in swimming pools. Then learning to read. Then the multiplication table. He ran away from me in the park. Sometimes he wanted Daddy more than me. Sometimes only I could soothe him. He wanted to play video games. He wanted to bury his face in a book. He went to preschool, then Pre-K. He wouldn’t stop talking, he wouldn’t stop doing, the wheels in his mind always spinning.
When he nursed there with me in the dark, he began to relax, the wheels turning more slowly, then coming to a halt as he drifted off. Sometimes the nursing was interrupted with talking — an idea that would come to him, a fear that he had, the kind of stuff that comes up when you lie in bed at night. Soon the nursing was replaced by cuddling. He wanted the physical contact with me, but would rather talk than nurse. That’s when he weaned.
The cuddling lasted for many months after the weaning. When I was pregnant, we got him a bed that we pushed up against the other side of our bed. Soon he began cuddling for a little, then rolling into his bed. Then he’d roll right in, but want to hold my hand. All the while, talking, confessing, cooking up ideas, telling me the things he was too busy to tell me during the day.
He’s in kindergarten now. Sometimes he asks for my hand as he falls asleep, sometimes my hand against his back, sometimes we don’t touch at all. Mostly he talks about school, about what his friends said, about how he felt, trying to work out the web of socializing that happens there. When I pick him up from school, he doesn’t talk about school. When I lie next to him at the end of his long day, he tells me everything.
Sometimes the baby is there next to us, nursing to sleep, or sleeping already, and I’ve got one hand on the baby, one on my big boy. Human Mommy Pretzel, I call myself then. Sometimes the talking is too loud and the baby wakes up, or the talking just won’t stop, well after it’s time for him to go to sleep. Times like these I want to just leave the room. I want to scream and leave the room. My husband helps. I don’t think I could handle those times without my husband. Most of the time, it all works out, putting them both to sleep at once. I don’t know exactly how, but it does.
I don’t judge you if you don’t lie down each night while your six your old falls asleep. I don’t judge you if you didn’t nurse your child as long as I nursed mine. Each family is different. Each child has different needs and for different lengths of time. But for me and my son, this is what works. I lie with him until he falls asleep because I know doing so keeps him centered. It’s his therapy, his meditation.
However you parent your child, remember that nighttime is just as important as daytime. The baby/child sleep books would have you think differently. But when a baby cries at night and wants you to nurse him, pick him up, or rock him, he is talking to you. If you listen to him, he will continue talking to you. He will speak his heart to you. He will trust that he has listeners. He will trust the darkness, he will sleep.
Listen to your child, listen to yourself. And then savor those intimate, rich nighttime moments with your child. They are over all too soon.