Before I had Thomas, I had read practically everything I could get my hands on about parenting. In almost every book and magazine, the story told was similar: newborn babies fed roughly every three hours, slept in between quite happily on their own, started sleeping for longer stretches at around six weeks of age, were nursing four times a day and sleeping through by six months . . .
Boy did I get a shock when Thomas came along! He wanted to nurse practically constantly - in fact, the only way he would sleep was with a breast in his mouth. He suffered from both colic and reflux and screamed most of the time he wasn't nursing. He could not be put down! At six months he was still nursing VERY frequently around the clock, at LEAST every two hours and nursing for an hour or so each time. He didn't sleep for five hours in a row without nursing until he was 2 1/2 years old!
Given the messages we are bombarded with in the media, new parents could certainly be forgiven for developing false expectations as to how needy their babies will be! Many doctors and others in positions of "authority" also spout this message, telling parents of six-month-olds that they SHOULD be "sleeping through" by now, they SHOULDN'T still be nursing during the night and so frequently during the day, they SHOULD be putting their babies in their cribs awake so they can learn to go to sleep on their own.
The fact is that all these "shoulds" bear little resemblance to what children naturally do! When children's needs are responded to and they are allowed to develop independence at their own pace, it is perfectly normal for two-year-olds to still be nursing during the night and frequently during the daytime, to be still sleeping next to their parents, to still want to be held or carried a lot of the time. To expect babies to sleep alone, feed according to some socially acceptable time frame, and lie happily staring at a mobile while parents get "on with things" is to fly in the face of our design. Humans are the most intelligent of all creatures and yet we let that get in the way of following our instincts.
How expectation affects attitude
I believe that it is a disservice to set up these false expectations! When our babies arrive and things are so very different, we feel like either we are doing something "wrong" or that something is "wrong" with our babies. Parents need to know what is normal infant and child behaviour and those advising new parents need to stop trying to push children into some pattern of what they supposedly SHOULD be doing.
I spent a great deal of my early parenting "career" feeling very frustrated indeed. Thomas was not even coming close to what everyone said he SHOULD be doing. I was told that there must be something wrong with my milk, my settling techniques, that he must have been picking up on my anxiety, basically that I was not "doing it right". I developed PPD and was admitted to a mother-baby unit that treated women suffering from such problems. The nurses in there, instead of giving me the support I so needed, were even more adamant that there was something "wrong" with my mothering skills and that if I just got it "right" Thomas would soon be that baby I had read about in all those magazines. When he nursed very frequently during the night, or needed to be held more than what was deemed acceptable, that was proclaimed to be "unnatural".
I was tired, well, actually, I was blooming exhausted! I was ill (with the PPD and very anaemic after my haemorrhage), trying to cope with a baby who was very needy, and fending off criticism left, right and centre. I did not know anyone else who was not jumping at the chance to schedule their babies.
After doing more reading, this time of authors such as Dr. William Sears, and talking with Thomas's paediatrician and lactation consultant, I came to the conclusion that Thomas was in fact very normal, if a little on the "high needs" end of the spectrum! The relief that I felt was AMAZING!
I made a decision that from then on, I was not going to devote any mental or emotional energy to worrying about how needy he was (or how to "make" him less so), but was going to ACCEPT things the way they were. GO WITH THE FLOW became my new motto! With this change of attitude came the realisation that a great deal of my tiredness and frustration was due not to anything Thomas was doing, but rather to my own reaction to it. Sure, meeting his needs was - and would continue to be - hard, but with this new attitude I felt that I could do it!
Suggestions on how to go with the flow
One of the most helpful things to do is to talk with other parents who have allowed their children to develop at their own pace. This will be quite an eye opener! Being well prepared as to how needy real babies are (as opposed to those textbook ones!) can help greatly. I wouldn't have felt so worried about Thomas if I had known that what he was doing was normal! It also helps when confronted by well-meaning friends, grandparents, doctors and others who keep pushing all the SHOULDS. If you have the confidence within yourself that your child and your parenting are fine then you can simply smile sweetly and ignore the advice!
Positive self talk should not be underrated! When your baby wakes up for the fourth time that night, what you tell yourself can make all the difference to how well you cope with the tiredness. If you are saying "Oh no, not AGAIN! This is awful! I can't keep going like this!" you undoubtedly will feel a great deal of frustration, hopelessness and your exhaustion will hit you harder. If, on the other hand, you tell yourself "This IS tough, but it is normal! I CAN cope and it WILL pass", you will no doubt feel ever so much better! Turning the clock radio AWAY from your view is a simple yet effective way to assist banishing those negative thoughts! Almost inevitably, if you are taking note of the times you are being awoken, you will feel worse about the whole deal! Ignorance is bliss (well, almost!)
Practical considerations also are important. I cannot stress enough the benefits of co-sleeping! The closer you and your baby are, the easier it is to nurse frequently during the night and still get some rest. During the day a good sling in which you can nurse is invaluable. That way, it really doesn't matter how often your baby nurses, and whether he takes brief naps or a longer sleep. Caring for yourself and other children becomes "doable"!
Most importantly, at whatever stage things are at, if you can ACCEPT it, you will feel immeasurably better! Trying to change the baby or fight the situation in your own mind often results in needless energy being expended. It is possible to be both tired and happy! It is possible to get through the tough times! If you adopt a "go with the flow" attitude you will enjoy your baby so much more.