Instinctual motherhood

Lottie Wrapped Hand

With all the research I’ve been doing about different baby rearing methods, one word stands out; instincts. In particular, motherly instincts. When justifying why they mother the way they do, you will often find women saying that they follow their instincts and the instincts of their child which they know instinctively is the best instinctual thing to do. The father of Attachment Parenting, Dr Sears, bandies the instinct word around a lot, as do his followers. Their mantra seems to be that all women have to do to raise happy healthy children is to follow their instincts, and that these instincts are only correct if they follow Dr Sears’ Attachment Parenting advice to the letter. Because Dr Sears’ instincts are correct on all matters. Get it? So when a baby peeps, if your instincts tell you your baby is hungry, you should feed your baby because your instincts can’t be wrong. Apparently.

Only thing is, as I’m quickly learning through my baby boot camp, my instincts are completely upside down most of the time and if I didn’t fight against them, I could be causing some serious problems for my baby. Does this make me a ‘bad mother’, because I question my instincts? Or are my instincts incorrect which makes me a ‘bad mother’? I don’t think so. I think motherhood, like most things in life, is a learning process and like any new skill that needs to be learned, sometimes your instincts get in the way of smart decisions and rather than helping, take you way off in the wrong direction. The same goes for babies. An example of this is Lottie’s instinctual urge to free her hands from her swaddling. She is seriously good at this; no matter how carefully I wrap her, she very often manages to get at least one hand free. But once this hand is free, it waves around in her face and wakes her up by scaring her, because apparently babies are too small to understand that the thing flapping in front of their face belongs to them. Instincts can often be unhelpful in this way.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m currently feeding and sleeping (yes I’m using sleeping as an adjective) on an approximate 3 – 4 hour feed-play-sleep routine, whilst also following much of the advice of Tizzy Hall’s Save Our Sleep schedule such as the strict 7pm bedtime, a consistent bedtime routine, and the right amount of sleep and feeding per day for Lottie’s age. The reason I’m not following Tizzy’s advice to the letter is I’m finding that Lottie often doesn’t manage to stay awake as long as the Tizzy schedule recommends and if I tried to keep her awake she would get overtired. She also often doesn’t stay asleep for long enough during the day to make it to the next scheduled feed. For this reason, there is very minimal play time in the feed-play-sleep routine as Lottie often feeds for up to an hour, including burping and is then ready to go straight back to sleep. But I find I can mostly successfully get the recommended number of feeds and the right amount of sleep into a 24 hour period on an approximate 3 – 4 hour cycle, just not quite at the times Tizzy recommends. However, as Lottie gets older and is sleeping through the night, I will keep aiming for the predictability of Tizzy’s routines and hope that this naturally occurs.

So back to the question of motherly instincts. When I’m feeding overnight, Lottie quite often falls asleep on my boob and won’t keep feeding, particularly if I leave her swaddled while I feed. For a few nights, I let my instincts decide that since she was falling asleep on the boob, she obviously wasn’t hungry anymore and I should take the opportunity to put her down to sleep again, which I could do really easily since she was already wrapped. To be honest, I was instinctively following my own sleep instincts that told me to creep back to bed myself and get some much needed sleep. But I soon learned that following my instincts in this situation was wrong. Because when Lottie doesn’t have enough milk, she won’t sleep for very long, waking up hungry and trying to turn my 3 to 4 hour eat/sleep schedule into a demand-feeding situation. No thanks!

I was given some advice for night feeds which works much better than trusting my instincts. I now get Lottie up when she wakes for a feed, which is usually between 2 and 4 hours after she was put down to sleep. I unwrap her, and feed on one side, usually for about 15 – 20 minutes, followed by burping. Then I change her nappy, which is the perfect way to both wake her up and make sure ducks are lined up for the next sleep. She is awake enough to feed from the second boob for another 15 – 20 minutes and burp, and after this I have always found she goes straight back to sleep for another 2 to 4 hours. Both the right amount of feed and sleep are crucial to make this night-time routine work.

The other instinctual wrong-doing that can put out all my best-laid plans is the instinct to cuddle. During day time feeds, when Lottie is very milk-drunk she will suck on my boob without any productive swallowing, using my nipple as a pacifier. It is instinctively tempting at this point to let her do this for as long as she wants, which I have no doubt would be up to an hour, if not longer, if I let her and she would eventually go to sleep on the boob. It’s so nice to have her cuddling up against me and I’m also so tired all the time that just sitting there is much easier than doing something. But the problem with letting her do this is that it breaks one of the rules of training Lottie, and me, in the art of self-settling; that is that baby should be put to sleep awake in the same place where she is going to wake up so not to unsettle her when she naturally wakes at the end of a 45 minute sleep cycle. I also want to avoid feeding Lottie to sleep as this is a habit I definitely don’t want Lottie to rely on to get to sleep.

On the subject of self-settling, if you’re going to commit to it consistently to make sure your baby is used to putting herself to sleep, you really need to ignore your instincts to pick up your crying (protesting) baby. When babies self-settle, they’re very close to being asleep and are just crying out as they settle themselves. If you give in to your instincts and pick them up at this point, you’re not only going to fail to get them to sleep, you’re also going to annoy them the same way as you yourself would be annoyed to be poked and prodded just as you’re settling off to sleep. Listening to your baby protest as she puts herself to sleep isn’t easy, but I have to keep reminding myself that it’s helping Lottie to sleep independently, so in the long run, fighting my instincts to pick her up are the best way forward.

I also need to make sure I’m not instinctively assuming that every time Lottie cries she is hungry. Again this leads to demand-feeding which is what I’m trying to avoid. When Lottie has had a good feed, and I know she’s had a good feed because she’s had both boobs for at least 15-20 minutes each, she shouldn’t be hungry again for at least 3 to 4 hours from the start of the last feed. There are times when I find Lottie does need a top-up soon after being put down to sleep because she’s realised she actually hasn’t had enough and won’t fall asleep until her belly is completely full. This is sometimes because a post-feed burp has opened up some space for more milk. I’m getting used to knowing when Lottie’s emotional cries are for a quick filler feed, which usually is no longer than 3 – 5 minutes on one boob. But apart from this, if she wakes within the hour to 90 minutes of being put down and is properly crying, not just protesting, chances are she doesn’t need to be fed. She might need a nappy change, although I find at this age, Lottie sleeps through a dirty nappy. Or sometimes she does need a pat on the back to get a burp out. But I’ve also found that there are times when Lottie cries that she possibly doesn’t even need to be picked up. A few times, when Lottie has woken crying before the end of a proper sleep, I’ve gone against my motherly instincts to comfort her by picking her up, and all I’ve had to do is rub her belly and help her to burp, after which she goes straight back to sleep as if I’ve flicked a switch. Had I got her up at this point, I would have completely undone the self-settling process and properly woken her up, turning her sleep into a nap, and offering her a snack rather than a feed. My aim is always sleeps and feeds, not naps and snacks. But my motherly instincts could easily turn a perfectly good sleep and feed into a very unproductive nap and snack, so I’m constantly fighting the urge to fall for the instinctive reaction.

The big picture of all this instinct-fighting is a commitment to the sleep training, routine method that I have chosen for my baby. Very often this method is hard to achieve and involves constant effort; effort to get out of bed and sit up to breast feed instead of breast feeding in bed. Effort to keep her awake to get a proper feed and to keep her asleep when I would really like to just cuddle. And when things do go awry, such as when regularly I struggle to get Lottie to sleep in the mornings before she is too overtired to self-settle, I have to fight my instincts to give up on this method altogether and just let her stay up, let her get overtired and deal with the resulting hissy-fit later in the day. Just like when you’re learning to ride a bike, and you fall off, you do need to fight your instincts that tell you to never get on the dangerous, wobbly pile of metal that led to you scraping your knee ever again. But what good would that be? I’m aiming for the proficient bike riding Holy Grail of a full night’s sleep for Lottie, which is promised to me by the advocates of the sleep and feeding method I have chosen. So I persist and hope that eventually my newbie instincts to do the unhelpful thing are trained into the right instincts to make this work for all of us.

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