Boundaries, Breastfeeding, and Sleep

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

We are struggling with sleeping right now. My youngest son is 26 months. My eldest son is nearly 5 years old. We coslept with my eldest, and then he moved into his own room when I was pregnant, but he often ended up back with us. I am tandem breastfeeding. Now he is often waking up more and more, and he is getting more upset when he does. He comes back to bed with us. No prizes for guessing that this is probably about security and needing connection with Mummy (I think). Problem is I am finding it hard battling the sleep deprivation. BUT I don’t want to be told “move him to his own bed”, “try CIO” etc. etc. His security is the most important thing. But I would like more sleep – for us all! Also – are there any tandem mums out there? I have some mixed feelings but would not dare voice them to people who would tell me, “well just wean!” I think it is more an issue of boundaries for me. That is, deciding what mine are and then feeling comfortable (or not) expressing them. I definitely do not want to do any form of sleep training – not least when my little (eldest) one is still adjusting to having a brother and needs affirmation so much. As Sears puts it, it is about night time parenting.

Here is what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Amy: You are a sensitive Momma! The love you have for your children is evident in your willingness to battle sleep deprivation in efforts to support their well being. Sleep deprivation is one of the most difficult experiences for anyone to endure, even though it’s really common for parents of young children. I’m glad you brought up boundaries because that sounds like the heart of the issue for you right now.

If where your son sleeps is not as important as everyone actually getting sleep, you may want to start him out in his bed and be open to him ending up in yours. That’s pretty common for kids who are allowed to sleep in their parents’ bed (my 4 year old still comes in occasionally). If you really want him in his bed you may consider putting his mattress next to yours for a while on the floor or allowing him to come in when he wakes up and moving him back when he falls asleep.

When children are used to receiving attention and love in certain forms they will ask for what they know (sleeping with parents or breastfeeding). If you are feeling like you would like to modify that slightly to get more sleep you may initially see a bit of resistance in your son, but resistance can be worked through. Take a few moments to think or write about what you really want for yourself, your children, and family in this situation. Decide what, if any, changes you want to make that you feel you can be consistent with to bring about what you ultimately want. If you want to nurse less or change the sleep situation think about doing so gradually and consistently. Not from a forceful place, but from a place of accepting this is what you need right now and you’ll take it one moment at a time to transition *with* your son (rather than pushing him).

Regardless of what change you make your son will respond in his own way to process the change. You can be there with him as he feels what he feels and receives your love in a slightly different form. Approaching breastfeeding a toddler from a place other than on demand simply allows love to change form. You are not withdrawing your love to breastfeed less if that is what works better for you. For example, if you would prefer to nurse during the day with your older son you can affirm the notion that you sleep at night when it’s dark and nurse after breakfast (or before, whatever works). If it comes up, the baby nurses because it’s his main source of food. Speaking matter of factly helps to reduce the guilt we mothers can feel in gently nudging our children from breastfeeding on demand to a relationship where both mom and child’s needs are considered equally. Having a snack before bed, a drink of water available to quench thirst in the middle of the night, and a willingness to love him through any frustration and tears will allow you both to grow through this transition together.

Some children benefit from crying in the arms of a loved one to process all of the feelings they accumulate. They often sleep better if this is what their system needs. This is not crying it out nor would I suggest that. If your son cries first make sure all of his basic needs are met, then hold him lovingly while telling him it’s okay to cry and listening compassionately. This isn’t always easy for parents to do and it can bring up strong feelings of doubt and sadness. Cry with your son if necessary. As you open to being with him as he cries he will feel your acceptance and will soften into crying and release. It can be very cathartic for both parent and child to experience. You may try conscious breathing or relaxation during these times to facilitate a calm presence. Most of all, be gentle with yourself as your family grows and you all adjust to the changes!

Mandy: Adding another family member can certainly change the dynamics within the family structure and bring about some insecurity. Going from one to two children was a more difficult transition for our family than adding our third and fourth children.

Our family utilizes a family bed. It has evolved over the years, going from a King size bed to a King + Queen, to a King + Queen + Twin, and most recently last week, to a King + Queen with a set of Twin/Full bunk beds in the room. However, it works for us and everyone is quite happy with the arrangement. It meets all of our needs.

Co-sleeping has retained my sanity each time we have added a new baby. At bedtime or naptime, I nurse the baby to sleep while reading chapter books to my older child(ren) and then nurse and snuggle the toddler to sleep. Our older children have always felt secure in their positions, as they still have a place in the family bed. The Natural Parents Network has compiled a list of links concerning safe cosleeping.

As far as tandem nursing goes, I’ve never been able to nurse two children at once. I know a few mums who have perfected it, feeling they save time by nursing both children at once, but the vast majority of tandem nursing mothers I know have aversions to doing so. Some simple boundaries have worked for us, along with some distractions for me when nursing the older child. I try to take some me time to help with any feelings of aversion and enjoy a nice book of my own.

These early years pass quickly. My oldest is now eight years old, and I’m not certain how he grew up so fast. Take care of yourself and your little ones. Nap with them when you can. Let people dig through a laundry basket of clean clothes for something to wear. Keep meals simple. Snuggle, hug, and kiss them every chance possible.

Joni Rae: It really IS about night time parenting, and I think some parents just don’t understand that. I’m so glad you do! Of course weaning right now won’t help. He comes to you at night because he wants to be with you, needs the security of being next to you – because really, at twenty-six months Enzo is still mostly baby himself. He wants his mummy, and it is hard to share with a younger sibling- especially if he is off in his own bed and the rest of you are sleeping together!

My four year old still wanders into my bed most nights, and we all squish together and make it work. For a while, we dismantled our bed and put all the mattresses on the floor so there was enough room for everyone.

I have spent most of my years as a mother operating on little to no sleep, so I feel for you. You might want to think about going back to co-sleeping with your eldest, or putting his bed in your room so that he can feel closer to you until he is ready to move.

Sleep deprivation sucks, I know, but it is a part of parenting and there might not be any way around it until your babies are bigger.

Photo Credit: bdopudja


In sharing how they do things in their families, authors are not trying to suggest the same choices are right for you. Please consider the safety issues, and take all precautions when considering where your children will sleep. There might be increased risk for babies under six months regardless of how bed sharing is done. In such cases, a separate safe sleeping surface might be a better choice. Statements on this website have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products and/or information are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent any disease. Readers are advised to do their own research and make decisions in partnership with their healthcare provider. If you are pregnant, are nursing, have a medical condition, or are taking any medication, please consult your physician. Nothing you read here should be relied upon to determine dietary changes, a medical diagnosis, or courses of treatment.

6 Responses to Boundaries, Breastfeeding, and Sleep

  1. Amanda Wiggins

    Co-sleeping is DANGEROUS and breastfeeding a toddler is sick! That is not healthy for the child and causes dependency issues and emotional issues! Both my kids slept in their crib after the first week and both were off the bottle by 11 months. Stopped breast feeding @ 2 months. Both are very healthy, happy, smart, and well behaved kids. I hate that new moms stumble across this type of information and think that it’s normal, healthy or even safe..

    • Dionna  

      Oh Amanda, there is so much misinformation in your statement that I’m just going to reply to you with some links to further reading. (Also, I edited your comment to take out the name calling – no need for that!).
      Please read some of the links we have on our resources about breastfeeding and nighttime parenting.
      There is a reason that health organizations the world over recommend breastfeeding at least through the age of one, and that families the world over have coslept for generations – they are both healthy and normal.
      I do hope that you continue to research your parenting choices and make the best decision that works for your family. Thank you for reading.

  2. Amy  

    Thank you, Dionna, for the informative reply to Ms. Wiggins.

    Breastfeeding is often looked at as “sick” because of the over-sexualization of the breast. Unfortunately, sex and the body is so laden with shame that a natural, normal act such as breastfeeding is too often judged as one in the same. It’s not that sexuality is even bad, it’s just what we bring to it with the close mindedness of many in our culture.

    The primary purpose of the breasts is feeding. We are in the class of mammal for this reason. Mothers and babies can make the choice of the length of time to breastfeed based on their relationship. Breast milk is nutritious and protective regardless of the age of the person drinking it.

    As the links indicate, co-sleeping can be dangerous if a parent doesn’t know how to make it safe. There are many ways to ensure safety and some research indicates it is safer for some babies to sleep near their mother when young than to sleep alone.

    Thank you, Ms. Wiggins, for allowing us to address questions that may be unspoken for others. You make a valid point by stating that your children have turned out the way you want them to “Both are very healthy, happy, smart, and well behaved kids”. We all want the best for our children. When we realize that is where we’re all coming from in sharing information and opinions – instead of battling against one another – we may have more peace in this world as a whole.

  3. Olivia

    Hi! I’m the mum with the question. I will post more in a minute but just wanted to say actually my sons are 28 months and 7 months respectively, not 26 months and 5 years. Thank you so much for these incredibly thoughtful and empathic replies.

    • Dionna  

      Wow Olivia – I have no idea how I got 26 months and 5 yrs from your email. I don’t think that would have changed our mentors’ answers at all though, since it looked like at least one of them was operating under the assumption that we were referring to a toddler 😉 Sorry about that!!

  4. K La

    I love the Queen + Twin idea. We have a Queen bed and it just too small for all three of us. We laid the mattress on the floor and set up a small bed for our toddler next to the bed. She starts out there, but usually ends up in between us in the bed. I think adding a twin bed would really help.

    Thanks for the post!

    And Amanda, really, how did you find this site? Why are you reading this blog if you are so closed-minded?