Grab your cup of tea and a large snack. This will not be brief.
Here I was almost six months ago, mother of a one year old who had zero interest in expanding his diet, and wrestling with the questions of follow versus lead, surrender versus control. My enthusiasm to embrace small’s transition to toddlerhood and our family’s transition out of the hazy circus of babyhood meant that the pendulum tipped to lead and control. And for a time all was well. Somewhat smugly, I felt I had achieved quite a coup: the small one ate a small amount of food and continued to breastfeed a large amount of the time. Huzzah for extended breastfeeding thought I. Time whooshed by. My work hours stretched into two days a week, the beloved’s compressed to three or four. At some point, small let go of his hatred of bottles and cups. Freedom! The beloved could give him expressed milk and no longer had to plan their day strategically around small being brought in to work for a breastfeed. We could even (gasp!) go out without him, just the two of us. Just look at us go! Embracing change left and right! Ah, the maturity.
Summer arrived, rainy, humid. Ate a lot of ice cream, lurched onto the mad pre-Christmas treadmill of catching up with friends, worked a bit, got chiropracted a lot (yes, well, if other people can make up words, I don’t see why I can’t join in), got sucked into the shopping frenzy, and expended a lot of energy secretively hiding and wrapping presents. And some time in there the small one just kind of stopped eating again. One day I realised I was still carrying around food for him every day, still offering him three meals plus snacks, but that it was all going uneaten. He was toying with his cereal, having the odd rice bubble or bran flake, crumbling his previously beloved fruit bars and mooshing them into the furniture, turning his nose up at toast, hiding his dinner under an upturned bowl, not really ever eating. He was breastfeeding as much as ever, maybe more, with night feeds escalating wildly to the point where once he grabbed on he wouldn’t let go until dawn. Bloody hell it was exhausting. What to do? I stopped expressing at work, reasoning that a drop in supply might increase his appetite for the alternative. I tried to reinject a little stability in his day, making sure we were at home for mealtimes and sleeps, not varying the food too much. In the new year I made just one resolution: to night wean.
Oy, the trepidation. I had toyed with the idea of night weaning for a while, longing for sleep like a strung out addict. I talked at all and sundry about it. Predictions were dire and unanimous…night weaning and bed-sharing would not be compatible, small would not be off the boob until he was out of our bed and he wouldn’t get out of our bed until he was out of our room and presumably wouldn’t be out of our room until he bought his own house some time in 2039. What the hell, I thought. Can only give it a go. I struck a deal with the small one – you can have all the cuddles you want, all night, but it’s last drinks at 10pm then the bar will reopen when it is light outside. Miraculously, with just one night of outraged shrieking, we succeeded. Yes, he may sleep on my head, or at least on 70% of my pillow, and do a bit of break dancing and occasional squawking through the night, but it’s surprisingly easy to sleep with a toddler on your head and not on your breast. He even stopped the hopeful groping after a few nights. Smug parenting moment. Sleep. Bliss. But mysteriously no increase in appetite. Still no eating. And still attached to the breast at any opportunity through the day. It dawned on me one day that whenever I was stationary, he’d come for me like a homing missile. My latest theory is that the breastfeeding weight loss starts when you start running away from your toddler.
And then it was January. Lazy, sandy, lolling January. Still no eating. No talking. And not really growing much either. And then he got a virus, not a bad virus, just persistent enough for us to go to the GP. Unsurprisingly the GP said ‘small is too small, take him to a paediatrician…really, it won’t be that bad, he won’t bite you’. Coming not long after the new and disliked maternal child health nurse snippily said ‘well, I have to tell you to see a paediatrician, even if you won’t go’ and right on the back of a close friend having the courage to tell us that she didn’t think all was well with small and his food strike, it was the straw that broke this mama’s resolve. I’d grown hardened to the insensitive, offhand and sometimes plain ridiculous comments coming from any old schmo in the street. It’s hard to hear but even harder to ignore it when it comes from someone who loves you and your baby dearly.
So to the paediatrician we went. Grimly prepared, list of questions in hand, contents of Blue Book virtually memorised, I felt like I was going to sit a test for which I couldn’t possibly study well enough. Yes, this could be taking a healthy wariness a little too far, but the clawing anxiety was hard to suppress. What was my worst fear? Being told ‘you must wean and give your baby formula’. And what happened? I was told ‘you must wean and give your baby formula’. It played out like so:
Me – So, I have x, y and z concerns. I’m not really concerned about his size. Genetically, he’s going to be small.
Dr Notsochatty – (after about twenty minutes of silently examining, weighing, measuring, charting and noting developmental milestones) None of x, y or z are concerning to me at all. These things will be fine. He is too small. It’s a very simple issue – not enough calories.
Me – Why doesn’t he seem hungry? Why doesn’t he take the abundant food or drink offered to him? I assumed he would instinctively take what he needs.
Dr Tactless – He is like a baby in the 3rd world. He’s just used to not getting enough so he doesn’t ask for more.
Me – Wow. That makes me feel great. So, I have been effectively starving him for months. But he seemed so happy.
Dr Slightlyobtuse – Lethargy can look a lot like contentment. The solution is to wean and put him on toddler formula. He needs to be having (tappity tappity of calculator) one litre a day.
Me – I’m quite devastated. (trying not to embarassingly cry) I don’t want to wean him completely. I still feel there is value in breastmilk for him.
Dr Sceptical – What’s your problem with formula?
Me – Urhh. That’s not really what I have the problem with. I have a problem with weaning completely.
Dr I’mdonenow – Well don’t then. Just make sure you give the formula first. We’ll see you in 3-4 weeks. If he’s not improving we’ll look at admission to a hospital or a mother-baby unit.
Me – ……………
That was that.
I thought ‘I could fight this, I could ignore this advice and carry on waiting for small. But why did I come here? Wasn’t I ready for something to change? Yes. We have tried it small’s way and that hasn’t worked. So we’ll try this other way’. And before I could get distracted by the competing voices in my head, I stamped over to the supermarket and bought a tin of toddler formula. On the up side, it is organic.
Then we went home and I was introduced to a new side of the small person – the you-thought-I-was-stubborn-before-ha-you-aint-seen-nothing-yet side. Again I say – goddamn genetics. Since before I was pregnant I was repelled by the advice given to always dominate your child, to show them who’s in control, to wield all the power, to not give the inch for fear of losing the mile. I so dearly wanted to respect my child’s individuality, to recognise the limited ways he has to voice his own wants, to honour his right to exercise his own willpower. I didn’t want to get into power struggles with him. I wanted to negotiate peacefully…….. It’s fine. You can get up off the floor now. Wipe away the tears of laughter. Oh ho ho ho. And yes, I have met toddlers before, but obviously mine was going to be special and different. Be careful what you wish for indeed. Small obviously feels that his right to exercise his own willpower is indeed honoured.
So, the formula. The first day I managed to cram 100mls into him. It took four hours. Mainly he did angry backbends over my lap, his face contorting in his efforts to escape what was effectively waterboarding with powdered milk. God it was dreadful. Not only was I the worst mother ever, with my third world toddler, but now I was torturing him. But as the week has unfolded, things have improved. Cooperation up, bodily restraint down. And despite my scepticism, and being completely aware of my ability to rationalise any decision I’ve made, the regime is working. This week has been like watching the small one come out of hibernation. He’s more vibrant, social, curious, vocal. His concentration span has soared. His sleeping has improved out of sight. He’s incredibly affectionate. It’s amazing to watch.
Yet painful. While I’m grateful that there’s nothing wrong with him that food cannot fix, it kills me that he’s been doing without for months. It challenges my faith in extended breastfeeding. It really challenges my faith in baby-led weaning/solids. It scares me that this could have gone on for longer. It makes me feel foolish for being so, so sure of my convictions.