“You’re going to spoil him.” “You’ll make a dependent child.” “You’ll never be able to get him to sleep alone.” We have all heard these statements, as well as other fears and stigmas associated with co-sleeping and night nursing. I’ve even had some of these concerns myself. I’ve read the books about sleep training, from cry-it-out to no-cry; I’ve been on discussion boards and heard testimonials from fellow mamas who have spanned the spectrum of practices. I have gotten unsolicited advice that if we co-sleep he won’t ever get out of my bed; but I have also known mothers who have co-slept and nursed their kiddos happily until the age of three. I have learned that much of the literature out there tends to leave out single working mothers, lower-income families with smaller homes, and cultures where sharing rooms and beds is more accepted and often, necessary. At the end of the day, I proudly practice co-sleeping and still nurse my 21-month-old son. They have become essential ways my toddler and I survive during the shelter-in-place, providing comfort, bonding, and better rest for both of us in this tumultuous time.
Though I am married to my son’s father, I’m a single mother indefinitely because my husband resides in Cuba; we are patiently awaiting the date when he is able to immigrate here. This process, already long and arduous, is even more so due to pandemic-related closures and backlogs. I have experienced pregnancy, birth, and nearly the two first years of our son’s life as the sole parent. As an adjunct college professor and writer/performer, I often have contingent employment, and during the pandemic, both educational institutions and the world of performing arts have suffered a blow.
Like many parents, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated what were already challenging circumstances for us. As a single working mother, I am especially exhausted after the workday, even in “normal” times, because I have to do all of the chores and childcare duties, while still having work late on curriculum development and grading. Rest and self-care come last, if ever. While before the pandemic, we would have had intermittent support from my visiting parents, a circle of friends, and his papa during our trips abroad, all became impossible under shelter-in-place. We found ourselves on our own island, even more vulnerable and isolated than ever.
Just as the virus reared its ugly head in early March and shelter-in-place was announced, my son and I became ill with COVID-19-like symptoms. I could not even care for him, much less myself. Once I was well, I went back to pure survival mode. How could I wean him off night-nursing and try to put him in his crib (which he hated) now, when just trying to catch up on backlogged work and teaching online (where my toddler has interrupted a Zoom class by screaming and throwing food) already exhausted me? Without childcare options, implementing any new discipline was last on my list.
Under the pressure to keep up and the accelerated exhaustion, I found I had no choice but to do what worked, right now.
I was familiar with strategies to wean my son away from co-sleeping and night nursing to give me more extended sleep, which I so craved, but so much of the advice didn’t apply to me. It often assumed that there was a separate room for my child, where I could prepare a crib or a toddler bed. But in the high-cost California Bay Area, I can only afford a one-bedroom apartment. It assumed I could increasingly distance from my slumbering son before leaving said separate room, until he slept completely without me nor my breast. But where would I go? Or where would he go? I knew one friend who sacrificed her one bedroom for her son, while she slept in the living room but that would disrupt my sleep in other ways. And putting my son in the living room would not only be difficult due to its stimulating environment, but it would get in the way of my ability to work late or to do dishes at night, the only time I can do either.
The literature I found, aside from those on attachment parenting, rarely addressed a room-sharing situation. Back when my son slept in a mini-crib or a co-sleeper near the bed, he would still sense and smell me, and wound up in my bed for part of the night. I would tire from pulling his increasingly-heavy body over the rail, and had trouble falling back asleep, often losing hours staring at the ceiling. Plus, as I struggled with milk supply while nursing him as an infant, so co-sleeping paired with night-nursing helped. Everything I read also typically excluded single mothers often it would be recommended that the other parent (also assumed to be a husband) put the baby to bed in order to teach independent sleep or wean the baby. I do not have such other person to put my son to bed, and reading these materials often made me feel like something was wrong or lacking in my situation, rather than empowering me. I found myself having to cull together what might work for us from various resources, making a list of tactics I could implement.
We all know that reality is not so neat, organized, or planned as the books describe; life takes us for loops, and the pandemic was the straw that nearly broke the camel’s back. During the pandemic, all of my plans and schemes, as for many of us, fell to the wayside. Under the pressure to keep up and the accelerated exhaustion, I found I had no choice but to do what worked, right now so I had to make sure we were both healthy and rested, and nursing-to-sleep just worked. Now, there are nearly no tears and both of us get oxytocin flowing which helps us drift off into a peaceful, if sometimes interrupted, sleep.
Image Source: Bethanie Hines
So co-sleeping and nursing just work for us. I continue to enjoy our little cocoon, nearly two years after beginning, and I have adjusted to less-than-profound sleep. I still have to stay up late nights to work, often, and this is what ruins my restfulness more than anything. But waking up to my son beside me beaming, seeking to nurse, and cuddling, is my favorite part of my day. And it has gotten easier, over time, which confirms for me that the benefits have outweighed the costs.
Being in shelter-in-place, along with my son making the leap into toddlerhood during this time, leads him to ask to nurse more often throughout the day for comfort. It is a bonding practice which I intend to continue until he no longer wants to. During a particularly bewildering time in our world, when we cannot go out, socialize with others, nor see our family including his father and grandparents, it is comforting to return to this primal bond that reminds us of our belonging together. At times, when he becomes very impatient about something he wants or I notice a tantrum brewing, offering the breast gives him a little pause of happiness and calm it’s as though he gets a dose of a love serum to help him manage the moment. Though I’m not producing a lot of milk, I also know that he is able to benefit from the immunity boosters and nutrients that breastmilk contains.
During a particularly bewildering time in our world, it is comforting to return to this primal bond that reminds us of our belonging together.
I do not believe my son is nor will be addicted to co-sleeping nor nursing nor that it’s a slippery slope. Rather, I know that he can adapt to changes. During our trips to Cuba when his father and grandmother were there to help, my son slept alone in a crib and in a separate room, and they put him to bed while I tried to get more shut-eye. There were nights when he slept five hours, which was extremely long for me. He quickly switches to sleeping fine without me and in a separate room when our friend has taken him for one to two nights. At daycare, he naps well without me. These experiences show me that he can adapt to his environment.
Nor do I worry about what it looks like to others for a toddler or small child to nurse because I know that extended nursing is natural, beautiful, and occurs many places in the world. And as for if I worry that he won’t be independent? I do not. In fact, I believe I’m assuring healthy attachment that supports independence to speak out, to explore his creativity, to make choices, and assert his interests. He selects his shoes, tries to put them on, communicates when he’s done eating, and loves to “read” books, sing, and dance. He’s gregarious, curious, takes risks, and is a delight to be around according to everyone he meets, not just his doting mother.
I believe our strong bond and his ability to trust in my being there as his home in this bewildering world as a brown boy with Filipino and Afro-Cuban parents, in a world that is not set up for brown and black boys is essential as I prepare him to go out into it. I never hesitate to give him kisses and affection, and I want him to be raised as an empathetic child who is armed with knowing he is beloved. I know that this time won’t last forever, and that I will be sad once my son decides that either he no longer wants to nurse, or no longer wants to sleep beside me. It is going to be his act of independence to let me know. Until then, I will enjoy these moments that bring us comfort and calm, in a world that often is anything but.