Nate is a boob man. Breastfeeding was very important to Chad and I. First, it gave Nate the best shot at having a strong immune system when he was a peanut. Second, it was extremely convenient and burns off pregnancy weight like no one’s business. And third, it was free food! Since our boy can chow, free food was welcome news!
That’s not to say we are adverse to formula. I had a really difficult labor and birth, which resulted in me being unable to hold Nate until he was about 18 hours old. This meant that he didn’t get any breastmilk at the start of his life and, as a result, became quite accustomed to the ease of getting food out of a bottle—much less work than trying to get it out of Mom! The formula also meant that Chad could give our babe a meal or two while I got some rest. It took us about three long months to get Nate on an exclusively breastmilk diet—and we worked hard to get there. As such, we weren’t planning on giving it up at an early age in Nate’s diet.
We had a family goal to breastfeed Nate until he was two but, due to circumstances outside of my control (read: Nate started injuring Mom with biting), we (read: me with a “yea” vote, “yea” from my supportive husband, and a “NO! NO! NO!” vote from Nate) decided to stop breastfeeding Nate around eighteen months. Two issues immediately arose. One, we made this decision right around the time when Nate was diagnosed with autism. We knew that the diagnosis would have a significant impact on the way he was used to conducting daily life and we feared that one more change might tip him over the proverbial edge. Two, we never got a copy of the parenting manual that everyone else seems to follow. Somehow, we managed to get Nate in the habit of needing milk for a nap. Or to go to bed. Or to go back to sleep. On top of this, Nate refused cow’s milk so there wasn’t even a substitute for his favorite beverage. Chad and I couldn’t get our heads around how the heck we could successfully do this without losing our sanity, too.
We stuck our toe in the water and made the uneducated decision to stop giving Nate breastmilk during the daytime—cold turkey. You know what? He didn’t even notice. And, with the help of my mama friends on Facebook, we discovered that Nate likes soy milk (vanilla flavor only, please) and was willing to drink it out of a sippy cup, again, during the day only. I started carrying Nate around to get him down for his naps and life was good….when the sun was shining.
However, my boy is terribly, terribly smart. Nate figured out that, while he wasn’t getting breastmilk during the day, he was still getting it at night because Chad and I couldn’t get him to go down without it. Nate was getting nursed to sleep, and was allowed to nurse if he woke up in the middle of the night. Something clicked in his wee noggin and, suddenly, Nate decided to work the system. No milk during the day? No problemo, Mom! I’ll just get it all night long.
That’s right, folks. He started waking up every 1 to 1 ½ hours. It was worse than being with a newborn. For all you readers who are saying, “You should have tried the cry it out method! It worked for us!,” it’s different with Nate. See, he started smacking his head against the crib railing to get attention for a quick sip of milk, hurting himself in the process. Self-injurious behavior just can’t be ignored. And since he could only go down with breastmilk, Chad couldn’t give me a break. My sleep depth was tissue thin as I had my ears at the quick all night for the rustle of Nate rolling over to stand up. I would dash to his nursery to try and grab him before he started hitting his head, but he often got a few good cracks on there before I could swoop him up. Nate’s quality of sleep was poor and ours was even worse. This was an exhausting disaster.
Enter our BCBA, Colleen. Colleen’s job is to oversee all of the care that Nate’s receiving from his six therapists (herself included) and to help Chad and I raise a child with autism. I told her our tale of woe. I was tired of being bitten, I was tired of not sleeping, I was tired of being the only one who could help our dear boy go back to sleep. I was also tired of Nate being tired. Everyone needed to get a good night’s sleep.
Colleen took this all in, thought on it for a bit, and came up with a plan. A PLAN! (That’s what we needed!!!!) The plan? No more Mom. That’s right. I get to stay under my toasty warm covers, snuggled up, while Chad gets to fly out of the room to grab the boy!!! Colleen explained that it had to be this way every time Nate woke up for the next two weeks.
I peppered Colleen with my barrage of questions. Will Nate associate losing milk with starting therapy? Will it all become a big jumbled mess in his mind and make him reject the help we’re trying to give him? Apparently, I gave Nate more credit than he was due. Colleen said that Nate’s mind isn’t that developed yet and I should think of it this way. If Nate does something super terrific during the day, like clean up his toys, and I woke him up in the middle of the night to give him an M’n’M because he did that good deed, he can’t associate the two. Instead, he’ll just think he scored chocolate in the middle of the night. So I shouldn’t be concerned about weaning and therapy having to do anything with one another.
Then I asked why two weeks? Nate’s therapists talk a lot about “extinguishing” behaviors. To do this, Colleen explained, it takes a week to extinguish something if it’s a run-of-the-mill habit. Because breastfeeding was more ingrained, it would take two weeks. (This is a toddler thing, not an autism thing.) If it wasn’t resolved by that time, then we needed to re-evaluate and come up with a new plan.
The plan’s details went something like this. Chad gets Nate every time he wakes up. When he’s holding the hollering boy, Chad tells Nate how much Mommy loves him but he can’t have Mom right now. Instead, Dad’s here and aren’t we great pals? We’re the best of pals! And I’m here for you. Isn’t that great?!? Over and over and over again. It was key to be consistent with the message and the messenger: I couldn’t pop in to say hi at any time during those two weeks. Why? Say you go to a casino and sit down at a slot machine. You play ten times in a row. Nine times, you lose. The tenth? You win! Coins fall, the ding-ding song happens, a parade is thrown. After winning, you become energized to try your luck again. Six times you lose; and you win on the seventh. The parade resumes. With Nate, if Mom came in every now and again, his behavior would continue because I’m the random winning jackpot. Nate would be willing to muddle through the losses to try to find the win. In order to extinguish the behavior, he needed to learn that he was always going to get the same response (Dad), so there’s no use in searching for something else (Mom).
When Chad came home from work that night, I told him the plan. I explained that he could take some time to get used to it and we could start whenever he was ready, especially since he works outside of the home. I also shared that Colleen said we could expect Nate to get so upset that he might cry for hours on end and even throw up. Chad, being the trooper that he is, didn’t need any time to adjust. He was as ready as I was. So, we started that night.
First time Nate got up, Chad flew in there, swooped him up, and stuck to the script. I had the monitor on so I could hear Nate hollering as if he were in our room. But no vomiting. No hyperventilating. Not much drama. Just a half-hour of crying, after which our baby boy fell asleep. Nate got up a few more times that night. Rinse and repeat. I survived. Chad survived. Nate survived. Not bad.
We carried on. On the second night, Nate only got up three times, a far cry from every hour to hour-and-a-half. By the fourth night, he was up twice. And, by a week and a half, he was sleeping through the night. Absolute heaven!
The whole ordeal taught us amazing things about the insights of a toddler and an autistic one at that. The lottery and M’n’M metaphors were Oprah “aha!” moments for me and continue to inform the way I deal with Nate on a daily basis. Most importantly? We got our sleep back—and Nate no longer needs any sort of beverage to go to sleep. Now we watch an episode of Classical Baby. If he doesn’t fall asleep during the show, we carry him in the Ergo and he usually passes out pretty quickly. If Nate should wake up, Chad and I take turns on a nightly basis. If he doesn’t wake up, it still remains your turn until Nate doesn’t sleep through the night. That way, Nate doesn’t fall into a lottery rhythm…it’s completely random (to him) who he’s showing up in his room at night. We are so grateful to have a therapist who can help us through these ungraceful moments of parenthood and help us figure out things that must be clearly written in that manual…which I still can’t find….