My five-month-old baby doesn’t eat. At least not on her own anyway.
It all began on a sleepy Sunday after our eleven o’clock church service. It was late in the afternoon and she was on a three hour eating schedule at the time, so she was about half an hour overdue for a feeding but wasn’t showing any hunger signs. Despite the lack of cues, I decided to try feeding my eight-week-old since we were about to drive forty minutes South to watch the Blue Angels perform in a nearby city.
So I excused myself by retreating into the infant room, draped a cover over my shoulder, and offered the breast to my daughter. To my surprise, she turned away from me and pushed on my chest with her little hands. She did this several times before, figuring she wasn’t hungry, I decided to try again when we got home.
But when I offered at home, she refused again. And then again after lunch. Then once more forty minutes later. She was acting hungry, rooting, crying, and tongue thrusting. But when I put her to the breast she would clamp her perfect tiny lips shut and pull as far away from me as she could. It was so unlike her, she had latched perfectly since birth and had almost always wanted to be pacifying or eating.
After six hours of her not eating, she fell asleep on my chest and instinctively latched on and began to eat in her sleep. She ate a full meal, then pulled off when she was finished, all while somewhere in baby dreamland.
I chalked it up to a growth spurt or early teething and, although I was distraught, shrugged it off.
Little did I know that the nightmare would continue for months. Lily quickly began to refuse more and more actively until she was only eating meals in her sleep. Kind-hearted mamas assured me it was just a phase, but the phase never ended.
Supplementing with bottles was out of the question as she became inconsolable the minute one touched her lips. Playing chicken didn’t help. If I simply waited for her to eat, she would go eight or nine hours without eating and get lethargic and fussy. It was dreamfeed or not feed at all. I chose to keep my baby hydrated and to dreamfeed. Feeding her in public was impossible.
Our baby was checked for lipties, tongue ties, and physical abnormalities. She was treated for reflux but nothing helped and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason for her refusal. The best guess we had was that she had become psychologically averted to eating somehow, whether it be from an overactive letdown or an unexpected scare- we couldn’t figure it out.
I was heartbroken and tired. When I was pregnant, I had looked forward to the beautiful privilege of breastfeeding my baby. I admired the modest women at the park who gracefully slid their babies under soft muslin blankets to eat, or the strong confidence of the mama who didn’t need a cover at all. It was so natural, so lovely.
Now here I was, feeling like I was struggling to even keep my baby alive. My expectations were crushed and the erratic feeding had my hormones in a mess. It felt like my baby was refusing me, though she refused to bottle as well. Feeding during naptimes meant I couldn’t lay her down for naps, so my sleep-training plans were thrown out the window. I longed for the simplicity and bonding that had existed when my daughter was nursing every hour, smiling up at me with milk pooling at the corners of her mouth. I w as tired and I felt broken.
And it felt incredibly lonely. Well-meaning friends and family told me she would eventually be hungry enough to eat or that her chunky thighs indicated she was clearly thriving. I eventually gave up trying to point out that it was because I was feeding her without her being aware of it, and that if she became aware, she would stop thriving. No one I knew seemed to understand or had heard of what I was experiencing. It felt like I was alone.
Then one day I realized that the source of all my tears and distress was really all about me. I had justified the emotional distress under the guise of concern for my baby, but I soon realized I was crying because this issue wasn’t part of my plans and because the lifestyle was inconvenient for me. Lily was happy. Lily was growing. Lily was thriving.
I realized that although the situation wasn’t ideal, and the goal is still for my baby to willingly breastfeed again, dreamfeeding is keeping her healthy and simply means giving up my self-focused expectations and the life I had planned to have. All of a sudden I had a practical, experiencial knowledge of what parental love looks like in the day to day things. Giving up myself, my expectations, and my convenience for the growth and well being of my child. And having a good attitude about it. That is parental love.
So I am thankful that my baby refuses the breast. She is teaching me what selfless parenting should look like, and I am learning how to love her better every day.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-5
If you are reading this and dealing with any breastfeeding struggles, please reach out in the comments! You are not alone!