How I Solved Bedtime (Tonight)

I am, unapologetically, a first time mom. This is my newest hat. I also wear the hats of an artist, an entrepreneur, a former teacher, a scientist, and an engineer, among others. All of this is to say I know what it feels like to be learning how to do everything for the first time. That’s why I think it’s really important to share the journey in all its raw, honest, messy beauty. When ever you’re learning something for the first time, it helps to know that this road has been traveled before. At least, it helps me.

With that said, here is the story of how an espresso-induced flash of insight and a single wet wipe solved my 10-week old son, Heleon’s latest sleep regression, and a breastfeeding struggle I’ve faced for over a month, ultimately saving bedtime!

First, lets lay out the problems. Heleon has been a decent sleeper since he was born. He wakes a few times a night to nurse, fewer as he grows, and he goes to bed like clockwork between 7 and 8 at night with no trouble. At least until about a week ago when our bedtime routine of blissful bubble baths, songs, and a dramatized recitation of “Goodnight Moon” has turned into hours of nonstop screaming and tears (mom’s and baby’s). The most notable difference between these recent bedtimes, and the lovely, easy ones by which I’d been spoiled, is that little dude is obviously very hungry, but refuses to eat! Sure, he’ll try to nurse. He’ll look for the breast, make sucky faces, even try to latch, but as soon as he’s about to start feeding, he arches his back, jerks his head away, and starts to cry an unmistakable infant “NO!”. Eventually, he exhausts himself and falls asleep, at which point I drag myself to the bathroom, wash up for bed, and wait the half hour it will take for him to wake up hungry. Incidentally, once he does wake up, he latches and nurses normally and then sleeps well.

This pattern probably doesn’t sound that unusual for a 10-week old. At least, I know many moms and dads who have told me not to worry about it, as long as he eats normally at other times, is gaining weight well (and he is!) and doesn’t otherwise appear ill, he will likely just grow out of it. And that’s the reassurance I’ve been rolling with each night. But this is where my scientist hat gets in the way. I want to understand things, especially when they change. Well, tonight, my inner scientist made an observation, hatched a hypothesis, and tried an experiment.

Bedtime was going slightly better than usual. It was a good day, overall. After a rough night, I decided this morning to treat myself to a fancy coffee drink from Starbucks. My husband, Tim, stepped up to help me have a better day as well, and made sure I got a full hour to myself today to take a shower and otherwise care for my body. Any new mom will tell you this is a valuable gift, and it’s something I have been neglecting more often than I’m comfortable with lately. This all set the stage for a great day in which I felt well equipped to handle anything motherhood threw at me. So bedtime started off smoothly, and Heleon nursed from one breast with no problem. He was still hungry, though, so I tried to offer the other breast before putting him to bed. That’s when it all went south, fast. The breast refusal commenced. Now I’m confused, but on this exceptionally good day, I am for once not exhausted. I set the baby down for a moment and had a look at my own breast (something every woman ought to do more often; boobs rock!). Why didn’t he want it? It had plenty of milk. Hell, it’s been leaking for the past few hours! … That’s when it hit me.

Babies are born before their sensory system really comes online. They can’t see well yet or understand what they’re feeling or hearing. The one thing that’s actually overdeveloped at birth (relative to later in life) is their sense of smell! Babies have amazing little noses! They can learn what mom smells like and notice her from across a room. They can breastfeed before they can see, and even latch in the dark, because they know the smell of milk. It makes sense in an evolutionary context, because recognizing the smell of safety and food would be necessary survival skills. That was the key. If my baby knows the smell of good food, maybe he knows the smell of bad food — spoiled, dangerous food — as well. Here’s where motherhood stories get messy. I smelled my breast. Sure enough, it smelled like the hours-old milk that had been leaking into my bra on that side all evening. The other breast, which for some reason had not leaked today, had no odor at all that I could detect. Heleon would happily latch again on that side, then protest again as soon as I moved him back to the other.

The solution I tested seems stupid simple given the length of this story. My husband brought me a water wipe and I just cleaned away all the stale milk. I immediately tried offering Heleon a feed again on that side. Sure enough, he latched right away and drank himself into that limp and happy baby delirium any mom would recognize as “milk drunk”.

In retrospect, it seems pretty obvious. We’ve had bouts of the same breast refusal on occasion during the day, too, for months. And I realize, in hindsight, that it happened most often in the late afternoon, when I’ve likely been leaking milk throughout the day,l. It happened more on those days when a thorough shower just wasn’t on the mom agenda. It’s embarrassing to realize my baby was just trying to tell me my boobs stink. So why am I publishing this story on the internet?

Because we’re all learning to do things for the first time. Because motherhood is hard, and breastfeeding is even harder. Because women rediscover their bodies and the ways they function and the kind of care they need over and over again throughout our lives, and many of us navigate these moments alone. We learn that it’s socially costly to talk about the things our bodies do, even the wonderful, beautiful things, and I want to lower that cost. Most of all, I’m sharing this because I’m proud of it! Problem solving feels amazing, no matter the context. When we do it, we should all celebrate it and share the solutions we find with others. You never know who among your friends is trying to solve a similar problem.