How Breastfeeding On Demand Changed My Life

on demand breastfeeding

By Deborah Bershatsky, PhD,

Reprinted with permission from Attachment Parenting International. Visit their site for more helpful articles and resources.

“We’ll put her on modified demand feeding,” the pediatrician said confidently at Rachel’s one week visit.

I was eager to be a good mother and terrified I wouldn’t know how. I gave the doctor my worried attention. Modified demand feeding, it turned out, meant that I would nurse Rachel when she asked for it while gently nudging her into feeding every three to four hours. Also, I would eliminate nighttime feedings quickly. Babies, I learned, must be taught to sleep through the night as soon as possible, so that the whole family can sleep.

Rachel was an unusually placid and easygoing infant. She enjoyed nursing and easily waited three hours between feedings. At seven weeks old, she was moved from the bassinet in our room to the crib in her own room and had given up nighttime feedings almost entirely. A few weeks later, she slept soundly all night. My friends were green with envy. No one could believe I had such a wonderful baby. I settled into the smug feeling that I must be doing something right.

Rachel nursed exclusively until she was six months old, when the doctor recommended that she be started on solids. By eight months, she was eating well and was down to nursing four times a day. She did this for two more months, and then during the 11th month, I slowly weaned her completely. I had aimed to wean her between nine months and a year, and she had cooperated perfectly!

The Fussy Baby

I cannot adequately describe my shock and horror some years later when Ezra came, protesting vociferously, into the world. He did not think much of modified demand feeding, but he liked the demand part all right. He had to nurse every hour or so, with no regard to the time of day or night. Furthermore, he would only fall asleep in my arms, and if I got up or put him in the cradle, he would awaken instantly and cry. He had long fussy periods which began at about 10 p.m. and lasted until 3 or 4 a.m. During this time, he would be comforted only briefly by frequent nursing.

Our family was in an uproar, and I was nearly crazy from lack of sleep. While I was well aware of the popular “cry it out” method of solving this problem, I could not bear to listen to my little one’s screams without comforting him.

We began what later came to be known as a “game of musical beds.” I would take Ezra into the sofa bed in the living room to nurse him and hold him as he cried, occasionally phoning my one insomniac friend for support. I would doze on and off all night, and then finally we would both collapse and sleep solidly for two hours between 4 and 6 a.m. When my back began hurting from the sofa bed mattress, I took Ezra into our bed and Charles, my husband, went to sleep in the sofa bed. When his back gave out, he went to Rachel’s bed and Rachel slept in the living room. Days turned into weeks, and I grew desperate. Ezra kept nursing and crying and not sleeping, and I really felt I was beginning to lose it.

One night, Charles came into whatever room Ezra and I were in and said he wanted me back in bed with him, and if Ezra had to come with me and cry all night, so be it. During the months that followed, things settled down somewhat. Two hours of sleep turned into a tolerable three or four, modified demand feeding had become a dirty word, and Charles and I had a baby in our bed.

A Change in Parenting Style

What now? My pediatrician certainly would not approve of this. In desperation, I started reading everything I could find on the subjects of breastfeeding and calming crying babies. In the process, I made a fascinating discovery: I was not alone. There were women everywhere nursing truly on demand and sleeping with their babies. In fact, there existed a whole network of mutually supportive mothers and fathers striving to raise their children according to what their instincts told them, rejecting current social taboos.

Their philosophy included encouraging unrestricted breastfeeding, child-led weaning, cosleeping, and helping parents to accept a more modest lifestyle in favor of the privilege of spending time at home with their young children. They believed that to raise healthy, independent children, we must meet all of their dependency needs early in life and allow them to mature at their own pace.

It is interesting to realize that with the exception of Western Society, this is the way it has always been. With the Industrial Revolution came the ability to heat a large home and secure it against intruders. This made it possible to put babies off into separate quarters, as breastfeeding began to be replaced by the more scientific method of artificial feeding. The new emphasis on science led to the use of modern inventions in caring for babies – cribs, clocks, bottles, pacifiers – all of which widened the separation of mother and baby.

The germ theory of disease and the discovery that sexuality existed in children also contributed to the “hands off” method of childrearing, which peaked in the 1940s. Mothers were sternly warned of serious emotional harm. Even kissing, hugging, and snuggling were regarded as dangerous, dependency-promoting behaviors. Babies’ cries were not to be responded to, as this would lead to manipulation of the mother by the baby. Feeding was to be by the clock and never on demand.

Since then, science has proven the superiority of human milk over formula, and many benefits of breastfeeding have been documented: Immunological release of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin, which elicit mothering behaviors. Also, the importance of mother-infant bonding through breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact, beginning immediately following birth, has been demonstrated – as has the need for holding, cuddling, and responding promptly to babies’ cries as they grow.

Current childrearing practices are now coming into question, and books advocating extended breastfeeding and co-sleeping are increasing in number. It appears that the tide has turned. The new wave in parenting today is to return to the old ways.

A New Confidence Born

How relieved I felt when I allowed myself to resonate with these ideas and reclaim my instincts! I experienced the ancient yearnings that had existed within my own mother’s heart, even during Rachel’s infancy, to be physically close to my baby as much as he and I desired it. Instead of the superficial feeling of competence I had with Rachel, I now had a deep sense of fulfillment and a feeling of rightness and peace.

By the time Ezra was six months old, we were all good at sleeping – and together. Rachel had joined us, in an effort to make up for lost time. She was, however, an acrobatic sleeper and hated to awaken in the night with the baby, so she returned to her own bed a few months later. She is still a welcome guest in our bed.

Ezra fed every two to three hours during the night, but I had learned the technique of nursing lying down so that I had only to roll over, let him nurse, and drift back to sleep with him. Our sleep cycles synchronized so that I would awaken just moments before he did. It wasn’t long until I felt refreshed in the mornings, although my sleep never went uninterrupted.

It was not without anxiety that I embarked on this journey with my family. There was no precedent for it in either my or Charles’ upbringing. There were warnings from many that this was a dangerous course: The baby would never leave our bed, he would be too attached to me, our sex life would be ruined. Armed with information and support that these things do not happen – rather, that children do want to sleep in their own bed eventually, that they grow up less dependent when parented this way, and that with a little bit of creativity, sex can be better than ever – we forged ahead.

From my perspective, things have turned out fine.

Image by Maja

20 thoughts on “How Breastfeeding On Demand Changed My Life”

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience. It brought tears to my eyes! Your experience with Ezra mirrored the one I have had with our daughter thus far. Breastfeeding on cue has been such a blessing to us!

  2. My Ezra, real name Jared, is now 31 years old. He nursed on demand, co slept and grew up to be a caring and loving daddy

  3. My little guy is almost 3 months and it was my instinct to have him co-sleep with me and BF him on demand. I do the same with feeding him and sleeping. I however am a single mother so I don’t have to worry about the sex life issue. I do sleep so much better and the bond between my son and I is so strong. Thank you for sharing! Makes me feel like I’m doing something right. 🙂

  4. So about the sleep deprivation, did that take care of itself before he turned a year old? Did your back ever hurt from co-sleeping with him? Did he ever get evaluated for GERD, a sleep disorder or autism? I love you promote the gentle living lifestyle here but can we get the whole story? As a new mom I have to say I am struggling with my own Ezra except he’s 11 months. He can stay up 15 hours, no naps and goes to bed after midnight with protesting. I bf on demand and he’s been to the doc, had a sleep study and I have to say we’re really struggling here. This isn’t coming from a critical place. I consider myself an attached parent. Can anyone else relate?

    1. My son was like that until he was 2. I did not allow him to stay up until midnight though, even if that meant bedtime was 9pm for myself as well. He didn’t fight sleep as long as I was with him, all lights were off and the house was “bedtime” quiet (no TV in background, etc.)
      There wasn’t a thing wrong with him, he’s a normal 3 year old now and sleeps like a rock from 9p-9am still won’t nap but I’m not worried about it, this is just who he is.

    2. I have the same issue, except mine is going on 2 years. I can tell you from experience that my life go so much better when I stopped thinking about what my child is “supposed” to be doing and focused on what she was. I just stopped worrying and accepted this was my child. We sleep when we can and I love her as much as I can. We brought her into our bed (she had always slept in her room) and things have gotten better.

    3. Hello there, my boy is 18 months old and still nurses at least 2 times during the night. He is also not the best sleeper, most days he only takes a 1 1/2-2 hour nap. He will not go to bed before 10pm some times it wont be until around midnight, and he is up by 7am regardless of what time he went to sleep the night before. He is always full of energy and very healthy and happy. I just figured some kids dont like to sleep. He was diagnosed with Acid Reflux as a baby but as long as we keep dairy away from his and my diet since I still breastfeed on demand, he has no issues with it. We also bed share and honestly it gets uncorfortable some times but most of the time it is fine, my husband and I love the bond and the moments shared when bedsharing. So I dont have a magic solution for you but I wanted you to know that you are not alone in this. Sooner than we think they will be claiming their independence and we will be smiling at the memories, that is what gets me through when the going gets tough 🙂 good luck with your little one.

    4. I had a hard time accepting the “on demand” part with my first born, we hardly slept and every day I would get more and more frustrated, till I decided to just take him to bed with us. Then a slow journey begun for him to sleep through the night and then in his own bed (he’s a restless sleeper). Today his 9 years old, the smartest kid I have known, totally independant and so loving it surprisesme sometimes. We now have a 2 month old who has been fed on demand and co slept with us since day one, needless to say I don’t regret a thing.

  5. As I read your experience, it brought tears to my eyes because I can relate to it as if I was reading my own story! I breast-fed (and still breast-feeding) my six children. My youngest son will be three years old this month, breast-fed on-demand and co-sleeps with us. There’s no end in sight yet but that will come in due time. Enjoying every moment I am given with my little man. Thank you for sharing your story!

  6. Hi Allie, I am so sorry that you are also struggling. My 15 month old was this same way early on. He gave up naps at 5 weeks old and just within the past few months started randomly taking 45 min naps.. My little one hates, the car seat, strollers and baby swings/vibrating chairs. All of the old tricks would not work. My heart breaks for you because I know your frustration. I had to quit my job and change my life dramatically to accommodate this high functioning first born. Needless to say, he had scared me away from having the big family I always wanted. When I had him evaluated, they found nothing wrong other than a child who wanted/needed little sleep. I envy all the other mom’s with sweet baby’s sleeping in carriers at restaurants/grocery stores. I hope yours gives you some relief soon 🙂 all the best, a fellow exhausted mommy

  7. My daughter could not sleep alone, refused to nurse longer than 5 minutes very 1 1/2 hours, and weakened often at night. She did not start sleeping more than 5 hours without wakening until well after her 3rd birthday. It is hard. Sone kids just don’t sleep as much or as long as others. She is a very active, healthy and articulate 5 year old now. Melatonin every night was our solution, once she was old enough. I tried everything to avoid even this natural supplement. Turns out it saved my health and sanity. With it she sleeps 9 hours and is usually asleep by midnight. Without it, she is up til 2 and back up at 8.

  8. My daughter, my youngest child, would not sleep off of me for more than 20 minutes until she was a three yrs old. I alternated between times of great frustration and creative ways to meet her needs and mine and her brothers’ . I’d nap with her. I’d hold her, sleeping, while I read to the boys. I’d wear her while I did some housework. Now she’s 22, a college honor student, and those years are a distant vision in my rear view mirror of life. And she does sleep in her own bed!

  9. Does anyone else find it interesting that these “scientific” parenting methods, introduced in the 40s, produced a generation of people who created the sexual revolution and essentially ruined modern society? Maybe it was that lack of touch that created such an insatiable need for it.

  10. Thanks for sharing your story. I too struggled (and still do) with concerned friends advising us to keep our children in their own beds. My 4-year-old son nursed on demand until he was nearly 2 and slept with us for as long as he wanted to. He made the decision to sleep the whole night in his bed, and was very happy about it. My 2-year-old daughter still nurses on demand and comes to our bed every night, and we think that whenever she’s ready, she’ll choose to sleep on her own. They are both extremely independent and seem very secure. Maybe we are all on to something!

  11. I have an almost 13 month old daughter and I have been co-sleeping with her since the day we left the hospital. I nurse her to sleep and she still wakes a few times during the night and like you, I just roll over and breastfeed on my side. My partner sleeps in the spare bedroom but it all works well for us. I believe in what I’m doing and it keeps my daughter happy and content. This is how I intend to sleep with her until she’s ready to leave my side 🙂

  12. My 4 week old daughter won’t sleep unless she is in my bed during the night. During the day she is fine in her bed. This means I get maybe 2 to 4 hours sleep. What is a safe way to have her Co sleep in my bed?
    How have you all Co slept with your children when they were so young?

  13. Your experience mirrors mine. My first went from our bed to her crib at 9 weeks and started sleeping through the night. Started solids at 6 months and slowly cut back and then weaned just after 11 months. My second at 7 months feeds every 3 hours if I’m lucky and I don’t see him moving out of our bed anytime soon. It has been really hard and has really tested my patience between a baby who won’t let me put him down and a still demanding and sometimes attention hungry child. I’ve felt it has been harder this time because I am at home while my husband was at home with our first giving her pumped bottles and that our second was too strongly attached to me but this gives me relief that it’s just a difference in child, not in parent and it wouldn’t change if I were to try leaving him with someone else.

  14. In response to Jill C; “Scientific” child-rearing began many, many years before the 1940s (think Kellogg in the late 1800s), and in fact produced many generations of physically, emotionally, and sexually abusive (in direct reference to Kellogg and his suggestions) parents… It was only with the “sexual revolution” and the “hippies” that our American society began to realize that maybe we weren’t heading in the right direction.

    Even today, I struggle with all the “advice” I receive that I am somehow damaging my child and my own life by not neglecting my child, or forcing her into things she isn’t ready for or doesn’t want to do.

  15. Wonderful article, and so important! I nursed on demand for over 5 years – best decision ever and I got great sleep with him by my side from the beginning. Moms are fed so many suggestions that we can’t think straight, but luckily I listened to my motherly instinct more and that has always served me well.

    Moms know when something feels right, moms know when something isn’t right, and we need to have the courage in this fast-paced world to slow down and listen and follow our instincts. Attachment parenting and on-demand nursing was the charm for our family and I wouldn’t do it any other way.

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