How to Survive a Nursing Strike

[Note: Any time I use the word “milk” in this post, I’m referring to breast milk. Whenever I talk about a bottle, I mean a bottle of breast milk. I’m not trying to be down on people who use formula. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if you read “bottle” as “a bottle of formula” everything still makes sense. However, we don’t use formula. I just want to be clear about what I mean, because breast milk is all we have around here to put into the baby’s bottle and therefore it is all that tends to come into my mind when talking about such things. Also, I hit my quota for using the word “breast.”]

Gather ‘round, everyone and I’ll tell you the story of the Great Nursing Strike of ’15.

It was back in October and Baby Z was a fussy little man. He had been going through another wonder week and seemed to be teething pretty fiercely (at least, he was drooling like a St. Bernard), so it wasn’t a shock that he might be having a rough time. What made it especially trying was that Z didn’t nurse at all from 10am until 1pm the following day.

We’ve never had a nursing strike like that before. Z previously had one lasting about 12 hours and I’d had the impression that we might have weathered a small one from MeToo once. In retrospect, that might have just been her not feeling terribly hungry one afternoon. This was the real deal.

Z would seem as though he wanted to nurse (he probably did, I suppose), and would eagerly get ready to, but then balk at actually latching on and taking milk. He’d be crying, his mother would be full of milk (painfully so, after a while), but Z just wouldn’t have it.

Now, don’t think that Z was starving. He was having real food in addition to breast milk so he had stuff to eat at mealtimes. Still, he usually nursed about eight times in a 24-hour span, and soon I could tell that in addition to all the other messes he had going on, he was hangry, as well.

The Wife tried everything she could think of. She showed Z videos of babies nursing. She tried to nurse him while he was sleeping, while he was in the bathtub, lying in bed, sitting in a chair, and while holding him like an infant instead of his usual positions. His big sisters pretended to nurse. The Wife was planning to go to a friend’s house to nurse her baby in front of Z.

What finally did the trick was the Wife putting peanut butter on her nipple. Once Z was enticed into actually putting the nipple in his mouth, the spell was broken and he was back to nursing.

(Yes, the Wife gave her permission for me to share that.)

Nursing strikes like this are not out of the ordinary. In fact, if a baby is going to have a nursing strike, it will often be when they’re between 6 and 12 months old (Z fell right in that range). During that time, babies are becoming much more aware of the world around them, so they go through periods when they are very sensitive. Your baby still wants milk but something has thrown him or her off stride. (In Z’s case, he was having a difficult day as I described above, plus he took a tumble while climbing around that seemed to have really spooked him — but since he wasn’t talking, it was hard to know exactly what his deal was.) The important thing to keep in mind is that this does not mean your baby is ready to wean.

If you are, like me, a dad and therefore largely a helpless spectator to this kind of event, there are some other things you should bear in mind.

A nursing strike essentially plays out as a crisis between mother and child. Mom is the subject of the strike, after all. This is bound to be accompanied by emotional turmoil. Even if a mom knows better she will probably feel rejected, especially if it is a lengthy strike. On top of that are worries that the baby is simply done with nursing for good or would rather take milk from a bottle instead of her. (This, my fellow dads, is why you shouldn’t be the one to suggest giving the baby a bottle. Let it be her idea. And be ready for her to burst into tears when the baby sucks the bottle down after refusing to nurse all day.  Not that my authority comes from firsthand experience.)  Finally, if she hasn’t nursed for a while and hasn’t expressed or pumped any milk out, she’s going to be sore. So be careful when you give her that reassuring hug, and watch your elbows the rest of the time.

Oh, and she will no doubt feel frustrated and helpless because she can’t fix this problem. You will certainly feel helpless since you can’t do squat to resolve it, either. But you can’t even nurse the baby when all is right with the world, so you just have to suck it up and try to provide support and comfort to the two parties directly involved.

One of the best ways to be comforting and supportive during this trial is to remind the mom of exactly what I wrote a few paragraphs back. Namely, that nursing strikes happen every now and again, and that she is not being rejected by her baby.  Tell her you love her.  Tell her you are proud of her.  Tell her you know it is not easy, that it takes a strong woman to nurse a baby.  Thank her for giving of herself to feed your child.  Tell her she is beautiful in her strength.

It’s worth repeating that a nursing strike does not mean your baby is through with nursing. Maybe your child is having mouth pain or a stopped up nose, or maybe there has been some distracting change in their environment. Whatever the exact cause, a nursing strike happens because something is wrong from the baby’s perspective. It is just a symptom of whatever the underlying problem is.

You’ll also need to comfort the baby, too. Your little one isn’t being difficult just for the heck of it. This might seem like a simple situation to an adult — if you want milk, just go ahead and have it! Keep in mind, though, that there are many things which seem obvious and easy to an adult that are incomprehensibly strong and complex to someone who is less than a year old (and still getting their brain’s functions sorted out). Your baby would tell you what’s wrong if they could understand and communicate it. Your baby would deal with the issue differently and express themselves differently if they had the capacity for it. Babies don’t enjoy a nursing strike any more than anyone else and need just as much help through it as everyone else involved.

By way of wrapping this up, let me leave you with some things to try if your baby is on a strike.

* Try nursing in a different position. If you two have a favorite position that you normally use, change it up. Try to nurse sitting up, lying down, or even standing if you can manage it. Hold them like newborn or have them sit up on your lap. Whatever you can think of.

* Change the environment. Do you typically nurse in the bedroom or living room? Go into the kitchen. If you normally have the TV on, turn it off (or vice versa). When your baby is having milk, is the environment usually quiet or is there background noise? Is it dark or bright? Well, whatever it is, make it different the next time you make an attempt to nurse.

* Try during a different time of day (or night). This is just a variation on changing the environment but it’s worth pointing out. Don’t worry about keeping to your regular feeding schedule; you can work on reestablishing that once the nursing strike is over. Also, babies can be more willing to nurse when they’re sleepy (or asleep).

* Provide some examples. When you’re ready to nurse show your kid some videos of babies at their mothers’ breast. If they don’t seem interested in emulating what they see on YouTube, do you have any friends who would come over and nurse their baby in front of yours? You might try nursing someone else in front of your baby, another one of your children or a friend’s. This might make your baby jealous (“that kid is eating my lunch!”) but maybe that’s the motivation they need to get back on track.

* Peanut butter on the nipple. Okay, it doesn’t have to be peanut butter. The idea here is to do something that will hopefully induce your baby to put the nipple in his or her mouth rather than turn away.

La Leche League has a FAQ and resources page devoted to the topic of nursing strikes, and there’s lots more information available elsewhere. We hope that you and your child never have to endure a nursing strike yourselves. If it happens though, just remember: it is normal and it will pass.

“Chirp!”

There’s a noise that you can hear in my house only every once in a while. The best time to hear it is at night or during rest time because if the kids are up the sound is overwhelmed by their talking, singing, laughing, hollering, running, jumping, banging, and bouncing. But when all else is still and quiet, and you’re in the right part of the house, you may notice it.

“Chirp!”

What was that? Was it the creak of a spring as RU rolls over in her bed? Was it the heat coming on? Did the dishwasher finish? Is it that noise the fridge makes when someone doesn’t close it all the way? Is it a cricket?

Did I imagine it? Because —

“Chirp!”

No, there it is again.

Only now I’m over in the kitchen checking the refrigerator and the dishwasher. It turns out the dishwasher is ready to be unloaded after all, and while I’m clanking around with plates and silverware I can’t hear the noise. Then, either the kids wake up from their nap or it’s nighttime so I’m ready to go upstairs to bed. Either way, it will be a while before I notice the sound again…

“Chirp!”

Which turns out to be (as you probably guessed) a smoke alarm needing its battery replaced. It’s actually the one in the garage, which explains why it’s so hard to hear no matter where in the house you are.

The very first time I had to replace a smoke alarm battery in our home we were still settling in and lacked some standard household junk. I scrounged up a random 9-volt battery from somewhere and stood in the upstairs hallway waiting for the culprit to sound off so I could zero in on which smoke detector it was. Is it the one in the hallway or the one in the bedroom? Or the one in this bedroom? Finally, I decided which one was giving the plaintive cry of a fading battery and hauled a chair upstairs so I could change it out.

“Chirp!”

The sound persisted. I’d picked the wrong one, of course. I fished the old 9-volt out of the trashcan (it must still be good, after all) and used it to replace the real dying battery.

“Chirp!”

Only after I spent several minutes swapping batteries among three different smoke detectors did it become clear that two of them needed replacements at the same time. Between the 9-volt I’d found and the ones from the three smoke detectors, I now had four different batteries but only two of them (at most!) had any juice left, and I’d lost track of which ones were which. Before heading to the store, I shuffled them around one last time… No more chirping.

Good enough for now, I thought to myself, but I’ll have to go to the store soon and pick up some more batteries before they start up again.

Naturally, the next two or three times I went to the store I forgot about the smoke detectors that were hanging on my ceiling, sucking the last few volts left, just waiting to start their symphony up again (probably in the middle of the night). Eventually, I stopped remembering that batteries were ever a thing I needed.

“Chirp!”

Until the noise started again. This time, it was a different smoke detector than any of the ones I had fooled around with before.

I immediately stopped what I was doing and drove to the nearest big box store. (As you might have guessed from the fact that I was able to do anything “immediately,” this part of the story takes place prior to us having any children.) There, I bought an entire brick of 9-volt batteries. While I was at it, I bought a sleeve of D-cells for the flashlight we can never find and a 100-count box of AAA batteries in the mistaken belief that we owned anything that took that size. I bought so many batteries that when I set my bag in the passenger seat and started to drive out of the parking lot, my car kept swerving to the right.

As soon as I got home I changed out every single smoke detector in the house. With the possible exception of the one in the garage.

“Chirp!”

Naturally, the piece of furniture we’d had to buy just to sort and store our plethora of batteries is now packed up and in a storage container. We no longer have a single spare battery in the house, 9-volt or otherwise.

So the other day, the kids and I went to the grocery. This involves me wearing Z in a carrier while hoping to find a cart with two seats for the girls (ideally shaped like a racecar). In such situations, a prepared list is a must or else I’ll come back home with two different kinds of cereal, three different kinds of bacon, and a movie from the $5 DVD bin. This time I had a list, and on that list (among other things) was a pack of 9-volt batteries.

But where to find them? After making a pass through the entire store, we still hadn’t located any batteries. Here was the quarter of an aisle devoted to school supplies — no batteries there. You’d think it would have been in the section with air filters, light bulbs, and shoelaces but you’d be wrong. I even scoured the Aisle of Totally Random Toys but failed to spy any batteries amongst the bags of army men, coloring books, and travel-sized Milton Bradley games.

I searched down each aisle a second time to no avail. The kids had previously been doing great but once they sensed that we were wandering around aimlessly, they began to beg and reach for whatever we were passing at the time. (“Daddy! We have to have this! Please?” “No, you don’t need any oven cleaner!”) That meant it was time to go.

The single open checkout line was full of people who had nothing better to do on a weekday morning than buy a month’s worth of groceries, so we opted for using one of the self-checkout stations. That involved putting RU into the cart so she could pass me items to scan (leaning over is something I try to minimize when I’m wearing a baby) while MeToo initiated a Chinese Fire Drill and started orbiting us. Naturally, they’d gotten bored during my quest for voltage and were more than ready to be all done with this adventure. Frankly, I was too.

Finally, we got ourselves checked out and headed for the door… Which took us right by the battery display inexplicably located between checkout and the exit.

Why? Why? It made no sense! What did they expect people to do? Make a post-last-minute impulse buy and get back into line with a pack of AAs? Use their X-ray vision to see through the shelves and the cashiers and the checkout line to display? (Heck, even if I did have X-ray vision I wouldn’t have thought to look there for it.) Even if I’d seen it earlier, I was wearing a baby while pushing a cart the size of a stretched limousine. There was no way I would have been able to squeeze my circus past the people waiting in line and then loop back to pay for them.

Now that we were checked out and more than ready to go that wide selection of brand-name batteries at rock-bottom prices was not a last-second chance for me to acquire what I needed. No, it was more like having someone kick me in the teeth while that kid from the Simpsons laughed at my pain.

“Chirp!”

Whatever.  The smoke detectors are hardwired into the house. As long the place doesn’t happen to catch fire while the power is out we’ll be fine.  Most days the circus drowns it out completely.

“Chirp!”

Twitch.

The Empire Strikes RU

Big news: the family sat down and watched The Empire Strikes Back the other day.

Yes, long-time readers of this blog will know that this is, indeed, big news. I am someone who has geeky (or is it nerdy?) interests and one of the joys of parenthood has been getting to share them with my children.

I was born in 1977, the year of A New Hope (is there a symbolic connection there?), and like many nerds (or geeks) my age Star Wars had an gargantuan influence on my imagination throughout childhood. I don’t remember my first viewing of The Empire Strikes Back (which came out the same year my little brother was born —which was absolutely an omen, I assure you) but I was alive when it came out and rocked everyone’s world. I can recall anticipating the release of Return of the Jedi quite vividly, although actually seeing the movie in the theater is a little hazy.

The experience of Star Wars that I want to share with my children isn’t just the movies themselves, but also that sense of waiting for and wondering about the next chapter. As I’ve written about in more detail before, my yardstick for how and when to expose them to the various films all boils down to their experience of a single scene. I’ll consider this venture a success if the moment in The Empire Strikes Back when [SPOILER] Darth Vader is revealed to be Luke Skywalker’s father comes as a real shock and surprise to my kids.

I first showed RU and MeToo Star Wars* about a year ago. That experience made me rethink my initial plans for spacing the movies a year apart. They were clearly too young to really get what was going on. I was probably being too hasty. No need to expose them to any of the sequels or prequels until they were older. The girls were a little more into it when we rewatched Episode IV about six months later, but it only confirmed for me that we should stick to just that film for at least a couple of years.

Then, on Saturday afternoon, the Wife said, “Hey, let’s watch Empire Strikes Back.

To which I replied, “Um, I don’t know if… Okay!”

I couldn’t help it. The Force has awoken and excitement about the Star Wars franchise surrounds us and penetrates us — it binds the galaxy together…

Er, sorry. Where was I? Oh, yes! We went ahead and watched Episode V. The best of the bunch.

Before starting the film, we had a quick review.

Do you remember who Darth Vader is? Yes, he dresses in black and captured Princess Leia. His friends are the stormtroopers. They wear white and are very bad.

And who’s Luke Skywalker? I don’t know. Oh, he wears white clothes and helped rescue Princess Leia.

Who’s Han Solo and Chewbacca? They help Luke rescue the Princess with their spaceship. (MeToo: “I not afraid of Chewbacca! I like Chewbacca!”)

So RU had retained a lot more than I’d thought. Great!

The opening crawl was mercifully easy to follow from their perspective. They knew who Vader and Luke were, they could tell the good guys from the bad guys, and there wasn’t anything in the setup that was beyond their grasp. RU immediately understood that the Rebellion was hiding and the Empire was trying to find them. She even surmised that whenever they were found, the good guys would go hide somewhere else before the bad guys could get to them.

The very beginning is actually quite slow compared to pretty much any action-oriented movie I’ve seen in the past decade or two. Any moments of violence that might take up an entire action sequence in a modern movie, like the bits with the Wampa (the abominable snow-monster) or the probe droid, are incredibly brief. Most of what comes before the Battle of Hoth builds tension (oddly enough, by having the main characters ask questions that we know the answers to — “Where’s Luke?” “What’s this strange signal we’re picking up? Is it transmitting an Imperial code?”). The girls stayed with it, though; they were fresh out of nap time and fully committed.

Which was nice, because it meant that RU at least could follow what’s actually going on in the Battle of Hoth sequence beyond just watching all the action unfold. She was definitely into it, asking questions and saying “Uh-oh!” with each telegraphed danger. (The rebel officer looks through his space-binoculars and sees something out there, but only part of it. He scans upwards and — “Uh-oh!” RU says — reveals a titanic dinosaur-like machine with guns in its face! “What’s that?” “An AT-AT Walker.”) Watching the battle through her eyes, especially after pointing out how the good guys were just fighting to delay the bad guys long enough for most of them to get away, the desperation and dread of the Rebels really came through for me in a way it hadn’t in a very long time. The sequence masterfully punctuates the overall downbeat of a fighting retreat with momentary triumphs.

“YES!!!!” (RU, after the first Imperial Walker is finally taken down and blown up.)

“Whew! They made it.” (RU, as the Millennium Falcon finally gets off the ground and flies away just as Darth Vader enters the hangar.)

Dagobah was scary — there are a lot of scenes in Empire that have a sense of menace, even during calm parts of the story — and Yoda initially creeped the kids out. That surprised me. I had expected the girls to already know who he is just through osmosis. Z has Yoda pajamas, after all. Still, I remember that when I was young it took me a long time to really warm up to the diminutive Jedi master, too.

About this time, MeToo turned to me with a wait a second, let me get this straight look and said, “We have two Star Wars?”

We stopped for dinner about halfway through, taking a much needed break. Even though our girls can sit through eight episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood without blinking, an intermission was vital for helping them through a two-hour long plot intended for people with longer attention spans.

By the time we started back up again (with the Millennium Falcon arriving at Cloud City), however, MeToo was getting restless. She was still watching the show but was wriggly and talkative. (“Chewbacca can’t talk. He just says, ‘ARR! ARR!’”) A lot of what she said, though, was, “Why are they being mean to each other?” She said it when Han decks Lando, when Chewie attacks some stormtroopers, when Han yells at Chewie to calm down, when Chewie tries to strangle Lando, and any time the stormtroopers shove anyone around. I didn’t want to ignore her questions, but without seriously interrupting the movie I didn’t have an answer better than, “They don’t like each other” (or “Chewbacca’s angry”). Besides, answers based on the plot would have little meaning for a two-and-a-half year-old. Maybe that explains why she wasn’t particularly focused on the movie at that point.

Then, something happened. Luke had arrived at Cloud City to save his friends (just as Vader planned). His friends, however, escaped on their own and took off (after having failed to rescue Han — even on my umpteenth viewing, my reaction to seeing Boba Fett just fly away is “Whaaat? Did that just happen?”). Luke is now wandering Cloud City on his own. The place should be full of Imperial troops but it now seems deserted. He walks into the chamber where Han got frozen in carbonite and… Everyone gets completely silent. Even MeToo. Even Baby Z. Something about that moment before Darth Vader steps into frame and the lead-in to it clearly signals stuff’s about to go down.

Luke and Vader square off, they fight, they separate, they fight, and then there’s the scene. I’ve been anticipating my kids’ reaction to this moment for years. In a way, I’ve been thinking about it even before I had children. Getting this right — making sure they are old enough, invested in the story enough, and paying attention enough to understand both this scene and the larger context for it — is the reason I’ve spent so much mental energy pondering the experience of the Star Wars series  and not, say, health insurance plans or anniversary gifts.

When Darth Vader finally corners a maimed, defeated Luke and says, [SPOILER] “Luke, I am your father,” I’m watching RU. Her eyes are riveted to the screen but her face is drawn downwards in that look that usually means she’s about to cry. She doesn’t get any tears, but it looks like she’s watching someone take a family member off life support. This is not what I had expected. You can find videos online people took of their children watching this scene for the first time. They’re always full of gasps or expressions of disbelief. I’ve never seen one where the kid nearly starts bawling out of sympathy for Luke’s pain in that moment.

I should’ve considered it, though. It’s easy to say that The Empire Strikes Back ends without closure on an emotional down-beat and is the darkest of the original trilogy. However, it’s easy to forget what that experience was really like the first time around. If you don’t know it’s coming, it’s a big blow that comes at the end of a wrenching sequence. Because aside from the big reveal (which RU absolutely got), the whole light saber duel is like a nightmare. Darth Vader is scary. He’s powerful, implacable, and has that whole unhurried/unstoppable vibe that can carry an entire horror movie franchise. Luke can’t beat him, or even hold his own. The duel is just like the Battle of Hoth, but more intense. The whole sequence is a long defeat for Luke, who barely manages to save himself from moment to moment.

It’s not just that Vader is more powerful; the particulars of the fight are like something from a bad dream. Luke, weaponless, hanging from cables just inches above Vader’s swinging light saber. Vader using the force to pull the room apart and throw it at Luke. Luke getting blown out of a window — for a heartbeat, you just know he’s got to be dead. As RU pointed out, Luke can’t even escape: “Why is it that whenever Luke goes somewhere, Darth Vader is already there?” By the time of Vader’s revelation, our hero has been stalked, trapped, and beaten in one scene after another. I had forgotten how hard that is to watch when you’re a young kid who has been sucked into the narrative and doesn’t know what’s going to happen next. (Plus, my girls are rather tender-hearted and aren’t used to seeing people get dismembered, despite the fact that one of their favorite shows is about a tiger.)

I squeezed RU closer and made sure she was okay. When it was over, I made sure to tell her that there is another Star Wars movie after this one where the good guys save the day. After the movie, she and MeToo both said that they enjoyed it, although it had a lot of scary parts. “Now let’s watch the other Star Wars,” MeToo urged.

MeToo meant “the other Star Wars movie we’ve seen before,” which was A New Hope, but I’m wondering if we shouldn’t show them Return of the Jedi soon, despite my edict that we would try to wait a year between showing them each film. Until now, I had been thinking about all this from the perspective of an adult who loves the original trilogy but saw it at such a young age that I can’t really remember what it was like. I’ve been wanting to craft this experience for RU, MeToo, and Z so that they can not only enjoy these films but have a clear memory of falling in love with them. I’ve kicked myself for being so impatient and starting them off too early. That’s absolutely the case with MeToo — she may enjoy the movies but she’s too young to really understand much about them. RU, however, may be too young to get everything that’s going on but she was clearly catching a lot. The last act of Empire shook her a bit, and the best cure for that is to finish the story rather than leave her hanging in the middle.

When she’s thirty, RU may not remember the first time she saw Empire Strikes Back. But that memory is fresh today and won’t fade (if it does) for several years. After this, she’s going to need the closure and happy ending that Return of the Jedi can give. Heck, maybe the key to making her a life-long fan like yours truly is to get her into the franchise when she’s young, when it’s enhanced by the rosy glow of bonding with her mom and dad. You know, before she’s a jaded 8-year-old who’s had everything spoiled for her and ruined by derivative sci-fi/fantasy series trying to capture what Star Wars had.

And once the girls get these movies watched, I can put them away for a while and try my original plan with Z in a few years.

*To people of my generation “Star Wars” is sometimes also referred to as “the first movie” or “you know, the original one.” Less often, it may be called “Episode IV” or “A New Hope.”

Happy New Year!

Well, we made it to 2016. It looked like it was going to be a close-run thing there for a while. Both MeToo and Z got infected with something after Christmas that turned them into feverish snot factories. They’ve had a difficult time sleeping, which means the Wife and I have been having a difficult time sleeping. Earlier this week, we had a night where they took turns being awake and inconsolable until… Well, I stopped keeping track of the time after 4am. The rest of this week hasn’t been quite that bad, but don’t think for a moment that we haven’t been experiencing a profound lack of sleep

Later this month, the Blog of the Dad will turn a year old. Look for us to start hitting some of those important developmental milestones — like walking and being able to say a handful of real words — soon.

Do I have any New Year’s resolutions? Not a chance. My resolution for December was to finish all the posts about our Iceland trip before the end of the year, and that sure didn’t happen. I don’t want to draw that out any further but there’s still several posts’ worth of material left. I’m toying with the idea of back-dating any more Iceland stuff so that it stays in 2015. So for those of you who wish to read about our attempt to see the Northern Lights, my huge parenting fail, or some unique kid-friendly things we found in Iceland, keep checking back in December to see if I’ve stuffed them into that month.

Going forward, I am also considering having fewer posts that are bigger and meatier. We’ll see how that goes.

Finally… I need to wrap this up and get some sleep! Happy New Year, Dear Reader!