The link between a breastfeeding parent and the breastfed baby is damn near magical. When my daughter woke up at night, I woke up too, right away, at the same time. I cannot explain why or how this works, but it does and it has been documented by researchers. Breastfed babies and parents synch their sleep cycles to arouse from sleep together. Babies who rouse from sleep regularly are known to have a lower risk of SIDS, and babies who cosleep with their parent tend to rouse more often than babies who don’t.
Babies, especially young babies, have irregular breathing patterns, it’s their normal. They sometimes have little gaps in their breathing called sporadic breathing. They will stop all together for a second or two, then start up again all on their own. They breathe deep breaths, then shallow breaths, then pause for a moment, then breathe deep breaths again. This is fine. They won't stop breathing for long enough to harm themselves.
The rate of death due to SIDS is highest right around the three month mark. There's something going on in the brain at this time, the brain is switching systems from one form of breathing regulation to another, and one of the possible reasons for SIDS increasing at this point is perhaps the neurological "switch" doesn't happen smoothly.
I put my hand on my daughter’s body and couldn't feel her chest rising and falling. I couldn't hear her breath. I counted in my head, hoping it would start up again. One... Two... Three... I didn’t know when she had stopped breathing. Five seconds ago? Two hours ago? Panic rose so quickly my skin started to prickle and my heart drummed fast enough to make my chest ache. I shook her gently, begging the universe to please, please let her respond. I had no idea what I would do if she didn’t.
She startled, threw her arms out to her sides and gasped loudly. She took a deep breath in. So did I. She went back to resuming normal breathing patterns, staying deep in sleep the whole time.
I did not. I stayed awake for a while, terrified that she might do it again. I kept my hand on her belly and felt it rise and fall, rise and fall. Eventually after listening to her breathe and feeling her little body breathe under my hand for a while, I tucked her in closer to me and fell asleep again. i expected it to be a one-off event and while it indeed spooked me, it didn't worry me.
She did it again the next night. I woke up in a panic before I even realized what was going on. I put my hand on her, prayed "please no..." And shook her gently. She gasped in a big breath. I was even more terrified than the night before. Now I was getting worried.
She did this three nights in a row. In one night, I woke up twice to find she had stopped breathing. I lost a lot of sleep those three nights. I couldn't fall asleep for fear of missing it one time. It would only take me missing it one time. I decided to call the doctors office in the morning, she may need to see a specialist to be assessed for apnea. We may need to change our lives around and introduce some medical support or special machinery to monitor her. I may never sleep again. I would whisper to her, as she fell asleep for the night, "promise me you'll be here with me in the morning."
A little over three months later, and I can finally write about this experience and reflect back on it. Turns out she's fine - she just had a couple of scary nights where she stopped breathing. There's no more explanation than that to be had. She's never done it since and I really hope she never does it again. Would she have started breathing again on her own had I not shaken her? I have no idea. Maybe, but I wasn't going to wait to find out. Would you have?
The most remarkable thing about those three terrifying nights was that I woke up. I woke up four times, immediately knowing there was something wrong before I was even awake properly. Remember I said that babies and their parents synch in deep and mysterious ways? This was one of them. It’s a bond that breastfeeding parents and babies have. (Interestingly, studies show that this bond likely does exist for formula-fed babies). This bond protects babies.
And while I can never ever know for sure, I do think that sleeping in bed with me saved her life.
- Kyla, Doula at Sisterhood Wellness Collective