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NAK. It’s an acronym I see a lot on natural parenting forums. It stands for “Nursing At Keyboard.” In other words, multitasking. Nursing while typing, and possibly also eating lunch, chatting on Facebook, and doing an art project with your older kid. Getting stuff done. Because that’s how moms roll.

It makes sense, right? Especially if you have a child who breastfeeds all the time. Multi-tasking will save your life. Or at least your sanity.

Which is why it drives me crazy when I come across articles like this one that tell me I should give my full attention to my baby while I’m nursing. If it were just Janet Lansbury saying this, I could probably discount it, because even though I love a lot of things about her philosophy, her posts generally make me want to pull my teeth out. (She just makes everything sound so perfect and inevitable. Many AP writers do the same thing. “If you follow this technique, then your child will never want to watch tv, he will always be calm, self-entertaining, and brilliant, and a platter of calorie-free but delicious wine and cupcakes will magically appear on your table every afternoon at 4.) But I got the same reprimand from Norma Jane in Mothering Your Nursing Toddler, who urges mothers to gaze lovingly into a toddler’s eyes without flinching while the nursing child twists her body so that her feet are on your left shoulder and her teeth grip your right nipple. All of which sounds great, but in the real world where I live, nursing is the only time I get to sit down. In fact, I rarely get to sit down even when I’m nursing. Also, even my “easy” newborn is probably latched on for a good ten hours a day. (We won’t even go into what it was like with my “high-needs” baby.”) And much as I love my babies, I don’t think I have the emotional energy to gaze into anyone’s eyes for ten hours a day. Plus, it’s impossible to gaze lovingly into the eyes of someone who is falling asleep.

Still, I wonder about this. There aren’t many parenting topics that have the power to make me feel guilty anymore (because I’ve reached the point where I just don’t care what anyone else thinks). But this one does make me worry sometimes. And it’s not just about breastfeeding. It’s everything. I’m a big proponent of the “benign neglect” parenting philosophy: I want my kids to be self-directed and self-sufficient, so I try to give them opportunities to play independently, to entertain themselves, and to work things out on their own. But the trouble with this is that you can easily get to the point where you are with your kids all the time and never really paying attention to them. You have lots of time together, but none of it is meaningful. You’re never really paying attention.

I am not about to quit multitasking while breastfeeding, at least not entirely. (For one thing, I’d have to quit blogging, and you all would miss me, right?) But I have been working on ways to give short bursts of fully focused attention to both of my kids. It’s true that a little focused attention goes a long way: after a few minutes of me really playing with her, Anastasia is a lot more able to play on her own for a while. So here are a few of the ways I’m trying to offer that kind of attention at regular intervals. Without giving up my NAK habit.

1. Anticipate the need for attention. This means you have to pay attention even when you’re not really paying attention, but it’s worth it. It’s a lot easier to transition from letting kids play on their own to doing something together if you notice quickly when independent play starts to break down. If you wait too long, you may have a meltdown on your hands. As soon as Anastasia starts to get frustrated or bored with what she’s doing on her own, I try to stop what I’m doing. Which doesn’t mean I immediately interfere–it just means that I’m ready to be available to her if necessary.

2. Find an activity you both enjoy. When we do focused activities together, it helps if we both like them. My husband is a genius at this. He has gotten Anastasia interested in all sorts of new activities. For example, he recently bought her a circuit building kit. (She likes it, but I think he’s enjoying it a lot more.) When he plays guitar, she dances (I don’t know why this works for him, because whenever I try to play guitar, she tries to snatch the pick from me and adjust the tuning. But whatever). He also takes her bike riding, although she likes that more than he does.

I like reading to her, so I’ve been suggesting that as an activity more often. I also have her help me with cooking and housework a lot, neither of which I really enjoy, but they’re more fun with help. Plus that’s the only way they will ever get done.

3. Let the child decide when she’s done. There’s a balance here. I have found I can keep the opportunity open for Anastasia to go back to playing by herself without pushing her into it. When she gets bored with what we’re doing together, she’ll usually wander to something else, and instead of following her or trying to keep her attention, I go back to my own thing, too. This makes for a nice rhythm.

And when I describe it like that, it sounds like it works awesome, whereas in reality these days I’m usually going back and forth between giving her attention and giving Teddy attention while the other one is frustrated or crying. But sometimes it works. Usually because I put Teddy in the sling and then hold Anastasia in my lap (while trying to keep her from crushing him by leaning back on me) and then pay attention to her while nursing him. See? Multitasking again.

But there are days when it works like I described it in the first paragraph.

4. Give yourself breaks. This is different from going back to whatever activity you need to be doing, like answering emails or cooking dinner, unless of course that activity is relaxing for you. But it’s a lot easier to give kids focused attention when you have emotional energy yourself. So whatever gives you that emotional energy–you need to do that too. Even if it has to wait till after bedtime (or even if you have to hire a babysitter to do it).

5. Try new things. This may be the most effective one for me, although I probably do it the least. But when I get Anastasia some new art supplies, or if she gets a new board game, then I’ll really want to experience that new activity with her. We both get to try something new, we’re both interested in the project, and we both have fun. Win-win.

What about you? Do you play constantly with your child, or do you wonder if you ignore them too much? How do you balance the two? Tell me in the comments!

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