What a topic, right?
You are exhausted. You all need more sleep. And, your nipples are screaming that they cannot stay all night in your child’s mouth, any longer.
Infant/baby/toddler sleep & how it relates to nursing has to be one of the most variable & individualized topics there is when we’re talking about those first few years.
How this will look depends on many factors: your child’s age, where they sleep (cosleep vs own room/sleep space), how they sleep during the day, how they eat during the day. You can still night wean, meaning no milk at night, & your baby not “sleep through the night.” They may need comfort, cuddles, rocking, water, whatever. So just to get that idea out of your heads – that night weaning definitively equates to 12 hours of uninterrupted sleep – no. And that’s ok! It is what it is. Some babies sleep better than others. Some babies sleep really well until they get a new tooth or get sick. Some babies night wean themselves at a young age.
We cannot – I repeat – CANNOT beat ourselves up over these uncontrollable differences between our children. Comparing with other parents can be a slippery slope. I personally like to hear about other people’s experiences because it can be helpful to me to hear their struggles, or get some ideas for how to implement a new habit. But it can also make us feel like we failed or that there is “something wrong” with our child, which there isn’t. Human beings are animals, mammals more specifically – & beyond that, communal beings. We are hardwired to sleep together for survival + to meet emotional needs. As adults, we wake up at night & put ourselves back to sleep unknowingly. Children/babies are learning this skill. They wake up & go where the eff are my parents?! And might want some reassurance. It’s normal. Is it hard to deal with in modern society where we have work & an endless list of tasks to complete each day? Absolutely. But we need to keep fresh how our nature works before we can dive into modern hacks for making the natural work within our very unnatural modern societal structure.
MODERN MINDSET / EXPECTATIONS
I’m not going to tell you a hard age where I think night weaning can be considered a good idea & that your baby is ready. It’s too individual. Babies are wise + they know their bodies. Nursing is much more than food. It’s confusing sometimes to think that they may be waking just for comfort & not food, since they ARE getting food, but that may not be WHY they wake. Especially as they get older (12+ months), the waking for actual food ingestion or from true hunger is less likely. They get attached to a habit, & sometimes that habit is really hard to break (enter, my daughter).
If every time I woke up in the night, someone held me & let me leisurely sip the most delicious drink I’ve ever had, I’d probably stick around for those wake ups night after night, too. If someone offers me that drink in a cup/bottle, I might be less inclined to wake, but I still might. If someone tells me “hey I love you, it’s time for sleep,, you’re not getting that drink anymore,” I might be upset, but I learn I don’t get the drink anymore. You can see where I’m going here that they have incentive to wake up, & we can empathize with this situation.
Also, did you know that prolactin, the hormone that helps make milk, is highest at night? Babies may like to drink at night because they can get a lot.
Did you also know that nighttime breastmilk contains melatonin & tryptophan, which help induce sleep and also aid in brain development? Babies don’t even produce their own melatonin for the first several weeks of life. Cool stuff. But I get it – you want to sleep. And we’re not talking about night weaning tiny babies (I do not recommend that). So let’s talk about sleep!
A NOT SO QUICK NOTE ON COSLEEPING / BEDSHARING
I think cosleeping is great – & it makes the most sense from a biological/physiological perspective. It often allows parents MORE sleep, because their baby is content at night + nurses as needed once they’re not a tiny newborn, etc. While I know this is likely the *best* thing for my child in many ways, it’s not what we do.
SPOILER ALERT: We can know what is *best* & still it doesn’t work or we chose not to do it. Yep.
This is often the case for moms who try to breastfeed & are unsupported/cannot. They may have wanted to so desperately. Or, they may have chosen not to for various reasons. It’s ok. We move on. If you think you will be a perfect mother, you may be creating hell on earth for yourself – & I know this because I used to think it. More on that later (my list is growing!). Anyways, cosleeping didn’t offer more sleep for either myself nor my children, & I cannot for the life of my side-lie nurse with my little breasts, so my children have slept in cosleeper things next to my bed & I sit up in bed to nurse them. They’re close to me, but not snuggled into my body like I fantasized that they would. I used to have a lot of guilt about that. And then I, *cue Elsa* LET IT GOOOOOO!
There will always be arguments about these ideas – sometimes people take the tenet that babies have needs & parents should meet them 100% no matter what always & forever, to their own sacrifice. Parental mental health is important. “Put your own mask on first,” is like the truest sentence ever written. Let’s drop the judgement of ourselves or others & know we can get all our needs met & meet those of our babies, in HEALTHY ways, that work for everyone.
SO, whether your baby sleeps in their own room, their own space in your room, or right under your armpit all night – there are some things you can do to help facilitate night weaning. BUT FIRST, let’s lay a foundation for how to do this in a kind way that honors that our children are real full humans.
PS I’ll tell you right now, if your baby IS cosleeping, my #1 recommendation is to look into the Jay Gordon night weaning method.
FIRST OF ALL, no matter how you do what you’re gonna do, let’s lay a foundation that can apply to probably every aspect of parenting:
- Your child, from day one, is a full human with the capability to understand
- They are highly perceptive read your energy better than you may realize
- The kindest way to lay any new habit or rule or boundary, as a parent, is to embody CALM CONFIDENCE that you believe in this new way of life AND that you believe they can do it
- You do this without anxiousness/anger/resentment toward the child
- You hold space for their emotions, which are THEIR RIGHT to feel as well as to express, in reaction to your new habit/rule/boundary (that you get to make, because YOU are the parent)
- You TALK TO THEM, tell them what is going to happen, “there will be no more milk tonight at night.”
- Then, when it is happening, you acknowledge what they want & walk them through what is happening in simple, clear, confident terms. “I see you are awake. Milkies are asleep / milk went to sleep / there is no more milk tonight / I will not nurse you / no more milk, I will hold you/rock you/pat your back.”
- You tell them what you want them to do, clearly, lovingly, with the air of utmost unwavering confidence. “It is time for sleep, I want you to go back to sleep. I love you.”
Be clear, be loving, be consistent. This doesn’t have to be militant, although I can hear how it may seem that way. It really is just kind – by sending a clear message of what you are or aren’t going to do, acknowledging that you see they want something or are upset, and then telling them what it is you want them to do. And having your actions follow your words. It will look different for literally every person, and different for each baby! My son was a completely different sleeper than my daughter.
NIGHT WEANING: IMPLEMENTATION
If your baby is young, & IS getting a significant amount of calories at night, choose a slower transition of dropping feeds, maybe dropping one feed every 3 days for example, would give your baby time to adjust & start eating more during the day. If your child is older & not depending on these feeds for calories, you can do this a few ways. And first, pick a time to do this when your child is not sick, not recently gone through anything traumatic, & is not getting a giant tooth or something.
- Drop feeds, slowly, one by one. Methodically pick a feed to drop, starting with the ones SOONER in the night. Ex: if you baby wakes around 11pm & 3am to eat, drop the 11pm one first. You can tell your baby there will be no milk & you want them to sleep, rocking them/patting their back whatever works – or you can offer them something different instead of nursing. This may be some sort of water or other kind of milk (almond, oat, goat, cow etc.) in a cup/bottle. If your baby can drink from a cup or straw, I highly recommend staying away from bottles for this.
- Shorten the duration of the feeds, essentially removing them from the breast earlier & earlier each night until you don’t give it to them anymore. Ex: if baby nurses 10 minutes, cut it to 6ish, then 3ish, then 1ish etc.
- Cosleeping, my #1 recommendation is to look into the Jay Gordon night weaning method. Go to his website, click blog, & read the article called “Sleep, changing patterns in the family bed.” You may also want to wear a bra + shirt to bed to reduce the temptation/smell. You may want to move to the other side of your partner or bed, etc.
- Read children’s books together about how milk goes to sleep at night & comes up with the sun in the morning
- MAKE a little cartoon book, especially if you have an older child you can participate in this with you, about how milk is done at night time – let them color it, read it together, etc.
- Tell your baby one night, “there will be no more milk at night,” & then stick to that plan in a more “cold turkey” style. This is what I’m planning on doing with my 14 month old daughter – & adding the book about milk going to sleep. Wish me luck.
- You can let your baby take the lead & eventually they will stop drinking at night, I promise. It might be 3-5 years, which is within the realm of physiologically normal it’s just not common (because parents make sleep changes, mostly. Many 3 year olds would drink all night if they could).
I believe in you, you can do it.
“It takes as long as it takes” is my new favorite phrase ever.
Some things to expect: they may want more cuddles/nursing sessions during the day, they may want to be held more during the day, they may have big feelings that didn’t come out at night but *do* come out during the day that seem “unexplained” but absolutely definitely have an origin, etc. You also may notice nothing at all, they don’t seem to care or mind the change at all! Lots of children are like that. It’s SO INDIVIDUAL.
WARNING: a factor that makes night weaning difficult is that whole “middle of the night amnesia” thing that happens where you unintentionally nurse the baby when you meant to do something different. You’re exhausted & half asleep & it’s habit for you, too. It’s tricky to change! I’ve definitely been victim to this dimmed mental state at night where I meant to stay true to a new habit I was helping her learn – so just know that that’s a thing, it might happen, consistency is better but hey – we are human.
And lastly, the breastfeeding resource of all resources, Kellymom.com has a slew of other ideas to help you, as well! Thanks for sticking around for my state of the union address on night weaning!