Night Weaning of Older Babies and Toddlers: Mothers share their experiences

“When will my child sleep through the night?” is a question so many mothers ask. It is a question I have asked. When we hear that our friend’s infant started sleeping for 10 hours a night at five months of age, we sigh a little bit, knowing that very night we’ll be up with our two-year-old who has yet to do it. Some days we can go-go-go on little sleep while other days are not so easy, especially with the myriad responsibilities we have. We wonder if we should night wean, either partially or completely. We wonder what book will have the answer. We wonder if a sleep training method will solve our “problem.” And we wonder these most often when exhaustion and sleep deprivation don’t creep in, but rather pounce.

Why do some people use the expression “sleeps like a baby” to refer to a child or adult who sleeps soundly all night long? When I think of sleeping like a baby, I think of my own baby, who sleeps for 15 minutes and wakes up crying. Then she sleeps for 90 minutes and wakes up crying. Then she sleeps for two more hours and wakes up, you guessed it, crying. And so the night goes on. I want my 17-month-old to STOP sleeping like a baby and start sleeping the way some people interpret the expression: soundly and all night long.

Our story is like so many others. Many mothers have asked themselves and each other what they can do in order to get a full night’s rest. How can we get our children to not need us during these long, exhausting nights? We hear lots of well-intentioned advice: ‘Let your child cry it out.’ ‘Give him a bottle of formula before bed to fill him up so he won’t wake up hungry.’ ‘Have Dad go in and hold her so she gets some comfort, but not breast milk.’

We know that newborns and young babies need to feed at night to get the calories they need. Whether or not to wean or sleep train an older baby or toddler is in part a personal choice (for more on this, see the article on this website “Does Your Older Baby Still Need Night Feedings?”). We must do what is best for our families. Some of us choose to night wean and some of us choose to continue doing what we’ve been doing all along--meeting our child’s needs night after night.

I asked the mothers on the Breastfeeding USA Yahoo chat group for advice on night weaning when I was literally sick from being tired from getting up so often with my little one, who sleeps in her own room. I received both suggestions and support.

Breastfeeding USA provides evidence-based breastfeeding information and support. This article is not based on evidence, but is an example of the kind of support provided by Breastfeeding USA. It is a collection of mother-to-mother wisdom, comments, and suggestions on how to get through the nighttime hours. All comments come from Breastfeeding USA members.

"When [my daughter] hit three, I spent a few days with, ‘Well, mommy didn't get a lot of sleep, so we are playing at home instead of the park.' Sure caught on, since nights she didn't wake me I was little Miss Perky going to the park…"

"Key for us was that *daddy* stepped up to take on the primary ‘night time parenting role.’ Baby realized that daddy wasn't the milk source and was much better at accepting soothing back to sleep by daddy and not me. We waited for a time when baby was healthy and not teething. With one of the kids the first attempt was not good, so we waited and tried again a couple months later. Of course ... both kids continued to wake several times at night until they were two or three years old."

“I didn't night wean. Yes....I offered water instead of nursing sometimes, and when she was actually just thirsty, she was happy with the water and I was happy for the break! There were times when I asked her just to snuggle, and sometimes that was enough (which, I guess, could be considered night weaning). I didn't insist on having my way about it, though. If it was mutually okay, then fine. Most of the time she really just wanted the comfort of nursing. I would remind myself that this won't last forever (although, in my case, it did last for four years, but she is a particularly needy child). I'm very happy that I was able to do that, but not everyone is able to. You have to do what will work for you and your situation.”

“I never considered night weaning. The idea of having to actually become fully awake to deal with a fussy child was not what I wanted to deal with. Guess I am just lazy. I have been caring for kids my whole life, as the oldest of a large family and a frequent babysitter in our apartment buildings. Even those who were "sleep trained" woke at night. So to me, nursing at night was an easy way to get the most sleep. And some of mine nursed night and day even longer than four years. I did, however, always remove my nipple from the mouths of sleeping babies, so they did not get used to just holding it in their mouths.”

“A couple of quick ideas that have worked for moms I know:

  • Move baby IN the crib into your room (less up and down, less wide awake).
  • Move baby IN the crib and sidecar it to your bed (there are lots of safe ways to do this).
  • Make a bed in baby's room for you or your partner to sleep comfortably during the night, and plan on staying there (perhaps you sleep there from 9 pm to 2 am, and he takes over from 2 am to 6 am it'll be a temporary thing).”

“Sometimes, just going to sleep and getting more sleep can help you feel like you can cope longer. I would also add that if you are going to attempt a night weaning plan, first get more sleep, by taking naps and/or going to sleep earlier for a couple of weeks. Feeling centered before you approach something as tricky as changing nighttime behavior can make a person go a little crazy. I’ve heard it takes 21 days to make or break a habit. With persistent people (behaviors) it takes longer. To adequately and sensitively approach a new nighttime routine, you must think about the entire month and make sure that there won't be any visitors, planned vacations, surprise houseguests, etc. Also, I tend to think that spring is a good time to approach something like night weaning. During the winter, when there is the proclivity to catch colds and feel horrible, night nursing often saves everyone.”

"…many mothers will want to know, step by step, how to get a straight eight hours of sleep. I always like to start with smaller steps. So I shot for a straight five hours, understanding that was the definition of "sleeping through the night." I chose my five hours from 11 pm to 4 am. I would actively wake up my babies to nurse at 11 pm and bring them to bed with me so we could all get some sleep. That didn't work for my sister.”

“A friend used a night light on a timer to help manage night needs. In her case, the rule was nursing only when the light is on. I think her daughter was more two to three when that worked. It would probably be harder for a younger baby to get the reasoning, but maybe not.”

"Napping during the day or at least dozing were what helped me survive. I am a night owl, so sometimes flinging the baby at my partner the second he walked in the door and then napping until dinner (I'm blessed to have married a man who loves to cook) would help me get a second wind until my bedtime. And grudgingly for months at a time I would forgo my preferred bedtime and go to sleep with the kids at eight or nine in anticipation of interrupted sleep."

“…there is no single ‘right’ method that will work for everyone.”

“Some things I found that affected my children's frequency of night waking were: food allergies, teething (woke me up all the time when a wisdom tooth decided to erupt at age 40... so I get it now!), overstimulation, food additives, especially artificial colors and flavors, and my nemesis, caffeine, even decaf after 12 noon, kept our youngest awake half the night wanting to nurse every hour.. I think most of us consider (however briefly or not) night weaning when we are exhausted and finding it hard to function. It also helped me to pay attention to colds, changes in routine, etc."

“There is one thing that was also a lifesaver for me. My husband gave me Saturday mornings. When the baby woke for the first time on Saturday, I would nurse then he would take him and play, watch TV, go for a walk, whatever it took (with runs to me when nursing was really necessary), to continue until noon. This allowed me to sleep, bathe, or even grocery shop on my own. There were weeks when I was in countdown mode by Wednesday, but somehow knowing there was a break coming allowed me to cope. This can also be done with a friend if dad is not available or cooperative :)”

“I just came across an interesting piece in a Washington Post health section…It says that in the winter, lack of daytime sunlight makes it harder to sleep at night…They conclude that it is crucial in the winter months to get outside and soak in some natural light. Seems like something mothers and grandmothers have been saying for years--get outside and your child will have a better night's sleep!”

“A good friend had the most startling success story with night waking and food allergies. Her baby was eight months and nursing every hour. She read the book Tracking Down Hidden Food Allergies and put them all on an elimination diet. It turned out to be legumes--all kinds--that irritated her son's system.”

“I think that sometimes there can be anatomical obstructions that create sleep problems. Having a good physical from a qualified doctor who isn't going to peg breastfeeding as the problem is helpful.”

I took all of these suggestions to heart and gave some of them a try. Surprisingly, even though I was hoping to find an effective way to night wean my baby and thereby get more sleep, what helped me most were the comments of empathy, support, and affirmation that getting up to breastfeed was, for us, the right thing to do. Comments like these gave me the strength to regroup and re-energize.

"Now is not forever."

“Even as adults, we all wake at night. Just because you night wean your toddler doesn't mean you will necessarily get more sleep, and it takes away a valuable night parenting tool.”

“How often are new mothers asked, 'When do you plan to make him walk?' Sounds, silly, doesn't it, because we KNOW that babies will walk when their bodies are ready to do so. Same thing with talking. So why don't we believe that they will stop nursing when they are physically and mentally able to do so?”

“The following passage from the chapter 'Getting Enough Rest' of Norma Jane Bumgarner’s book, Mothering Your Nursing Toddler was very helpful to me: ‘First of all, nursing is not the cause of your losing sleep. That is hard to believe when the whole household is quietly asleep—that is everyone but you. The little one nods off, still clinging to your nipple, but like so many mothers who slept well while their small infants are nursing, you find it difficult to sleep while nursing a little child. So you, little one attached, lie grudgingly awake in the peaceful night. Every time you remove your nipple from his mouth, no matter how carefully, he starts kicking and crying. Under these circumstances you are not likely to be very receptive to my suggestion that it is not the nursing that is keeping you awake. Well, technically, you are awake because of the nursing. But I would suggest that in reality you are awake because of being the mother of your child at this time in her life. I would suggest that if you were not lying there half-awake nursing, you would probably be stumbling around fixing a bottle or an apple slice, or rocking and patting, or fumbling among the toys under the bed looking for a lost pacifier. . . .'"

“… if I were to attempt other forms of nighttime parenting (putting my partner on nighttime duty, offering a cup of water versus nursing, etc.), I would still be waking when my son needed me and it would be even harder to get back to sleep. Once I made my peace with these things, I no longer resented nursing at night. For me it was better than the alternative. And at around two-and-a-half years, my son started going all night without nursing all on his own.”

“Lucky for me, I had read Dr. Sears' The Fussy Baby Book about high-need babies and in there he says children aren't really neurologically developmentally ready to sleep through the night until age three…”

“We are all in this together…You have everything inside you that you need to be the best mama to this little person!”

“Most of all we trust one another to reach out, to share, and to ultimately decide what is best for our child, since it is only the family who lives 24/7 with its members that knows what will work.”

“…I just wanted to say I SO feel your pain!”

I am thankful for all of the Breastfeeding USA members who took the time to share their suggestions, their encouragement, and their stories. What I appreciated most was the lack of judgment. No one told me that I should night wean. No one told me that I would be in the wrong to do so. I will continue to turn to Breastfeeding USA members--smart, knowledgeable, experienced mothers.

One thing is certain: Our babies are only babies for a short time. As hard as it is for me sometimes to get up night after night, I keep telling myself that in a few short years she won’t want or need me like she does now. That knowledge reminds me to cherish our nighttime feedings. Currently I still get up when my little one needs me. We have not night weaned.

For those who are interested, the following list contains links to websites provided by Breastfeeding USA members about various methods of helping older babies and toddlers sleep:

Special thanks to the following Breastfeeding USA members, who gave me permission to share their posts: Karen Abraham, Genevieve Colvin, Kathleen Doerr, Celina Dykstra, Donna Gilbert, Ginger Gorrell, Cecily Harkins, Lynn Kutner, Beth Lichy, Penny Piercy, Norma Ritter, Krista Cornish Scott, Patty Spanjer, Ruth Tincoff, Lisa Wilkins.

References

Bumgarner, N.J. (2000). Mothering Your Nursing Toddler. Schaumburg, IL: La Leche League International.

Crook, W.G. (1980). Tracking Down Hidden Food Allergies. Professional Books: Jackson TN.

Sears, W. & Sears, M. (1996). The Fussy Baby Book: Parenting Your High-Need Child from Birth to Age Five. Boston, MA: Little Brown & Company

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