Gentle Night Weaning for Toddlers and Older Children

Image of a sleeping toddler with a soft bear

Have you fallen into the dark side of night boobing? Are you wondering if night weaning is the answer?

As a breastfeeding support volunteer with a breastfeeding child, I often find myself talking to parents about night weaning. Firstly, there can be lots of pressure to stop breastfeeding your child overnight. Whether you choose to do so is your decision. If you are happy night nursing you crack on, you’re doing a fabulous job! Really, feel totally free to scroll on by. If you are thinking about night weaning, read on (apologies in advance, this is a long blog!).

It is normal for babies and young children to wake at night and sleep isn’t connected to how you feed your baby. Boob is a magic tool for many parents, nobody should feel ashamed for making the most of the gift biology has given them. Night nursing your child is also important nutritionally for babies, especially those under twelve months. Some research suggests they can take up to a third of their calorie needs at at night.

However, eventually some of us hit the dark side of night feeding. For me this was around two to three years in. It can be useful to wait until your baby is at an age where they can properly understand the concept of night weaning, often this is after the age of eighteen months.

When Might Night Weaning be Difficult?

Children will still have developmental leaps and growth spurts after babyhood. These can be the times we think about night weaning the most! They are also the times your child may be least receptive to night weaning. Often during these leaps children are reaching out for reassurance. Night weaning may seem like pulling away. You may find instead of accepting the process your child will become distressed.

If your child is poorly or recovering from illness it probably isn’t a great time to night wean. I would even say if your child is night weaned when they are sick you may still want to use boob to comfort them. That’s totally OK.

Will Sleep Improve After we Night Wean?

I’ve touched on this before in my blog about baby sleep myths. For some parents, night weaning helps. Others may find their child still wakes frequently at night. Just because your child wakes and breastfeeds, it doesn’t mean they wake to breastfeed. Factors that influence a child’s sleep can be multi-faceted. Breastfeeding is often a scapegoat for night waking, but it can actually be useful tool to get the family back to sleep quickly.

Before embarking on night weaning it can be helpful to ask yourself- ‘How will I feel if I do this and my child continues to wake up?’ ‘Am I doing this for myself or for other people?’ ‘Am I truly ready to night wean?’ ‘Is my child?’ The only person who can answer these questions is you.

My Night Weaning Story

I had false starts before I finally night weaned A. In truth, the first times I tried I wasn’t really committed. Night weaning can feel like a huge change! If you aren’t ready it can be emotionally hard and you might find you give up on the process.

Miss A and I had been talking for a long time about Mummy needing to get more sleep at night. We read the book “Nursies When the Sun Shines” together and she loved it. The concept her baboos (her word for boobing) would go to sleep at night though? That was a different kettle of fish entirely!

As more time passed I got to a point where I was ready to stop night feeding, regardless of what happened with sleep. The protests A made when I tried to avoid a night feed also felt like they had changed. It started to feel more like… when I didn’t let her have a cookie, rather than emotional distress. Something had shifted.

I knew saying “no” to breastfeeds wouldn’t go well. During the day when I wasn’t wanting to nurse we had reached a compromise where I allowed her to latch on for a count of ten. I decided to try this at night and it worked well. I kept shortening feeds and after a while it felt like less of a leap to say “baboos in the morning” instead. She accepted it quickly once I made that decision. There were some tears during the first couple of nights but nothing a cuddle couldn’t handle.

I continued to co-bed during this period. She had never settled for her Dad at bedtime and it didn’t really make sense to suddenly involve him. I think it would have only distressed her. I didn’t want to remove myself from comforting, just the boobies!

What worked for me might work for you, it might not, it is an individual process. Here are some other things to consider.

Before you Start

  1. Communicate. Let your child know what is happening. Talk to your child about boobies going to sleep and having boobie in the morning. Reading “Nursies when the Sun Shines” like I did is one option. Other parents might make their own story book where they say goodnight to things in the house and you say goodnight to boob at the end.
  2. Small steps first. Consider introducing a comforter a month or so before you night wean. Alternatively introduce a special song, soundtrack or a special scent instead. Other parents stroke their child’s back or shush while feeding. The idea is to create a sleep cue outside of breastfeeding.
  3. Food and Drink. It might help to take some water to bed. Word of warning, water won’t cut it if your child wants boob cuddles! However, children can get dry mouth at night and may appreciate a drink if they can’t have boob. Let them know a cup of water is there before going to bed. In older children night breastfeeding is often not about the milk as much as the connection, but, do think about their nutrition during the day. If your child is breastfeeding frequently at night will their needs for protein, fats and calcium be covered?

Night Weaning Tips for Toddlers and Small Children

  1. Drop the first feed- Children often fall deeply asleep when they are first put to bed, so it may be easiest to start with dropping the first feed of the night when they settle to sleep more easily. You can try the other comfort measures you have introduced when they wake. Once they accept not breastfeeding at the first feed, you can drop the subsequent feeds one at a time, until finally all feeds are dropped.
  2. Shortened feeds- Much like I did with A, you could experiment with shortening feeds. Some parents like to use a countdown like me, others might sing a special song. You can reduce the countdown or drop verses, or even sing more quickly!
  3. The ‘pull off’ approach- This is another approach to shortening feeds. In her book “The No Cry Sleep Solution” Elizabeth Pantley talks about removing your child from the breast just before the point that they fall asleep. You can shush at this point or use some other comfort method. The idea is that if your child roots for the nipple again, offer it back. The theory is your child will drop off to the other cue and you can begin the process of removing the nipple earlier in the feed until boobing is no longer needed at all.
  4. Back up buddy- Some parents find if their partner has been involved in settling their little one already, it can work well to send them in for settling some of the feeds. Word of warning, if your child is not used to this it may have the opposite effect! Reflect on how things work in your house and follow your instincts.
  5. Bed Sharing-If you bed share, continuing to do so might make things easier. While the boobie goes to sleep, the comfort from your presence remains. Taking away both of these things at same time might be a lot of change. Encouraging your child to sleep apart from you can often be worked on later.
  6. Clothing-Think about what you will wear to bed. Clothing which isn’t as easy to access might be useful. I still remember waking up one night after we had night weaned, to a cheeky A sneaking in a breastfeed when she thought I was asleep!
  7. Don’t say “no”, say “later”- “No” can be such a trigger word for small children!
  8. Block of time approach- One advocate for this approach is Dr Jay Gordon and you can read more about his approach here. The principle involves picking a block of time- say midnight to 5am- to avoid breastfeeding. During that time you do other things to comfort your child. This might be a tougher one than the other gentle measures I have talked about. It is worth reflecting on how you feel about it, carefully, before starting. Shorter blocks of time to start might be easier. Remember it is OK to adapt things to suit your own child.

You may use a mixture of these strategies or you may find your own unique approach! Listen to your heart, your instincts and your little one.

Tears and Tantrums. When do we Stop?

If it feels hard, it’s OK to stop. It’s OK if there are false starts along the way. You can always try again at a later time. You might find the process is two steps forward and one step back. You may reduce many of the feeds and decide, actually, you are OK with one 5am feed because otherwise your child is up for the day and you don’t want to get out of bed! (Seriously, it is not worth it, CBeebies isn’t even on at that time). All families and children are different. You will know when it feels right.

Importantly though, it is OK to want to night wean. I don’t subscribe to this idea that if you are child led you must completely subjugate your own needs. If you are breastfeeding an older child, let alone still breastfeeding them throughout the night, that is something rare! Feel proud of everything you have done. Great job. You rock. If night feeding your older child is making you feel resentful of your breastfeeding relationship, night weaning might just be the option which helps you to carry on, rather than completely weaning your child. Your needs matter. If you feel conflicted, why not have a chat with a breastfeeding counselor?

Did night weaning improve things for me? Yes and no. Initially, night weaning made no difference to the frequency of A’s night waking. What it did do, was make it easier on me. I couldn’t sleep through her breastfeeding but I could sleep through a cuddle. I was woken for cuddles and drinks a lot for quite some time afterwards. She really started properly sleeping through around six months later (she was about three and a half). She may have done this by herself if I hadn’t night weaned. It is hard to know. Waiting for when I knew we were both ready to night wean, meant I was a peace with what happened either way.

Wishing everyone sweet sleep (or lots of coffee if you have a sleep thief on your hands). Much love, Oxytocin & Other Stories 💚💚💚

Image of lots of cups of coffee

Further reading:

Sarah Ockwell-Smith

The Milk Meg

Kathryn Stagg IBCLC blogs on toddler night weaning and night weaning toddler twins!

Emma Pickett IBCLC

Nursies When the Sun Shines

Like this? Watch this space, and subscribe or like me on FacebookInstagram or Twitter for news of upcoming blogs .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s