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 .

Busting Baby Sleep Myths

Whether or not your baby sleeps through the night, remember your success as a parent is defined by so much more.

Without a doubt, sleep deprivation is one of the biggest challenges I have faced to date while raising A. The lowest points were after her twelve week birthday. We went to bed together one evening as normal and instead of the couple of hours I had become used to, she woke up after forty-five minutes. And then forty-five minutes after that. And…well you get the picture. For a long time, she woke very frequently. She was *gasp* a couple of months shy of four before she really consistently slept for most of the night.

I cannot count the hours I spent googling baby sleep. Sleep became an all-consuming topic for me. I read everything. Worried about everything. I was determined to find out WHY my baby would not sleep. I lacked a lot of knowledge about what is normal sleep, not just in babies, but in toddlers and preschoolers. I wasted a lot of time. While we did find some triggers for her frequent waking, some of it was just personality. Miss A is now a bright, inquisitive, smart and curious pre-schooler and sleep, well sleep is boring isn’t it? Her father also gets by happily on less sleep than average. Indeed, some studies have suggested the way our children sleep, may actually be largely genetic.

I really want to say one thing I think a lot of parents need to hear, so listen up. If your baby doesn’t sleep through the night, it is unlikely to be your fault.

Here are some of the most common myths about how and where babies sleep:

Your baby should be sleeping through the night by *insert arbitrary figure here*

A lot of popular information suggests babies should be capable of sleeping through the night from an early age. In reality, instead of talking about “sleeping through the night” we should talk about babies sleeping in ‘consolidated blocks’. In many scientific studies, ‘sleeping through the night’ is defined as sleeping a 5 hour period between midnight and 5am. Not quite the picture parents have in mind! Research has shown huge variance in when babies start to sleep in consolidated blocks and whether they settle themselves, or ‘signal’ (read yell their little heads off) for assistance. We don’t know why there is such a big difference, though many feel the answers lie in the personality of the baby.

BASIS suggests it is completely normal when infants wake frequently for the first year and beyond. Indeed, they say 13% of year old babies, still do not sleep in a consolidated block of 5 hours or more regularly. Gives us a slightly new perspective on those baby sleep books!

Toddlers definitely shouldn’t be waking up at night though right?

Though there seems to be a huge divide about when babies should sleep through the night, it feels like most people are in agreement that toddlers definitely should. However, again, the research doesn’t particularly back this idea up. Studies have shown that toddlers often continue to wake up during the night and need input from their parents, well into the second year of life.

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, someone who has spent an awful lot more time talking in an evidence-based fashion about how children sleep than me, suggests sleeping through is more like a roller coaster, than a linear trajectory. Basically, children are all different, and some may sleep “well” from babyhood, others may well be into their pre-school years before they consistently start to “sleep through”. Both are normal.

Formula or solid food helps babies to sleep better at night

Yeah, I had high hopes for starting solids too. My baby was totally going to sleep through once she was on solid foods! Except she didn’t. Also, formula fed babies still wake up frequently at night, the difference is, you also have to go downstairs and make bottles when they do. When people insist babies fed formula sleep better it is frankly insulting to their hard-working parents, who are up with bottles in the middle of the night. Seriously, it’s not like safe formula prep at 2am is the easy option! I wish we would stop saying that it is. These pervasive myths are by far best addressed by this lovely video from the team at Swansea University (I apologise if the catchy tune gets stuck in your head!):

If you stop feeding your baby at night, you will get more sleep

Sometimes night weaning might be helpful, and sometimes- it might not. This is because advocates of night weaning often forget that night waking is not just about food for babies. Development spurts often play their part. It is particularly common to hear parents asking about night weaning when they are smack in the middle of a leap. This may be absolutely the worst time to attempt night weaning. Your child is waking because they need reassurance, pulling away might actually make things worse or result in a lot of distress. Successful night weaning often depends on whether the child (and the mother) is truly ready.

I gently night weaned my preschooler when she was three. I’ll be honest, at first it made absolutely no difference to her sleep, and in fact, she still wakes up and asks for a cuddle and a drink. So if you are considering night weaning, it might be a good idea to think carefully about how you will feel if sleep does not improve. If your child still wakes up, will night weaning still help you feel more rested? For me, it made quite a lot of difference as I struggled to sleep through night feeds, but could sleep through a cuddle. If you are a mum who finds you can sleep through the night feeds anyway, it may make less difference.

Most gentle parenting and breastfeeding advocates do not suggest night weaning babies under twelve months old. These babies may still need night feeds. Which leads us on to…

A baby no longer needs to breastfeed at night once they have reached a certain age or weight

It is common for people to suggest babies do not “need” night feeds once they are six weeks/six months/double their birth weight etc…

Firstly, can we define ‘need’? Breastfeeding is, as well as a way to satisfy hunger, a relationship. A breastfeed is a cuddle, immunity, reassurance, warmth. How many times a night might you wake and have a sip of water, adjust your blankets, reach out for a warm body to snuggle into?

Secondly, this doesn’t take into account that all babies are different, and all boobies are different! Have a read about milk storage capacity here. Some mothers may need to feed more frequently to give the baby the same amount of milk per feed as her friend. This is not a mother with a supply problem, but natural variation. In order to support a healthy milk supply, breastfeeding works best when babies are fed to cue. In the first year milk is the most crucial part of baby’s nutrition and what is important is not how much baby gets per feed, but how much they get in twenty-four hours. A set rule for everyone just goes against basic biology.

In many cases, breastfeeding is a far easier way to get baby to sleep more quickly, and get better quality sleep. Use that magic while you can!

Responding to your baby every time they cry at night, makes children dependent and clingy

This is so far from the truth it makes me laugh. There is a wealth of research which suggests responsive parenting promotes healthy, secure and confident children. See Unicef’s “building a happy baby” leaflet or look into “attachment theory”. Not responding to children has been shown to do exactly the opposite of making children independent. Sleep training is a divisive subject and a blog post of its own. I will simply say, it isn’t the magic bullet people suggest, and that more information on it can be found here.

Responding to your baby does good things for both of you!

Bed-sharing is *the* most dangerous way for your baby to sleep! Don’t do it!

So this one was a massive bug-bear of mine. We previously have not been having nuanced conversations with parents about where breastfed babies should sleep. Positively, the tide seems to be turning a little recently, with the Lullaby Trust, Unicef UK, BASIS and PHE collaborating on new safe sleep guidelines which finally discuss bed-sharing in the mix.

Why is it important to talk about this? Because otherwise parents do not talk to their health visitors about this for fear of judgement. And then, they do not get the information they need about how to bed-share safely. On any given night 22% of babies will be bedsharing with their parents. Blanket recommendations not to bedshare have been clearly shown not to work and may have even increased the risk of SIDS for our babies.

We have historically focused more on the risk of bed-sharing to breastfed babies than we do on the increased risk of SIDS from other practices which parents might turn to instead- like sofa sleeping or giving formula instead to help their baby to sleep. Why have we not talked more about the impact of alcohol, smoking and drugs on SIDS rates? Risks which are so much greater? Why are we still not getting our knickers in a knot about the relationship between poverty and SIDS rates and holding society accountable for that? Focusing our support and resources on all of these things would have so much more impact.

Unicef Co-sleeping Guidance for Health Professionals

For a long time health professionals have been in a tricky spot. Advocating 6 months exclusively breastfeeding yet having to advise against one of the tools that help many people to achieve it. Studies suggest “breast-sleeping” (i.e. bedsharing as a breastfeeding mother) supports breastfeeding, with mothers showing increased responsiveness and increased breastfeeding overnight (see below for links to a wealth of research information). Mothers who bedshare also tend to breastfeed for longer than mothers who do not.

I could go on about this forever, but I won’t. I am glad the guidance is finally start to shift in line with the reality for many families. If you are considering bedsharing with your baby, read evidence-based information and decide what is right for your baby. Safety guidelines are really important if you go ahead. You can see these in the new guidance I have already linked, as well as here, and here, and here.

If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing, what would it be? I would love to do away with this culture where parents who announce their child is sleeping well get congratulated. I slept well for years before children. I am pretty sure nobody said “well done” every time I woke up after a full 8 hours. Nobody insinuated this made me a better person, or that it was because of the big dinner I had that night. I want to stop having to reassure and comfort tired parents in breastfeeding groups who think their baby is broken. Not because it annoys me to do so, but because this crippling pressure is unfair to them. We create it with expectations which are so off-kilter from reality it is ridiculous. I would love people to start showing empathy to parents rather than judgement. Maybe help them out around the house, or make them a coffee. In the absence of a magic wand, I hope the myths busted in this blog help. Watch this space, and subscribe or like me on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for news of upcoming blogs about how to cope with frequent night waking, and gentle night weaning.

You can find more good information about sleep here:https://www.basisonline.org.uk/

Recommending reading about infant and child sleep:

Bedsharing research:

For more papers from Prof Helen Ball

Evidence based bedsharing info from BASIS site

Prof. James Mckenna’s work here

Image Credit: https://www.basisonline.org.uk/co-sleeping-image-archive/

Updated: 27/03/19