Many breastfed toddlers reach a point when they figure out that during the day, they do not want to stop being active and having fun to breastfeed. Walking and eating new solid foods are novel skills they are just too excited about to take a break, be still, and nurse. They want to spend the whole day walking, playing, and chowing down on solid food. But they are not yet ready to wean; they still crave the nutrition from breastmilk and the bonding time from breastfeeding. Your toddler is so smart that they may realize that nighttime is boring and the perfect time to make up all that breastfeeding they have cut out of the day.
The long process of your child growing and maturing into their independence is one that they should lead. This should be extended to all aspects of parenting, including breastfeeding. However, I also understand that some people, under certain circumstances, must wean their little one at nighttime in order to get the sleep they need to be a good parent to that child. If you feel that this is the right choice for you and your baby, I can offer you a strategy for night weaning that maintains the dignity, respect, empathy, and compassion with which you parent. This strategy contains no CIO (Cry-It-Out) and does not deny your child you, your comfort, your contact, or your love.
Until your little one is old enough to understand what “night-night” means, they are too young for nighttime weaning. Your baby should certainly be at least 12 months old, older if you feel they don’t yet have a firm grasp on this concept. I also want to be clear that this is not a strategy for weaning from breastfeeding in general or an implication, in any way, that babies should be night weaning at 12 months old. If you are happily and functionally night nursing your sweet babe, then embrace it and treasure the time, as it won’t last forever, and you will look back on this precious time fondly.
Lay the groundwork for a gentle transition.
The first step is to introduce your child to the concept of things going night-night. Take some time to begin pointing out all of the things and people around you going night-night like the sun, Daddy, the family pet, etc. Allow this concept to really sink in for a couple weeks. Play this concept out with your child, as play is the learning language of all children. Role-play, use toys, read books, explore nature after dark and your child will understand this concept through positive, fun, educational interaction.
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You want to begin your nighttime with a nighttime routine that will help your baby to unwind, calm down, and relax while filling their love cup. I suggest something like saying good-night to the sun and hello to the moon and stars, bath, book (Nursies When the Sun Shines is the perfect companion for my night weaning method), massage, and breastfeeding. Infant massage is really the perfect thing to include in your nighttime routine because, in addition to research showing that your baby can sleep longer after a massage, it addresses/prevents a lot of the causes of night waking. You can pick up the Soothing Slumber video to learn this valuable addition to what you can offer your child in easing this transition. A nighttime routine rooted in connection is imperative for this process.
As you begin this transition, by pointing out that at night the world is sleeping and by setting up a good nighttime routine, also begin to build a sleep cue association. As you breastfeed your little one to sleep, introduce another cue for sleep alongside nursing. For example, softly sing a specific lullaby as you breastfeed them to sleep each night. Perhaps your little one responds well to running your fingers through their hair. Choose something to pair with nursing to sleep so that your child begins to associate all those warm, safe feelings elicited from breastfeeding with your new or additional sleep cue. Then, once the nighttime nursing is gradually removed, you have other comfort options that will be familiar and soothing.
Some children have transitional objects like a teddy bear or a baby blanket. My firstborn had their “silky B.” They needed only walk across it as it lay on the floor and they would collapse into a blissful, cuddly heap. My secondborn never had one . . . until they naturally weaned. It is common for children who have used their Mommy Milk as their primary comfort sanctuary (as well they should) to substitute with a comforting object. For Bay, who was infatuated with Peter Pan, his Peter Pan stuffed guy became his new nighttime best friend. As you are pushing this transition before it naturally evolves on its own, it can be helpful to provide options for potential transitional objects that your little one could gravitate toward as you move through this transition. So as you move through your nighttime routine, add a little company in the form of a few of their favorite soft lovies.
Hold a night night window when milk is asleep.
After you have laid the groundwork with the initial phases of the transition, it is time to set a time window when “milk is night-night.” You want to tell your little one during the breastfeeding portion of their nighttime routine that just like the sun goes night-night and “Baby” (insert child’s name) is going night-night and Mommy is going night-night, “milk” is going to go night-night. Substitute the word “milk” with whatever word you use for breastfeeding. Set aside a brief window of time to start with when the “milk” will be night-night. The first stretch of sleep is usually the deepest and longest, so that is where I recommend you begin. If your little one normally falls asleep at 8:00 and usually wakes ready to nurse at midnight, then start with that 4-hour window. If they wake to breastfeed during the 8-12 window, remind them, “Milk is night-night.” Nurse as usual (on cue) from midnight on.
During this time, your baby will probably be upset, and you are free to follow your maternal instincts and comfort, hold, cuddle, and love your baby. Your baby is never denied access to the caregivers who love them. Be sure to wear clothing that securely covers your breasts. I know my nursing ninjas could locate, retrieve, and latch a nipple before I even knew what hit me. Keep your breasts out of sight and locked down during this window. Sleeping topless would be like cuddling a cake while you try to kick carbs. Stick with your nighttime boundaries (keep the lights low, stay in your bedroom, etc.), which can provide familiar comfort, offer all those sleep associations and transitional objects you have been building up, and most of all, be a calm, loving, empathetic presence. Be the state you want to see in your baby, and communicate a compassionate confidence. If you trust that your little one will be okay, they will believe it, and they will.
If you are attempting to wean a younger one, upon upset, re latch and nurse down to almost asleep, then unlatch again (it can be helpful to press up under the chin to calm the rooting reflex). If they again get upset, nurse down again to almost asleep, then unlatch. Repeat. This will result in less sleep in the short term, but more sleep in the long run as your baby will be learning to fall asleep without the nipple in their mouth.
Once your baby becomes relatively comfortable with the brief window, you can then expand that window as you desire. I recommend keeping one bedtime cluster feed, one middle of the night feed to help bridge the 2 big chunks of sleep, and an early morning cluster feed (for example, having nursing available 6–8 p.m., midnight, and 4–6 a.m. Once your first half of the night is settled, then extend the night night window from 12–1, then 12–2, then 12–3, etc. I advise parents to ultimately land with that night night window on the hours that the parent sleeps. For example, if you go to sleep at midnight, the “milk” can be night-night from midnight until sunrise, giving you a solid chunk of deep sleep. Eventually you can drop midnight feed, then the bedtime feed, then the early morning cuddle-nurse-doze time (usually the last to go).
If you say “milk is night-night” and then they cry and you give them milk, it will be a much longer process with more stress and lots of tears. It is important to be consistent; that is why I advise beginning with only a very brief window of time and expanding from there. It’s important to meet your child where they are at. If they typically wake one hour after falling asleep for the night, then start with just a one hour window. After a few days or when they are settle there, take the next step up to a two hour window.
Sleep is one of those things that you have to accept will be different when you make the decision to have a baby. If, after years of meeting your baby’s nighttime needs, you feel your child is ready to transition away from nighttime as mealtime, this gentle strategy can facilitate that transition in a way that is loving and comforting and does not rely on isolation or ignoring any of your baby’s cues. Using a strategy that allows you to be there and responding sensitively to any distress your baby has during this transition will extend the foundation of trust you have worked so hard to build and provide you both with more sleep.
You can read all about getting a more restful night’s sleep while meeting your little one’s needs in the Sage Sleep book.