Breastfeeding is not an all-or-nothing process. Night weaning is a workable alternative for many moms, and baby continues to receive the many nutritional and immunilogical benefits of breastmilk.
Remember that sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone (like walking or toilet training) that different babies will reach at different times. At some point, your child will sleep through the night – even if you do nothing to encourage it.
If night weaning is not going well, then consider backing off and trying again a little later. The closer your child is to reaching this milestone on his own, the easier it will be for both child and parents.
Getting your baby to sleep is not a battle to be won, as it is so often portrayed in books and the media. The real goal should be for your family to get the sleep they need, while respecting the needs of the youngest family member(s).
Following are suggestions for easing your baby into less night nursing…
- Teething.If you suspect teething at all, it may help to give baby a pain reliever before bedtime (check with baby’s doctor for suggestions). Some babies nurse more often to try to relieve gum pain. Teething pain is often worse at night.
- Room temperature.Find your baby’s temperature comfort level: some babies will wake if they get too hot or too cold.
- Solid foods.Has baby recently started solids? Many babies (particularly those under six months) start or increase night waking after the introduction of solids, due to problems digesting the food. Try avoiding solids in the evening, or consider decreasing or eliminating the solids until baby’s digestive system matures more. Several studies have shown that adding solids to a baby’s diet does not help baby to sleep more at night.
- Allergy. Babies with food allergies, environmental allergies or eczema may wake more at night due to discomfort.
- Reflux. Discomfort from reflux may also keep baby up at night.
- Illness.Illnesses like ear infections and colds can interrupt baby’s sleep, and result in increased night nursing. A bad diaper rash or other rash might also affect baby’s sleep. Anytime baby suddenly increases night waking, keep an eye out for illness.
- Nurse more during the day.Encourage baby to nurse more often during the day (perhaps every 2 hours instead of every 3), so that she takes in more milk during the daytime hours.
- Minimize distractions.During the day, nurse in a room that is as free of distractions as possible. Turn off the light, close the door, pull the blinds, etc. Get your older children busy doing something before you start nursing. Try nursing while lying down. Sometimes babies can become so distracted during daytime feedings that they don’t take in enough milk and then have to make up for it with more frequent night feedings. One study showed that older babies can consume as much as 25% of their total daily intake of mother’s milk during the night, probably partly because of daytime distractibility.
- Tank up before bedtime.Nurse often in the hours leading up to bedtime (at least every 1-2 hours). Some moms nurse on one breast only during this time period so that baby gets more of the higher fat milk available at the end of a feeding (this helps baby go longer between feedings). When baby wakes at night, try nursing on the other breast for all or most of the night, again so that baby gets more of the higher-fat milk.
- Listen to your child.Only your child knows if she’s really hungry – don’t automatically assume that your child is not hungry or thirsty. Many adults wake at night for a drink of water or even to get a snack.
- Dream feed.Nurse baby right before you go to bed (even if baby has already gone to bed), so that you get a longer period of sleep before she wakes again. Many babies barely wake at this time, even though they may get a good nursing in.
- Try to begin settling baby before he’s overtired; Some babies have a hard time going to sleep when they’re overtired, so keep an eye out for signs of sleepiness.
- Try different sleep arrangements.Find out what sleeping arrangement work best for the entire family while continuing to meet baby’s needs.
- Full-time co-sleeping.Many babies sleep better when they are close to mom. Consider sleeping close to your baby – many families have found that baby and the rest of the family gets more sleep this way. Sleeping near your baby and nursing baby to sleep will not teach bad sleep habits. All the co-sleeping babies/toddlers who I know have begun to sleep through the night at some point without any type of training or encouragement or change in sleep location.
- Part-time co-sleeping.Part-time co-sleeping works for many families, where baby sleeps in her crib until the first night waking and then joins mom and dad for the rest of the night.
- Separate beds.If you’re not comfortable with baby in your bed or if you are currently sleeping with baby and no one is getting any sleep, then try other options. Consider placing baby on a pallet on the floor beside the bed, or place baby’s crib with the rail down beside your bed. That way, baby will be close enough that nursing won’t interrupt sleep quite so much (such as when you get up each time and go to baby’s room). Another option that works for some families is putting a bed for just mom and baby in baby’s room for awhile, or Dad might instead choose to sleep in another location himself.
- Limit Access.After you nurse, place the baby back in her area, or slide her away from you so that close proximity doesn’t encourage more frequent nursing. Wear clothing that makes it harder for baby to access your breast at night.
- Get Dad in on the nighttime routine!If your baby appears to be waking only for comfort during the night, she may accept Dad as the comforter (and won’t expect Dad to nurse her). Dad can comfort baby in other ways, such as offering a drink, just lying next to her, holding her, etc. Dad may even be able to sleep with baby in another room with less interruption than if baby were sleeping near mom.
- Increase daytime contact.Allow baby unlimited nursing and cuddling during the day. Sometimes toddlers will seek out the breast more at night when they aren’t getting enough close cuddling during the day. Sometimes we as busy mothers, especially if we have other children, forget to pick these little ones up often during the day and just sit and cuddle with them. If you can increase this close contact during the day, she may need it less at night. If you work, night nursing may be her way of trying to reconnect with you.
- Talk to your child.With an older child, you may be able to explain something like this, “When the sun goes down, or when we go night-night, num nums (or whatever she calls them) go night-night, too. She probably won’t accept or understand this completely at first, but if you say it before bed each night and repeat it each time she awakens, in time she’ll “get it”.
- Just say “no”… or “later.”With an older child (over 18 months), feel secure enough to say “no” (at least some of the time) while staying sensitive to your child’s needs. At night, you might say, “not now, but we will later.” She may – or may not – awaken again to nurse later.
- Substitute other comfort measures.You also may try other things to settle her, such as a back rub, just holding and cuddling, getting her a drink of water, humming softly, etc.
People may tell you something to the effect of “If you nurse your child at night (or sleep near your child, or a zillion other things), you won’t be able to discontinue it in the future.” This sells books, but it isn’t true at all!
Remember that night waking in babies and young children is temporary!
Children grow out of night waking, even when we do nothing to discourage it. This period of time will be a very tiny part of your child’s years with you.
A child’s internal timetable for sleeping through the night can vary greatly. Some parents are comfortable with letting the child lead when it comes to night weaning, but for others night nursing truly interferes with their quality of life. If night nursing is not working for you, then encourage changes while taking into account the needs of your child.
Your goal is to maximize sleep for everyone, and if what you’re doing works, then you’ve met your goal. If it’s not working (or stops working) then you can always do things differently. All parents find that they change the way they do things as their child grows older and reaches different developmental stages – sleep is just another thing that changes as your child grows.