Nursing a little baby in the still of night can be magical. The whole house is quiet. Your husband is asleep. It is just the two of you. The moonlight drapes over your sweet, chubby baby as he snuggles beside you in your big, warm bed. Bliss.
When thinking of nightweaning, please keep in mind that night nursing is partly a habit, yes, but it is not a bad habit like smoking. You cannot simply prune a nursing away until they are all gone. (I never understood that advice, because who knows how many times I nurse at night, anyway?!) It is a completely adaptive behaviour with benefits for the child and the mom. Please don’t take this post as my suggestion that everyone should nightwean at any particular age. If you are happy with night nursing your older baby or child, that’s great. 🙂
However, I choose to nightwean my babies somewhere between 12-18 months for two reasons. First of all, my fertility works in such a way that night nursing is a sure thing that I will not conceive again. Secondly, by 12-18 months, I believe our babies are capable of learning to go the night without needing food and not nursing during the night helps me get a better night’s sleep.
I would like to share with you the way that we go about nightweaning in our family. Having nightweaned 5 children so far, I have learned a few things that work well for us. These might not be the same in your family situation, of course.
- Children who have unlimited/almost unlimited access to the breast are very unlikely to give up night nursing on their own. I don’t mean they will never give it up, but it will probably not happen on its own in the first couple of years.
- Children who no longer nurse at night may or may not immediately start sleeping through the night, but nightweaning (once completed) has never made my sleep worse. The only exception is getting to sleep. Prolactin knocks me out like nothing else. 🙂
- In our family, children 2 1/2 years and up seem to give up night nursing very easily. At this age, explanations, preparation and alternatives work well.
- For younger children (12-18 months is when I wean these days), cold turkey seems to be the most gentle and quickest way to go because it is not confusing to the child.
- Night weaning a child before 2 1/2 years may require a lot of parental resolve. It might not be too pretty.
Our first two children were nightweaned later, at ages 3 (that’s years old) and 2 1/2 years. This was my method:
- During the day, explain nightweaning in whatever terms your child will understand. You may choose to say we won’t be having nee nee until the sun is up or until Daddy gets up for work or whatever you decide. Also, explain what the child can do when he wakes, such as have a drink of water (show the sippy cup as a visual reminder), hold hands, etc.
- Repeat step 2 several times during the day.
- If you are nursing to sleep, you will probably want to continue for now, but you are the mom, so whatever you think will work is great.
- When the child wakes, simply follow through on what you decided on for alternatives. (I should interject that some families like to have mom sleep elsewhere and dad take over. We haven’t done that, but several friends have and find it works very well.)
If this is something you have decided you really want, stick to your guns and don’t give in in the heat of the moment. Don’t convince yourself that your child is hungry, or else you are likely to try to give him a snack (or a nurse). The idea is to try to help the child sleep, not to wake him up. Most children in our culture are not nursing during the night. I am not saying this is the golden standard. I am just saying that they are sleeping all night and not eating — and not starving. Thirst is another issue, though. Lots of adults need a drink of water during the night, so it makes sense that a child might, too. Offering a sippy cup of water, I think, is an important element.
For our children ages 12-18 months, I do something similar:
- Decide ahead of time if this is something you really want as opposed to something you just want to try. If you really want this, you will need to be very clear, purposeful and guilt-free in your own mind because your child will probably cry a fair bit. While this doesn’t seem ideal to me, I believe it is a small sacrifice our children make for me and for our family. I sacrifice lots for my children and I don’t think this is a huge deal. When I think of the fit our 10 month old has when I take him off the stairs and put up the baby gate – for his own safety – I realize that just because a child cries does not mean they are indicating a need. Little babies wants and needs are the same, but this does not apply to older babies and children.
- Try to get a good night’s sleep the night before you start nightweaning. I know you are doing this because you want to sleep better, but do whatever you can. Go to bed early, have a nap or whatever you need to do. Going into this exhausted will not be beneficial.
- I really don’t see much point in explaining things ahead of time to a child of this age. I know children understand a lot more than we give them credit for, but this age is pretty little. Children this age live in the moment, so I don’t believe they can really understand the concept of what will happen later that night.
- Assemble supplies: sippy cup with water, a special soft toy (if your child has one — most attachment parented kids don’t), your loving arms and lots of resolve.
- Ahead of time, pick a time you won’t nurse before. You may choose to go until 5:30am or you might choose to go for 3am, which is a very common ‘awake’ time for babies everywhere. I think expecting a child to go from 7pm-7am without nursing on the first night is a bit much. I generally go for 5:30am. Whatever you decide, make sure you decide ahead of time. We want as little ‘deciding’ happening in the heat of the moment as possible.
- Nurse to sleep as usual, if that is what you do.
- When your baby wakes up, don’t jump in at the very first fuss. I think I often wake my children up by pouncing on them as soon as I hear them stir. Give them a minute to see if their fussing is going to escalate into a cry or just fade out.
- If he is crying, try cuddling first. Keep the end in mind. We want the child to learn to sleep through the night without waking, so we are working from the alternative that is least disturbing to their sleep to the ones that may have them more awake, if needed. So, don’t haul them out of bed and try the sippy cup first. And, certainly don’t try changing a diaper on the first fuss!
- It is okay for them to be crying in your arms. It is very unlikely that you will be able to avoid their crying — and there may be lots of it. If you really want this, take the attitude that you are going to do your best to help them through this hurdle. I find that, depending on the child, cold turkey can involve insane amounts of crying the first night, a fair bit the next night, but it is smoother sailing from there. After a week, our babies are often sleeping through the night or at least not needing a whole lot of hands-on parenting.
Our youngest is 10 months old, so I will be referring to this post in a few months. I’m not sure when I will be able to be bothered…maybe in the summer??