How to gently night wean a breastfed baby or toddler

Breastfeeding is an amazing tool to help settle children at night. As a mother of four I have found that by far the easiest way to get my children to sleep at night was by breastfeeding them (well into the toddler years). Similarly when my children woke at night breastfeeding was by far the quickest and easiest way to get them back to sleep and resulted in more sleep for us all.

Science has found a link between an increased number of night wakings and breastfeeding. There is however also evidence to suggest that overall the length of wakings is less for breastfed infants which may actually lead to breastfeeding mothers getting *more* sleep than their formula feeding counterparts. For any parent who has both bottle and breastfed the ease of being able to breastfeed instantly compared with the time taken to make up and cool a bottle of milk is obvious. For this reason a night waking breastfed infant tends to require less overall parental input at night than a child who is formula fed.

Despite the widespread belief that formula fed babies sleep for longer than breastfed babies, research has found that any initial difference disappears by toddlerhood.

Many sleep experts claim that infants no longer require night feeds after six months of age. This is an incredibly naive belief. Nobody knows when a child is capable for sleeping long stretches of time without milk apart from the child itself. In addition this belief assumes that the night feed is providing nothing more than nutrition. The reality however is that night feeding allows a complex mix of emotional and physical needs to be met. The actual reality of night weaning readiness, in my opinion, occurs at some point between six months and four years of age.

breast

While there is no guarantee that night weaning will result in improved sleep, for many families this is the case. I feel I should however point out that for many night weaning makes no (positive) difference. For some families it can even make the whole situation much worse, with night wakings increasing and parents left unable to settle the child as quickly and easily as they would have done if they were still breastfeeding at night.

For these reasons I would urge you to really think about night weaning and the potential impact on your family before you begin it. You should ask yourself these questions:

1. Why am I considering night weaning?

The only correct answer here is “because it feels right for me”. If a seed of doubt has been planted by a doctor, health visitor, friend, family member or baby sleep expert don’t proceed any further. Your child is normal. It is normal to feed at night well into the toddler years. Your child won’t need to feed at night forever. Ignore the ill informed comments and carry on doing what works for your family.

2. Am I considering night weaning because I am exhausted?

This isn’t a great reason to night wean in my experience. Sometimes night weaning can cause a child to wake more. Sometimes you are left with a child you can no longer settle at night without the ease of breastfeeding. Night weaning takes a lot of work – emotionally and physically with no guarantee of success. You may be better to look elsewhere to help with your exhaustion first. Is there anything you can downsize in your life? Are there any ways of taking more ‘me time’ and nurturing yourself? Are there any voluntary organisations near you who can help?

3. Am I considering night weaning because I am going back to work soon?

This is by far the most common reason people approach me for help with night weaning. I refer you to point number 2 above. In addition if you are returning to work, particularly full time, night times are an important time for your child to reconnect with you. Allowing them to stay close to you and feed at night can help to soothe any disconnect they may have felt by being away from you during the day. It can also help breastfeeding to continue while you are at work.

4. Am I considering night weaning because I am pregnant or want another baby?

Fertility/return of periods aside it is perfectly possible to continue night time feeding an older baby or toddler whilst pregnant or with a newborn. As with point number 3 this can help the older child to still feel connected, reducing any emotional effects (and resulting difficult behaviour – which often includes sleep regression) once a new family member arrives. See also point number 2.

If you still feel ready to progress with night weaning you need to put a plan into place. My personal opinion is that night weaning should never be considered before six months of age, and ideally not until a child is over one year.

Things to think about are:

1. Slowly conditioning your child to take comfort from objects that are not your breasts. More on this in a minute.

2. Finding time in your diary when nothing else is happening (no holidays/starting childcare etc.). If you are bedsharing/cosleeping do not be tempted to move your child our of your bed/room either before, or at the same time as, night weaning. The move to their own bed/room should happen after night weaning is established.

3. Helping older children to understand what is about to happen. I like this book.

night weaning

Step by Step Night Weaning Plan.

Firstly, you will need to condition some ‘comfort replacements’ before doing anything else.  Allow four weeks of adding in sleep cues (see below) to allow your child to become conditioned to them. The aim of these ‘comfort replacements’ is for your child to take comfort and security from them at night – both in going to sleep initially and when they wake.

Once conditioned, these sleep cues should be present at the onset of sleep and ideally all night (meaning when the child awakes in the night their comforters are present to allow them to fall back to sleep without parental assistance).

1. Music – play relaxing ‘alpha’ music for children when you are feeding and cuddling, both in the day and at night. If you give your child a massage every day use this as background music. This music should play every time the child goes to sleep..

2. Scent – choose a calming scent like lavender or chamomile and wear it as a perfume on your pulse points. This allows your child to associate the smell with you. If you massage your child use a few drops in a carrier oil. You might also consider using the scent in your/your child’s bedroom in a diffuser every night too (note do not use anything involving heat or naked flames for obvious safety reasons!). Again, the scent must be present every time you feed to sleep initially.

3. Comforters – select a muslin, small blanket/piece of soft fabric or a favourite cuddly toy and put it between you and your child every single time you cuddle or feed. The comforter is to be viewed almost as an extension of you and allows your child to feel that they have a small piece of you with them at night.

At this point change *nothing* else.

baby toddler asleep with teddy bear

Once you have done all of the above for at least four weeks (consistency is key, do not try to assess the efficacy of anything until four weeks has passed!) – and changed nothing else – you can move onto the following. In each case you should make sure that the newly conditioned cues are all there every time.

1. When your child’s feeding obviously slows to more of a comfort suck and it is apparent they are falling asleep (the hands will soften and arms will be heavy and floppy) quickly take your nipple out but immediately insert your thumb (make sure that your fingernail is short and place your thumb with the nail downwards towards the bottom lip). Gently press down on your child’s bottom lip with your thumb.

2. When your child is in a deeper stage of sleep (body very floppy and eyes moving beneath the eyelids- check by lifting up an arm a little and then letting go – does it flop down?) take your thumb out of the mouth and on your child’s (now closed) lips gently press on the lower lip again as above. Leave your finger there for a minute or two.

3. Cuddle the comforter right into your child so that he or she still feels the comfort of something cuddling next to them, for a toddler you may consider placing a cushion where you were laying (note, this is not safe for babies).

4. Make sure you leave the CD playing and the smell present in the room

When the above has worked for at least five nights in a row:

Move on to doing the same four steps above, this time when your child is in a lighter sleep state (around 5 minutes after falling asleep).

When the above has worked for at least five nights in a row:

Move on to doing the same four steps when your child is drowsy at the end of a feed, but before they have fallen asleep.
When the above has worked for at least five nights in a row:
Move on to seeing if your child will sleep with just their comforter, scent and music. Don’t forget to leave the scent and the music on preferably for the duration of the sleep, or at least until they are in a deeper sleep state.
When the above has worked for at least two weeks in a row:
When the above is successful this is when you can think about moving your child into their own bed or room.
How much Time Will This Take?
The whole process from deciding to night wean to a child weaned in their own bedroom should take around two months. It is not quick, simply because quick methods are not gentle, nor are they effective in the long term.
A QUICK NOTE ON DEMAND FEEDING: During the day (and initial steps) always breastfeed on demand, you’re not trying to reduce feeds in the daytime – or in the early steps.

If you would like to learn more about infant sleep, including many more sleep tips check out my latest book, available HERE:

gentle sleep book, gentle sleep training, gentle sleep expert, baby sleep expert, toddler sleep expert

Sarah

About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

Posted on August 10, 2014, in Babies, Toddlers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. I have been doing all of these steps as part of our routine, since my now 18 mth old, was born – except for the cushion, which was only started a few months ago. I don’t need to use the thumb, as he gets himself comfy and falls asleep snuggling his cuddly blanket. I need to wean for upcoming IVF reasons, and he wakes up to 4 times in the night, obviously thirsty, but won’t take a bottle, or sippy cup with water, or even expressed milk, both make him very angry when offered. Is there any hope for us? As 1 of 5, I feel he needs a sibling, or do I need to accept that he won’t have a brother or sister?

  2. Thanks for the helpful article! Regarding #4 – my baby is 18 months old and nurses regularly during the day and night, and my menstrual cycle has not yet returned. I wouldn’t care except that my husband and I would like to start trying to conceive another baby soon since we’re in our late 30s (and it took a while the first time). Do you have any advice for getting your cycle back without weaning?

  3. Thanks for the helpful article! Regarding #4 – my baby is 18 months old and nurses regularly during the day and night, and my menstrual cycle hasn’t returned yet. I wouldn’t care except that my husband and I would like to start trying to conceive another baby soon since we’re in our late 30s (and it took a while the first time). Do you have any advice for getting your cycle back without weaning?

  4. Lovely article! Thank you so very much, this is such a good read, my 2 1/2 year old still breastfeeds at night and I have had the exhaustion (past most of that now) but never had this feedback – really wish I had read this one like a year ago! Even when I consulted my local la leche league they did not give this good advice, but said (this was when my little one was like 16 months) that babies do not breastfeed at night any more at this age!! (I was so confused) – and that if I really really really wanted to be kind, I could breast feed once to sleep, once in the middle of the night, and once in the morning,…which never really worked out..

  5. Thank you for all of your writing Sarah – very informative and reassuring (I first happened on your website during the four month sleep regression). I am applying your tips on introducing sleep associations in another context: preparing my breast-fed 9 month old for my return to work in 2 months when she will need to do nap times with daddy. My question: Is she too young to start with the toddler calm music or are we fine to introduce that now for sleep times, day and night?

  6. Hi, I don’t want to night wean completely but reduce the hourly wakings to a more manageable state and stop him wanting to sleep with my nipple in his mouth. I like the thumb replacement idea. But could the techniques above be used while still letting him have one or 2 feeds a night, or is that likely to be too inconsistent and confuse him? He’s 13 months. Thanks so much :)

  7. Thank you for sharing your gentle and practical method. I have done two residential stays at Tresillian with my now 17 month old (and one with my now 3 year old) and don’t think either of us can do it again. It worked while we were there and is a brilliant resource for mothers and babies but it’s like she has developed a sleep phobia. It has taken months to get her anywhere near her cot again. She would literally grab the door on the way through and kick and scream. I’ve resorted to feeding her to sleep again and bringing her to our bed during the night for more feeds which seem to be for comfort as she has separation anxiety, which is worse at night after starting daycare. She also had reflux as a baby, has a motor delay and poor weight gain. I’m not sure if the constant waking is related but the paediatrician has advised to wean her so that she eats better during the day and sleeps better day and night. She won’t settle for me in the day time so we go for walks or drives but she will eventually settle in a cot at daycare, so i know she can do it. I have been trawling the Internet for months and feel hopeful knowing that we can try your gentle method, while I prepare to return to work. I’m just feeding her with bunny between us and will try your method over the coming weeks.Thank you and sorry for over sharing! I just realised how sleep deprived I am and how it is effecting the household.

  8. Hi Sarah, brilliant article. Just one question, do you think breastfeeding past one could end up being negative for their health of they seem to be filling up at night and therefore not eating a huge amount of solids? Just trying to navigate my way through the advice given by the health visitor and my feelings on night weaning and feeding to sleep.

  9. Hi Sarah, Have followed the first part of your plan for 6 weeks now. However, we cannot move onto the next step….if I try to remove my breast before she is in a deep sleep she just cries and demands it back. She is almost three and for my own personal health reasons I really need tonight wean now. She wakes hourly and always has (we cosleep). Any advice for a desperate mumma…

  10. thanks for the advice! I have to go away on a business trip when my son is about 13 months. This is the only reason I want to wean at night. How long in advance should I start the process. I am afraid he will be devastated when I’m gone, especially because he sleeps with me and eats throughout the night.

  11. My kinesiologist surprised herself by uncovering that my child slept longer when I dropped my sugar consumption to near zero. I am reminded of this time and time again when I review my baby’s sleep habits and my diet. Sometimes it’s not the child that needs to change.

  12. My son is 2 & 1/2 and is not falling asleep with nursing consistently anymore. Sometimes he will nurse for over 30 minutes and still be awake. We are in a rocking chair, I sing gently for some time, then we rest in the quiet. Has worked for a long time, but his newly talkative stage has him stopping lots to babble on about his thoughts, and sometimes I have just had enough!

    • Mia, I can relate, and my daughter is 17 months and can take an age to go to sleep on the boob. Two suggestions of Sarah’s that I am trying at the moment seem to be helping reduce our getting to sleep time – relaxing music and turning off the light and holding/feeding in the dark. I think the darkness is much better than the little low lamp light I had before. Good luck

  13. Thanks for the article, but I’m wondering since this is disassociating baby from the breast whilst going to sleep, how about if the baby wakes after 10, 15 minutes, or even half an hour, and needs the breast to go back to sleep again? My daughter’s daytime naps are so super short because she needs the breast but it’s not a sustainable option as I am working.

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