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.

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.


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About SarahOckwell-Smith

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