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 from twelve months.

While there is no guarantee that night weaning will result in improved sleep, for many families this is the case. However night weaning is not a magic bullet, you must optimise your child’s sleep first. Night weaning should be the final piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving your child’s sleep – not the first! If you rush in and night wean without working on the rest of your child’s sleep, it’s highly likely it will be stressful and ineffective.

I would also 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” (and you have first optimised everything else to do with your child’s sleep). 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. It takes a lot of work before a child is ready for night weaning and without this input from you first, 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. 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.

When Should You Night Wean?

If you still feel ready to progress with night weaning you need to put a plan into place. Remember, it is the last step to improving sleep – not the first!

My personal opinion is that night weaning should never be considered before twelve months of age. Before this, they really do need night feeds.

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, moving house, new baby arriving etc.). If your child is ill during the process, then stop and wait for them to be fully better before starting again.

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

4. Make sure EVERYTHING else is optimal in your child’s life sleep wise – here I mean the amount and timing of naps, a good solid bedtime routine, a good diet (specifically not lacking in any nutrient that could impact sleep) and good gut health, plus a sleep friendly bedroom/sleeping environment. If you don’t take time to optimise everything before night weaning, it won’t be successful. As I’ve mentioned before – night weaning is not a magic bullet, it won’t ‘solve’ night waking if the problem causing it is not first eliminated.

Elements to Aid Night Weaning

Once you have optimised everything to do with sleep, your next step is to work with conditioning 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 a lavender and chamomile blend 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.

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 have optimised your child’s sleep, only then would I consider moving on to night weaning.

How much Time Does Night Weaning Take?
The whole process from deciding to night wean (and working on optimising everything before starting) to being fully night weaned (and potentially sleeping through the night) should take around two months. It is not quick, simply because quick methods are not gentle, nor are they effective in the long term.
If you would like step by step instructions on how I recommend you do the actual night weaning, and importantly how to optimise your child’s sleep before starting, check out the NEW EDITION (not the old, original, edition – it’s not covered!) of my Gentle Sleep Book. Make sure you get the one with the cover below:
A QUICK NOTE ON DEMAND FEEDING AND FEEDING TO SLEEP: 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. I also strongly recommend that you keep feeding to sleep at bedtime, when you night wean this should be the very last feed to go – not the first!


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

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

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