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.

If you would like to learn more about infant sleep, including many more sleep tips cgentle sleep book, gentle sleep training, gentle sleep expert, baby sleep expert, toddler sleep expertheck out my latest book, available HERE:







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About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
This entry was posted in Babies, Toddlers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

43 Responses to How to gently night wean a breastfed baby or toddler

  1. Emma says:

    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. goldenaim says:

    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?

    • Steph says:

      You can still get pregnant without starting your menstrual cycle. Your body is still releasing eggs. In fact you are more fertile when breastfeeding! Good luck

      • Jen says:

        Yes you can. But you’re just plain wrong Steph. I just looked it up and it turns out breast feeding is a natural contraceptive for the first 6 months.

  3. goldenaim says:

    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. Mel says:

    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. Karla says:

    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. Chloe says:

    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. Frankie says:

    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. Sam says:

    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…

    • Kathryn says:

      Did you ever figure out a way to remove your boob? My DS is 17mo & on rare occasion will let me remove my breast before he’s asleep, but No Way to a replacement/my thumb.
      Not sure where to go from here as he Definitely is attached to suckling as a way to decompress/calm his BUSY

  10. Hannah says:

    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. AmandaS says:

    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.

    • Saima Deen says:

      I know this comment is quite old but this is really interesting and may be something that I need to review! I’ve never heard anyone else say this before but I think it may be a contributor. I could be clutching at straws…baby is 11 months and night waking are currently at an all time high!!

  12. Mia says:

    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!

    • Karla says:

      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. Eunice says:

    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.

  14. Kath says:

    This seems to make the most sense out of all the sleep training paraphernalia I have read/ We will give this a try. My daughter is almost 11 months would you recommend trying this now or waiting until after her 1st birthday? Thanks:)

  15. Wilanie says:

    Hi Sarah,

    Thanks for the article. Is there any way that Daddy can be part of the whole process? My husband would love to put our 7 mo baby down for a nap / sleep but she screams untill she sees me and I offer the breast. The only way he can help at times is by swinging her in her car seat or pushing her in the stroller. I suppose that would interfere with the steps mentioned in the above article? Also, can I use a dummy / pacifier instead of my thumb?

  16. Emma says:

    Hi Sarah, can this work for a baby rocked to sleep rather than fed to sleep, we do bf but she likes to be rocked to just bought your book so the answers might be in it? Thanks Emma

  17. Isobel Monaghan says:

    Hi Sarah do you have any advice about stopping breastfeeding completely with a toddler (2 1/2 years)? She has been night weaned for sometime now. But her bedtime routine is a small comfort feed before bed – she does not fall asleep on the breast. Then she always wants to feed first thing determinedly when she wakes around 530-6. Many thanks Isobel

  18. mp says:

    After the initial four-week period, what do you do when baby wakes up a few hours after putting them to sleep wanting to nurse?

  19. Aroz says:

    I will be working a mix of 12 hour day and night shifts part time when I go back to work. My baby will be 10 months old. She is currently 8 months old and breastfeeding a lot at night. I nightweaned my first child just after her first birthday because I had a set of nights coming up, was exhausted, felt she didn’t need it anymore and work a job where exhaustion can have dire consequences. She slept through most of the night in her own room after that and I kept feeding morning and bedtime (when we were together) until she was nearly 2y8m. I am thinking of doing the same with my second but do I need to? I don’t feel as overwhelmed and exhausted by the broken nights this time but I’m worried how she and my husband/elder child will cope when I’m working nights if she’s always been used to me feeding back to sleep?

  20. Gugu Gamede says:

    I have decided to wean my baby but the is that we don’t sleep at night n I don’t know what to do please help.What should I do

  21. Kaylee Q says:

    Thank you for your website, Sarah.

    We have been using the radio’s static as white noise every time our 8 month old sleeps and it has been working great. Can we use the static as the alpha music you suggest?

  22. Becky W says:

    Hi Sarah,
    Thank you so much for your article. My 6 month old has recently stopped feeding during the day, she’s too grown up for mummy milk now and prefers food and water in the day. This means lots more night feeds, and waking. It’s roughly every hour… is this something we need to just wait out? Or would night weaning help? Thanks in advance,

  23. Margarita Ramón says:

    Hi Sarah,

    I have been reading many different types of sleep training amd this is the one that makes sense for our family! I am so excited to give it a try! My son is 5 1/2 months. We want him to start sleeping in his own crib but in our bedroom. He breastfeeds on demand and at night he wakes up 1-2 times for a feeding. Sometimes he sleeps six hours straight and he is consistent with the time he goes to bed and works for our family. 9pm he sleeps.

    I have a couple of questions:
    I am using a teddy blankie which is soft, can I put the scented oil which is 100% natural directly on the teddy? the scent is honey and chamomile.

    In regards to the music, can it be more like white noise? I have been using one with the sound of rain and thunderstorm which relaxes me too.

    Let me know your thoughts!

  24. Margarita Ramón says:

    Also when my boy starts to suck more for comfort before going to sleep I put my finger but he immediately pulls off moves head to the side and sleeps. I don’t really see the point of putting my thumb on his mouth…maybe just the toy? what do you think?

  25. G A says:

    Hi Sarah, ive read your gentle sleep book and now gentle parenting so im a huge fan and your words really resonate with me. Like the women above, I’m breastfeeding my 11th month son who co-sleeps in our bed and wakes every hour for comport feeds/reassurance etc. As exhausting as it is, I know I’m doing the best for him and what feels natural. However my husband wants us to get pregnant and I still haven’t had a period. Are the night time feeds preventing me from getting pregnant? I am really anxious about having to stop breastfeeding, (as my husband is suggesting) because I think it will be very emotionally/physically challenging for myself but more over for my son as it will be a change. I don’t feel comfortable or confident starting the process and ideally would like things to happen naturally. Should I replace his last feed before he goes to bed with formula milk (ive never given him a bottle) only water during the day. Any advice from self or anyone in this position would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks

    • Dreamer says:

      Hi GA,

      My period returned at 12 months and I’m also a breastfeeding mom who hasn’t weaned. My son is now 2 and still breastfeeding. I’m trying to naturally wean. Mine sleeps in his own room since 4 months although he wakes in the middle of the night on average once a night. When he does I walk to his room, breastfeed on the recliner I have in his room, and he goes back to sleep within an hour or so.

  26. Fiona Davis says:

    Hi Sarah, when starting to night wean, should you start applying this method for just the feed to sleep feed, only feeds through the night, or both? I don’t want to confuse my daughter. Thank you x

  27. B says:

    This is the first time I have heard of this method. Thank you for the interesting article. Has it worked for any readers? I would love to hear success stories .

  28. Dreamer says:

    This post left tears in my eyes. I have been battling thoughts of weaning my now 2 year old amazing boy. I love nursing him and the bigger part of me doesn’t feel ready to stop. My challenge is our sleep is a bit crazy and I’m work full time. I have not been able to “switch” his bedtime to anything earlier than 11 pm. He will sleep 3-5 hours, wake, breastfeed back to sleep after about an hour or so and then up by 8:30-9:30 am. I cant get to work any earlier than 10:30. Thankfully by bosses have been amazingly understanding about my sleep challenges. Still I am stressed at work bc of time. I see other moms who seem to have everything under control and I feel like maybe my desire to naturally wean is what I’m doing wrong. Still my little one is developing beautifully, on the top of the charts for weight, height and head circumference, he’s a great eater, loves his fruits and vegetables, recognizes all the letters in the abcs since 18 months, can count and recognize all the numbers from 1 to 10 in 2 different languages since about 20 months and can read his name to name a few. We have struggled with ear infections, which in fact is what in my opinion totally messed up his sleep as he had started to sleep through the night at 6 months all by himself with no sleep training and being nurses to sleep! So when he wakes I take it seriously. he will sleep through the night on occasion and then of course there are many nights when it’s also worse.

    So based in this article I’m not ready which I agree! I just want to do all the right things as a mom, wife and worker and it’s not easy. Thanks for writing this article with the breastfeeding mom into perspective.

  29. Lizzy says:

    Hi Sarah, Thank you for this article. My daughter is 17 months and I will be gently weaning for IVF. Do you recommend starting weaning at night or during the day. We bed share at night.

  30. Karolina says:

    Hi Sarah, great article. Could you tell us more about natural baby night weaning? How does it happens when decide by himself to self wean from breastfeeding. My little one is 13m old and I would like to go by that process totally naturally . We are co-sleepng and still beats feeding a lot at night, but breastfeeding sessions definitely diminished during the day. I hope it will be the same at night one day… Please share your experience and opinion with us. Thank you for your wonderful job. I love your books!

  31. The Curious Mind says:

    Interesting article, Sarah.
    What would you suggest as steps to night wean a bottle fed baby though? Clearly inserting the thumb isn’t an option, plus when I tried it, baby woke up and stared at me!

  32. Tania Hill says:

    Hi Sarah,

    I have an 18 months old and we have alsways been co sleeping . I still breastfeed day and night. Some nights at good some nights are really bad . am about to start new job and thinking of trying your plan . However I am not sure if it will work if we are co sleeping ? I never purchased a crib . Thank you !

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