Gently Night Weaning the Breastfed, Co-Sleeping Toddler
An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:
I wonder if you can help me. My daughter is 19 months old and still breastfeeding, and neither of us have slept through the night since she was born. Until recently, it didn’t really bother me and I wanted to wait for it to happen naturally. But now I am getting to the point where I feel like I need to get better sleep at night.
We do a sort of part time co-sleeping thing. Some nights she will fall asleep in her crib but wake up in the middle of the night and we’ll bring her to our bed. If she falls asleep in our bed to begin with, she’ll wake up at least a couple times wanting to nurse during the night. Either way, I get woken up. When she was younger I could just roll over and nurse her without even really waking up, but now that she’s bigger it’s really disrupting my sleep and I have been getting cranky during these nighttime wakings.
My question is, is there a gentle way to night wean her? And is it really possible for a breastfed baby to co-sleep without waking to nurse?
Here is what our natural parenting mentors had to say:
Shae: First off let me say that what your daughter is doing is completely normal. It’s really common for toddlers to wake during the night and for breastfed toddlers to want to feed. I don’t know your personal situation but I know that sometimes well-meaning friends and relatives can make you feel like it’s because you are still feeding that she is still waking. If you do night wean her you might be really disappointed to find that she still wakes up just as much as before and may take longer to get back to sleep!
That said feeling cranky while you are feeding her is not fun for anyone – I’ve been there! Depending on her vocabulary, level of understanding, and emotional maturity, you may be able to wean her gently. I know of many mamas who have given one last feed before bed and told their child that there is “no more milky until the sun comes up.”
I also know of mamas who like Elizabeth Pantley’s “No -Cry” approach, which is basically a very “slow slow gentle gentle” approach rather than a quick fix. Some mamas find that putting baby to sleep on the other side of your partner can sometimes be helpful, that way she is still getting her nighttime need for parenting met by someone she loves, but not necessarily with a breastfeed.
Another idea is to let it happen naturally and get some more help for you. Sometimes having a bit of space during the day can be invigorating and makes you feel more able to parent at nighttime. Could you sleep in some mornings? Could you go to bed earlier?
It sounds like you are doing an amazing job and being really mindful of your daughter and still listening to how you feel.
Acacia: The answer to both of your questions is absolutely yes. My now three-year-old son night weaned at 19 months and continued breastfeeding for almost an entire year afterward. I felt very similarly to what you are feeling now and despite my hope that it would have been all up to him leading the way, I knew it was healthier for both my well being and our relationship for me to initiate the process. I was surprised at how well it went in spite of his love of nursing.
In order to help the transition, be sure to give her plenty of opportunities to nurse during the day and get her fill of physical contact. Then at night nurse her when she goes to bed and when you go to bed. When she goes to sleep, nurse her somewhere other than bed and pull her off before she falls asleep. Say something like, “Nummies go night-night now. Baby go night-night. Mommy go night-night.” Then either you or your husband can rock, sing, snuggle or wear her down to sleep. I found it more effective to have my husband do this, but my son already went to sleep for him easily.
Once in your bed, try increasing the distance between the two of you by sleeping with some space between you or having her sleep next to your husband or on a mattress on the floor. As she wakes during the night, have your husband snuggle her to sleep reminding her that mommy is sleeping and she can nurse in the morning. As a last resort you might sleep in a different room for a few nights.
It could be rough for a few nights, but don’t worry. Because you and your husband are there soothing her through the process, she will continue to trust and find security in you. Use her day time behavior as a barometer of how things are going. If she’s content and behaving mostly like herself during the day, you’re on the right track. If she becomes clingy, upset or unlike herself and continues to be after a couple days, you know to back off.
Jenn: I remember these days well. My son could nurse all night long. At about 20 months we started putting him down in a toddler bed and letting him come into our bed if he woke up. When I weaned him at 2 years, I made sure to turn him away from me when we slept. Sleeping with his back against me and holding him kept him in that position, enabling us to co-sleep without nursing. If you choose to night-wean, placing a pillow between you or keeping them turned away but close will discourage nursing gently. If you are concerned that she is actually hungry, adding a nutritious bedtime snack may help her sleep more soundly.
Photo credit: Audrey Elizabeth
In sharing how they do things in their families, authors are not trying to suggest the same choices are right for you. Please consider the safety issues, and take all precautions when considering where your children will sleep. There might be increased risk for babies under six months regardless of how bed sharing is done. In such cases, a separate safe sleeping surface might be a better choice. Statements on this website have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products and/or information are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat, or prevent any disease. Readers are advised to do their own research and make decisions in partnership with their healthcare provider. If you are pregnant, are nursing, have a medical condition, or are taking any medication, please consult your physician. Nothing you read here should be relied upon to determine dietary changes, a medical diagnosis, or courses of treatment.
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