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

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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.

9 Responses to Gently Night Weaning the Breastfed, Co-Sleeping Toddler

  1. Jessica Lang @ Cloth Diapering Mama  

    I, too, felt that maybe when my older son was 20 or so months that I wanted him to night wean…not realizing that co-sleeping children can have an “all-night-nurser” mentality. I read the “no-cry-sleep solution” and it was helpful but didn’t do the trick. I was never able to nightwean my son…(maybe I was just too lenient) but he did wean at 23 months, with some guidance from me. He was definitely ready, I could see it and it was so sad!! I honestly wish I nursed longer :(

  2. Heather

    I have been gently night weening my 3 year old for acouple months now. He was nursing all night long and between battling yeast and lack of sleep i wanted to reduce night time nursing a bit. What i have done is when he wakes up to nurse i cuddle him and he asks for “mommas milk” I tell him to hold on a minute it is filling up. By the time he thinks to ask again he is asleep. Then The next time he wakes i do the same thing. Before Christmas he was nursing 4-8x per night and often staying latched between “fill ups” but now he nurses about 5x per week and only for about 1 minute then i ask if it is empty adn needs to fill up again and he says yes and rolls over to go back to sleep. At this point i have not slept thru the night in about 8 years between being pregnant and nursing and kids waking me for potty or cuddles or drinks or whatever and im sad that this is my last peanut (according to my hubby at least) so part of me does not want to ween but i also know that he is almost 4 yrs old and is handling the “mommas milk filling up” very well so he is close no matter what way you slice it.

  3. Michelle @ The Parent Vortex  

    I recently night-weaned my 20mo daughter, and she continues to co-sleep between about midnight and 7am. I wrote a post about it here: Night Weaning

  4. Karla

    I night-weaned my son during the last weeks of my pregnancy. After my daughter was born he started nursing at night again as he was never totally fine with it in the first place. They are now 10 mo and 27 mo. Both co-sleep (on either side of me) and nurse at night. I think DS has been winding down his night nursings but do I have any hope of encouraging him to night wean while DD is night nursing?

  5. Alicia  

    I night-weaned my older daughter when she was 27 months and she has continued co-sleeping and nursing at other times, so it is certainly possible. My night-weaning story is here: http://lactationnarration.com/index.php/2010/05/night-weaning/

    My younger daughter is now 21 months and still night-nursing, though she has been sleeping longer and longer lately. It makes me think that she might naturally night-wean on her own and I won’t have to do anything – wouldn’t that be nice!

  6. Ophelia

    I am on day 2 of night weaning for my 17 month old child. So far, so good. I am anticipating it will be a sleepless, cranky couple of days but my intuition tells me that she is okay with the process, as we are loving and gentle. The whole family (mama, dad and toddler) need more sleep and this gentle easing for nighttime may be just what we need. Lots of love and snuggles and feeding during the day helps too. Wish us luck!

  7. jessica

    My son is now 14months old im still planning on breastfeeding him for a while but would like to stop the day feeding. Im taking a 3day a week coursein september so he will be 18months old by then.He is my fourth child and Ifind it important for him to keep on breastfeeding. My other children all weaned naturaly between 18months and 24months but they did not refuse a bottle. As for my youngest will not take a bottle unless it is water. Any suggestions ????

  8. Bobbie

    I am on day 2 of night weaning my 15 1/2 month old. We do co-sleep so I thought it was going to be tramatic but that was not so as I turned him away from me to sleep. I also, as a added precaution, wrapped my breast up tight with ace bandages to keep myself from giving in. Worked like a charm. Looking forward to getting some sleep.

  9. Savi's mom

    I have a 2 year old she is amazing until it comes to breast time i’ve nursed her for exactly two years and have tried weaning numerous time and was defeated by the mommy please rant or mine own guilty of what i thought was deprivation lol. I started 3 days ago and yes she is very fussy and im so sleepy its for the best just as nursing was i tell her you are a big girl now and the milk fairy has to come for milky for another baby it just popped in my mind laughing in my head when i said it but its working yes she ask for milk grab my shirt but its only day 3 and for my breast addicted lil lady this victorty im kinda sad she’s my only kid and this stage is over ps i cried when she mastered potty training at 16 months lol!!

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