Night Weaning Resources for the Sleep Deprived

I woke up around midnight last night to the battle cry of my 22-month-old daughter, “Mommy mook, Mommy mook!” Her door was open, so usually she would come into our bedroom to demand milk in the night. But last night she didn’t. Last night she just howled with rage. Why? Because, even in her half-awake state, she remembered our discussion before bedtime and, in fact, every night this week. It went something like this:

Me: “Say night night to the milk. Mommy’s milk is very tired and is going to sleep now. It won’t wake up until the sun comes up.”

Lily, with sufficiently dramatic moans: “Night night mookie.”

I kiss her forehead, she pats the “mookie,” and I lay with her until she falls asleep. Then I creep out and wonder what the night will bring.

One might argue that the tail end of my husband’s two-week absence (business travel), but severe sleep deprivation can motivate like nothing else. And besides, we actually night weaned Lily this fall at 18 months, which lasted precisely until her teeth started coming in last month. You know, those “easy” ones, the canines, that are supposed to slip right in unnoticed (*insert wry laughter here*).

Our struggles with night weaning are not from lack of resources, but I thought other sleep-deprived night-nursing mamas might like to see a summary of them, so here goes.

La Leche League International has a great reader write-in called Setting Limits on Nighttime Nursing. Reading it gives you an idea of just how emotionally-charged this issue can be and how guilt-ridden gentle parents feel when they make a decision that is purely for their own benefit and not their child’s. Honestly, I feel badly enough that I’m not co-sleeping with Lily any more, because she obviously loves having mookie right there at her disposal for all night nurse-fests, so feeling guilty about the night weaning was something I was trying to avoid.

One mother sagely writes:

Every child is different, as is every mother. I think some children “outgrow” the need or desire to nurse at night, and some don’t. I think some mothers can do it indefinitely and some can’t. It’s so very important to honor and embrace your own limits. I had reached mine and realized that too often I woke up tired, angry, and resentful if I was nursing my toddler every hour or so throughout the night. I simply couldn’t mother my daughter the way I wanted to when running on empty. I believe that extended nursing is full of long-term benefits, but that extended nighttime nursing can come at a high price. If you think it’s time to curb night nursing, your daughter can continue to benefit from nursing during the day and you both can get good sleep.

Another shares her technique, which is very similar to what we did with Lily:

When my son was 22 months old and began to clearly communicate and understand situations better, we decided to night wean him. Our plan was to nurse him to sleep and then no more nursing until morning. It was one of the most emotionally challenging things I’ve ever experienced. I felt guilty, mean, and sad that I was denying my son the experience of nursing. But, it was only that first night that was hard. For about the first two weeks he still asked for “na-na” but really knew deep down that “na-na was asleep” and he’d have to wait until morning to get it.

Then a miracle occurredβ€”he began sleeping through the night. I had to re-learn how to sleep through the night, too. After three months of no night nursing other than nursing to sleep at bedtime, I am well rested and confident in our decision.

If you’re still feeling guilty about night weaning, check out AskDrSears.com’s 12-step program πŸ˜‰ And of course, their Baby Book and Breastfeeding books are full of good advice as well.

Martha notes: “One of the ways we have survived toddlers who wants to nurse frequently during the night was for me to temporarily go off “night call.” Bill would wear Stephen down in a baby sling, so he got used to Bill’s way of putting him to sleep. When he woke up, Bill would again provide the comfort he needed by rocking and holding him in a neck nestle position, using the warm fuzzy and singing a lullaby. Babies may initially protest when offered father instead of mother, but remember, crying and fussing in the arms of a loving parent is not the same as “crying it out.” Dads, realize that you have to remain calm and patient during these nighttime fathering challenges. You owe it to both mother and baby not to become rattled or angry when your baby resists the comfort you offer.

I really like what Dr. Jay Gordon has to say on this topic in his article Changing The Sleep Pattern in the Family Bed and he’s one of the few that provides good tips for people who are trying to night wean while sharing a family bed. And I love that he reminds us that night weaning is preferable to the other alternative–completely weaning your child:

I have a better alternative to completely weaning or to letting the baby cry it out. Babies wake up for the optimal interaction with their moms, breastfeeding back to sleep. If we offer them a little less than that for a few nights and then a little less and still less in the ensuing nights, gentle behavior modification will lead them to realize that it might not be “worth it” to knock on the door of a closed restaurant, so to speak.

Kellymom has some great resources as well:

Breastfeeding is not an all-or-nothing process. Night weaning is a workable alternative for many moms, and baby continues to receive the many nutritional and immunilogical benefits of breastmilk.

Remember that sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone (like walking or toilet training) that different babies will reach at different times. At some point, your child will sleep through the night – even if you do nothing to encourage it.

Elizabeth Pantley has by far the most extensive information on night weaning in her indispensable book, The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers. Pantley focuses on how to teach a baby who has always fallen asleep by nursing to fall asleep with other comforts and associations. She cites toddlers who, like Lily, expect to nurse every time they enter the lightest stage of their sleep cycle (if your child is waking up every 60-90 minutes to nurse, this is what he or she is doing, and I can tell you it’s exhausting!) and then tells you how, using a combination of a special “done nursing” phrase, a change to bedtime routines, a gradual reduction in the duration of night-time nursing, light and dark cues, and the help of another adult.

In order to take the steps to change your child’s sucking-to-sleep association, you must complicate night wakings for a week or even a month. But in the long run you can wean your child from using your breast as his only nighttime association. I wish it were simpler, but you must be prepared to disrupt your own nights for a while to make some important, worthwhile long-term changes.

Dr. James McKenna makes only a passing reference to night weaning in his new book on co-sleeping, Sleeping with your Baby, but he has a few good points about making the breast less available and giving Dad a role in night-time comfort. And his conclusion is gentle and sound advice as always:

Trusting and using your own judgment and experience with your baby is important-and every baby will give you different insights as to what might work best for them and only them. Like the decision to cosleep or bedshare, the decision to wean has to e made carefully and with full attention to the needs of each individual family.

Sometimes, more than research and techniques, you just need to know that other parents have been there and have night weaned gently instead of using cry-it-out techniques. If that’s the case, read this Dad’s story of night weaning his son, or this Mom’s humorous take on what night nursing is like, or if you just want to laugh at my post from last May, when I thought I was going to night wean Lily at age 13 months, what a laugh, and further proof of what sleep deprivation does to your higher faculties. Note that getting Matt involved in the night time soothing did reduce Lily’s nursing, but she wasn’t anything close to night weaned until this fall, despite all my wishful thinking and “plans.”

Oh, incidentally, after raging for some minutes last night, Lily calmed down and went right to sleep when I told her I loved her and that although the “mookie” was sleeping, she could have as much as she wanted in the morning. It seems that she had somehow convinced herself that I was, to borrow a phrase from Gabriel, “never, ever, ever, never” going to let her nurse again. Silly girl! She slept until an hour after sunrise before wandering dreamily into my room for her morning mookie and, although she’s nursed a few times since, I much prefer it to the all-night-diner I was hosting every night.

9 thoughts on “Night Weaning Resources for the Sleep Deprived

  1. I am so encouraged! We are just moving forward on making night-weaning “plans”, just after reading Pantley’s book. I am exhausted, and would love to be a better mother by not being sleep deprived anymore. Glad to come across this post!
    p.s. look who gets to be on the internet again because Rori takes long naps!

  2. I applaud you! And I am entirely jealous of your sleeping through the night.

    One day I’ll sleep through the night again. One day. I’m really hoping that I don’t have to wait until 22 months, though. Since there are two of them, time stretches out forever, so it will SEEM more like 44 months.

    *weep*

  3. Well, Matt spent his first night back in the US sleeping with our girl in her bed. So she didn’t nurse, but it wasn’t exactly the ideal home-coming πŸ˜‰

    Funny about the nipple licking. Lily does this thing now where she kisses and pats the “mookie” and says, “Love mookie, love mookie.” I swear she’s going to nurse until she’s 16! And frankly, as long as she sleeps I don’t really care.

  4. ok, i’m sitting here reading this as julian is licking my nipple. LOL a new trick he picked up this weekend. silly boy.
    anyway, this is full of great information. thank you for sharing it!
    i remember ava started sleeping through the night and was night weaned right around 22 months with only a little gentle encouragement from me. julian is still nursing like a fiend at night but i am hopeful it won’t last TOO much longer. πŸ˜‰

  5. I am really lucky that one night a few months back, Cole just slept through the night. He was only waking once a night to nurse, but then he just stopped. YAY! Even at only once a night it was usually at 2 or 3am- just in the middle of my deep REM sleep. I never fell back asleep soundly after he nursed. I was dreading trying to night wean him, so I am very glad he obviously was ready to sleep through the night.

    He very seldom wakes up now at night-usually only if he is sick. Nine times out of ten, I can just pick him up, pat him on the back, give him some water, and he goes right back to sleep. That one time out of ten, if he is sick, or had a bad dream, I will nurse him but only for a few minutes, and he goes right back to sleep.

    I have to say I am glad this part of our nursing relationship is over. It is so hard to night nurse a toddler, when you have been doing it without fail for almost two years. It seems like it was the right time for him, and for me. πŸ™‚

  6. Some day you will look back on all this with amusement (but not for a loooong time!). It will end and everything will be ok.

  7. Cool post, J!!

    Q has been nightweaned for I don’t know how long – October/November/December sometime? And it’s STILL a nightly discussion “me want me-me” “Sure! You can have me-me when the sun wakes up!” He’s really mellow about it, but he still asks. Last night he was rooting in his sleep even. Clearly this is a long process!

    The good news is that S no longer asks, so it did end πŸ˜‰ You know, before he started Kindergarten!

  8. Oh, Goose. I’m with in spirit…. thank goodness, because I just don’t know if I’d have the strength to night wean another boobaholic. You are wise to have waited until she can intellectually understand what is happening. You know that 22 months was the Golden Age for Maeve to night wean. Although it was tremendously difficult for that first week, it was so sincerely worth it. I empathize with EVERYTHING the mothers whom you quoted had to say.

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