Night weaning. Two little words that get thrown around in gentle parenting circles like sleep training does in their mainstream counterparts.
Mamas who are nursing on demand throughout the night for one, two, three plus years are tired. Deep down tired. Tears are shed, wills are broken and sometimes we just can’t take it anymore.
I’ve been there. When my daughter was approaching two I didn’t think I could take it anymore. She woke every 45 minutes, all night long, EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. She’d been doing that for 2 years…that’s over 700 broken sleeps. I was so tired. I’d cried. I’d pulled my hair out. I think I may have even prayed for her to start sleeping better and I’m not a religious person.
We had co-slept since birth so she was right beside me and all I had to do was nurse her without getting up. I’d given up on switching sides through the night about 6 months earlier. It’s not even that her wake ups were very long. It was just that she
So I read Dr. Gordon’s method (more about this later). I asked for advice in my online gentle parenting community. And then I decided to give it a shot…
I lasted all of one night. Well, one wake up of one night. When she started to cry after I stopped the session I just couldn’t take it. It didn’t feel right. So I stopped. She wasn’t ready and I wasn’t ready to force it.
Here is what I did do over the coming months:
I still always nursed my daughter to sleep.
I still always nursed her when she woke.
Sometimes I would try and cut our middle of the night nursing sessions short and just cuddle back to sleep. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. Mostly it didn’t.
I essentially did nothing. I trusted that it would eventually sort itself out. And I worked hard to accept how things were in that moment, in that season of life.
Then when she was nearly three I got pregnant with her little brother. And about 16 weeks in, true nursing aversion set in and it was horrible. I literally couldn’t nurse for more than 20 seconds without my skin crawling, so I started cutting all the sessions short, even the sacred ‘going to sleep’ session. I was bracing myself because this time I truly needed to night wean, at least to a point - my ability to accept was no longer strong enough. And the most amazing thing happened. She was just fine.
She was ready.
We would nurse for very short sessions and we would then cuddle. If she asked for more milk I would let her for a few seconds and then back to cuddling. Pretty soon we weren’t nursing at all during the night.
Know this though: she still woke in the night.
Not as often, it’s true, but it didn’t stop all the night wakings. We would just snuggle back to sleep. As she’s gotten older her night wakings decreased, but this is the natural way of things regardless of weaning.
If you truly feel the time has come to night wean and you have done any research in that direction then you have probably come across Dr. Jay Gordon’s method. It’s mentioned time and time again in gentle parenting circles because…well because it’s really the only ‘gentle leaning’ night weaning information out there. (We hope to change that with this article.) I’m not going to reiterate his entire method here but I am going to refer to it, so I do recommend reading it.
There are some great things about Dr. Gordon’s method.
- He is a huge proponent of the family bed.
- He is NOT recommending using his method for babies under a year.
- And more than anything he wants you to follow your instincts and if it ever feels wrong then just stop. You can always try again in a few months.
There are also some things that just don’t sit right.
Dr. Gordon does not recommend his method for babies under a year but it’s misleading to say that babies over a year do not need sustenance through the night. This is often not the case for babies who are still nursing on demand well into their second year. Many of these babies still get much of their nutrition from breastmilk. (You have probably heard of the breastmilk and air diet). They very well could need the calories they are ingesting in the wee hours of the morning.
Regardless of how many calories your baby needs from breastmilk after the age of one, nursing provides other important security and comfort for your baby. The importance of these aspects of nursing should not be underestimated. Nursing sessions in the quiet hours of night are an important time for reconnection. A pat on the back and a few words to get back to sleep is just not the same. Putting your baby down and not offering cuddles and snuggles in place of nursing is not something I would be personally comfortable with nor is it necessary for night weaning to be successful.
The point here is one is still very young to start any kind of night weaning program. Babies are still very much babies at that age regardless of their ability to toddle around. They need us for so much in these early years –for sustenance, for security, for comfort. Day and night. It’s us. It’s overwhelming at times and it can be so hard and so tiring but it’s the truth. And it’s not forever.
There are a few things to consider before deciding to go down the path of night weaning.
Your sleeping arrangements:
Are you exhausted because you are getting up to go to your child every time they wake? Would co-sleeping or bedsharing make life easier for the time being? Rolling over to nurse is often much easier than getting up and out of bed.
The rest of your life:
Are there things you should look at changing in the rest of your life to try and feel more rested? Are you staying up too late to try to try and get some alone time? Are you able to fill your cup during the day so you can keep working the night shift?
The age of your child:
Give serious consideration to the age of your child: one is still very young to consider night weaning. 18 months is still young. Two is a little older but still young. You get the point. The older they are the easier it will be on them, and on you.
Ask yourself if you’ve truly ‘leaned in’:
A friend and parenting advisor often gives the sage advice: that which we resist persists. If we truly accept even the most difficult things in our lives, they will get easier. Stop looking at the clock. Stop wishing you were anywhere but awake in the middle of the night. Lean in. Accept. It will help.
And know that if you decide to do nothing at all that your child will stop nursing at night in their own time. That time will be different for every child but it will happen.
If you decide to go ahead with a night weaning program, here is our take.
Go slow. Very, very slooooooow. Still nurse your baby to sleep. Still nurse when they wake and then try stopping the session. See how much they protest. If it’s a lot then start nursing again. If it’s a little then keep snuggling. There could be days or weeks of this, maybe even a couple of months.
There is no rush.
It is (usually) not necessary to put a timeline on things. Slowly they will begin to protest less. Perhaps if you only cut out one session in the night you can stop there, that might be enough help. If not, then you can work on the going to sleep session. In the same way, in your own time. Nurse but not right to sleep. Let them practice falling asleep on their own.
Support your child through the whole experience. Hold them, snuggle them, let them be as close as they need to or take some space.
Do what feels right to you.
For many mothers, it’s enough to just cut down on the number of nursing sessions in the night. Not stopping them completely. Remember that nursing is often your best and easiest tool to comfort your child (day or night) and get them back to sleep. Stopping nursing them does not mean they will stop waking up. But sometimes it’s just too much to nurse every one or two hours. But what if you nursed every three or four and cuddled the other times?
Night weaning does not have to be all or nothing.
And what works at home may not work while on vacation or if your child gets really sick. Letting them nurse in the night in extenuating circumstances is ok. Stopping because of aversion and then starting up again is ok.
Nothing is absolute.
I will say it’s been my personal observation that there does seem to be somewhat of a ‘magic window’ of opportunity around age 3. It seems as though kids around this age are able to understand and accept stopping sessions earlier or being cuddled rather than nursed better than their two year old counterparts who just don’t understand as well yet, and also their 4 year old counterparts who understand even more and may protest more because of that deeper understanding.
It’s probably worth mentioning that we know none of us are paediatricians. We are mothers.
We are mothers who have practiced child-led weaning. Who are still nursing our one, two, three, four and five year olds. Mothers who have night weaned. Mothers who have had aversion. Mothers who have tried to lean in but who have also cried tears of frustration in the middle of the night when our kids just keep waking up.
So we get it, we really do. This post is as much for ourselves as it is for everyone else.
We are right here with you, holding and loving and nursing our kids in the wee hours of night. Sometimes it helps a little to just know you are not alone.
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I’d always recommend Sarah Ockwell Smith over Jay Gordan https://sarahockwell-smith.com/2014/08/10/how-to-gently-night-wean-a-breastfed-baby-or-toddler/
I night weaned in a similar fashion, due to pregnancy at 38 months. We still co sleep and so glad of the cuddles in the night. So important to us after rushing around all day. Plus I think it’s so important for him to know i’m there for him despite the growing bump.
I can not even tell you how much I love this. I have considered night weaning my 3 year 9 month old daughter for at least 2 years and I ultimately decided to lean in. It was the only way for me and for her. I decided the easiest way was for me to change my attitude. I processed through all of the mentioned thoughts. Man, I wish I had read this 2 years ago, it would have saved me a lot of thinking, but I guess that was my path. Thank you for putting my thoughts into words. We are still nursing at night and I’m taking the lead in the verrrrryy slow method of weaning.