attachment theory

Nightweaning: Evidence and Experience

Artist: Grace Laidlow. Shared here with a donation to the artist.  Art in the Public Domain.  https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/cn/view-image.php?image=211133&picture=

Artist: Grace Laidlow. Shared here with a donation to the artist. Art in the Public Domain. https://www.publicdomainpictures.net/cn/view-image.php?image=211133&picture=

When nighttime sleep has been a challenge for breastfeeding mamas, many will turn their attention to the question of whether night weaning from breastfeeding will lead to a better night’s sleep.

After all, it makes intuitive sense that, as Jay Gordon suggestions, if the diner is closed, there’s no point waking up for a midnight snack.

In this article, we will take a look at what we know about night weaning and explore what may work to support night weaning in an evolutionary and nurturing way.

In addition to exploring strategies for night weaning, I’ll indulge in a bit of storytelling, too, as I share my night weaning experiences with my three children. Most of the suggestions below assume that you are considering night weaning a baby over 12 months of age, and that your toddler is bed sharing with you, or are continuing to room share with you: the effort of continued night feeds for a child down the hall makes it likely that toddlers who are sleeping in their own room are already weaned. Also, night weaning before 12 months has special considerations that include development and growth that I won’t cover in this article.

The challenge for some parents (though not all) that emerges in the toddler years is that as parent longing for some personal space goes up, so does toddler restlessness, acrobatics, long lazy latches, and nighttime nibbling. Nipples get sore, heads get kicked by flailing toddler arms, and toddlers go through periods of increased feeding for comfort, emotional connection, nourishment, and more —nothing close to the straight trajectory towards natural weaning that we pictured when we first imagined natural child-led weaning. It can feel like a return to the early days of feeding, except kiddo is three times as big, and waaaay more active. Parents who are nursing a toddler through the night probably recognize some similarities with nighttime at the 7 to 10 month mark too —a typically challenging period of time for infant sleep.

As decisions are made about if and how to night wean, it can be helpful to keep two questions in mind: what are you reasons? And what are your goals?

I want to emphasize that when we, as parents, have decided we are “done” and want to end the nursing relationship, it is ok! Sometimes this is out of frustration, fatigue, being “touched out”, or wanting some flexibility through the night (to work, to rest, to be alone). As decisions are made about if and how to night wean, it can be helpful to keep two questions in mind: what are you reasons, and what are your goals. The answers to these questions will help guide your actions, and will also help you evaluate things, and change course (subtly or significantly) if what you are doing doesn’t align with your goals. Your goals, of course, may change too!

Often, breastfeeding parents feel that night weaning will reduce night waking. That connection is quite murky —I could find no evidence to support this idea in the literature, though certainly there are some children for whom this is true, anecdotally. I would suggest that in terms of sleeping through the night, it be approached more as a developmental skill, and one that may or may not be impacted by night nursing. However, despite this, moms may still feel a strong pull towards night weaning for their own physical comfort, and their desire for some bed boundaries and personal space. These are important things to honour!

There may be sweet spots that, developmentally, can make it better “timing” —these generally happen between Plooij and van de Rijt’s popular “Wonder Weeks” in addition to other frameworks of developmental jumps. However, timing isn’t everything —your needs are factors here too.

Before we delve into how to night wean, let’s take a peak at what we know about night breastfeeding.

Research doesn’t tell us much about weaning. And research tells us even less about night weaning. What do we know? We know that:

  • up to 1/3 of a child’s nutrition at 12 to 24 months of age can come from night feeding (WHO, 2015);

  • breastfeeding beyond the first and second year of a child’s life is recommended if it aligns with what a family feels is appropriate (CDC, 2014); and

  • night weaning can be among “the most logistically and emotionally challenging” aspects of weaning (Cuniff & Spatz, 2017, p.93)

  • Night feeding and bedsharing are highly correlated

What does that mean for moms who are ready to night-wean? It can be gradual. It can be your decision. And it can be difficult. But, as with many parenting situations, being difficult doesn’t necessarily mean it is not the right decision. Weigh the benefit and draw backs, be flexible, and be gentle with yourself. This, like so many other aspects of parenting, requires flexibility and an open mind.

Weigh the benefits and draw backs, be flexible, and be gentle with yourself.

Here, then, are some insights for those who have decided to nudge things towards night weaning.

One of the more popular suggestions for night weaning parents is Dr. Jay Gordon’s nighttime weaning process (Gordon, 2002). For kiddos above the age of twelve months (and more than likely 18 months and older) who are ready, his process can work well. However, in practical experience, these steps can be difficult, and distressing especially at a younger age —there are gentler, more developmentally-guided approaches. Likely, if his approach (some of which are incorporated in the suggestions below) is not working, it is not good timing: pause, re-evaluate, and try again. It is ok to stop, and wait for a better time. Other strategies that can feel more respectful, flexible, and gentle, are included below and are drawn, in part, from Elizabeth Pantley’s book, “No Cry Sleep Solutions".

I don’t remember many of the details of weaning my first born. I know there were portions of the process that were not easy. And there were a few re-starts, and pauses, and “try agains”. My toddler would rather have nursed, but I don’t recall the transition being an exceptionally difficult one, and the glorious indulgence of a bed I could stretch out in was pure bliss—a welcome focus on my needs after the intensity of the first year and a half of parenting, was nothing short of amazing.

With our second, I was glad to be done with night nursing by about age 2, motivated by my own worthwhile need to have my body be my own at night. It is not a decision that I regret, though I do know there are 101 different choices, options, strategies, and nuances that can make night weaning look different for every child, and every family.

We chose what we felt was best for us, with a great deal of flexibility, and our eye on the big picture: night weaning would happen eventually whether we promoted it or not. A bit of nudging in that direction was just fine. And assertive communication from our toddler was worth evaluating and re-evaluating: was our expectation of him reasonable? Was it best to wait a bit longer? Does this feel right?

We did play some musical beds during this period: sometimes my spouse was the one cuddling our weaning toddler at night, and we did not balk at changing the plan from night to night (or part way through the night!) if what we were doing was not working well for any one of us.

Night weaning generally falls into the “can do, but don’t have to” category of parenting decisions. Weaning will happen over time, even if you do nothing in particular to nudge it along.

By toddlerhood, parents are adapting to the assertive and big emotions from toddlers who don’t (can’t) always have their needs or desires met in precisely the way they would like them to be met: no matter how much they want to, they cannot run across the road, smash a glass on the floor, or hit their sibling. Night weaning, however, generally falls into the “can do, but don’t have to” category. Weaning will happen over time, even if don’t do anything in particular to nudge it along. If the timing is right for you, it’s a matter of balancing needs, and moving flexibly and sensitively towards your goal.

Keeping an open and flexible mind allowed me to use our toddler’s room for night weaning. The time spent with him at bedtime and through the night helped me figure out what parts of night weaning were workable, and what parts needed tweaking. There were many missteps (the bruise on my forehead from a sippy cup thrown in frustration by my toddler being one of them). My “in the moment” goals around night weaning shifted depending on how tired I was. What felt most important to me was to honour the ebb and flow: to know that I was not “giving in” if I chose to breastfeed him, and to know that weaning would happen eventually. Night weaning when mama is ready, but baby isn’t quite on board, is an exercise in respecting everyone’s needs, and finding solutions that work best under the circumstances.

With our third, I needed to be on medication that, based on multiple sources, required weaning. It was, quite frankly, an awful process for both of us, as neither of us was ready: I had had my intentions to night nurse for longer than I had the other two, and the sorrow and frustration we both felt with early weaning was heavy. If you are experiencing a similar situation, Dr. Jack Newman’s International Breastfeeding Clinic is a highly recommended resource for working out the necessity of, and the details of, weaning due to medical/medication needs, particularly with the closure of Sick Kids’ Mother Risk organization. If night weaning is not your personal goal, but appears to be medically necessary, gathering all the support you can to make a workable plan. This may include strategic, professionally-supported timing of medication, as well as validation of your feelings through this process, and practical strategies for paving the way.

Nurturing strategies can be applied to make the process of weaning smoother.

If night weaning is necessary, know that sometimes there are factors beyond your control, and that you have many other nurturing strategies at your disposal for maintaining a strong bond with your baby, even if circumstances (medical or otherwise) lead you to night wean before one or both of you are ready. Know as well that if night weaning is right for you, these nurturing strategies can be applied to make the process of weaning smoother, and respects the emotional well-being of both you and your baby.

If night weaning is chosen for your own well being, know that that is an important reason in and of itself. Night weaning before a child is ready can be challenging, and pulling in all the supports and strategies you can is important, too.

The following are some strategies to consider when night weaning your toddler.

Strategies for Parents Who Feel “Done” with the Nighttime Feedings:

  1. Reflect first. Is this feeling like a permanent shift in your feelings around nighttime nursing? Or is this feeling a blig in the road? Are you doing this for you (great! If it’s not working change it. Your priorities and preferences matter!) or is there pressure from others? I use a nighttime weaning readiness checklist with clients to explore this further.

  2. Eliminate barriers! Reflux, excema, tummy issues, and respiratory difficulties (apnea, environmental allergies, stuffy noses) can lead to frequent night nursing to relieve discomfort. Addressing these issues, and resolving them as best we can, paves the way for meeting night-time weaning goals. Occasionally something as straightforward as a diet change or fresher air in the bedroom can improve sleep, and make night-time weaning easier.

  3. Change it up: the bedtime order of breastfeeding and cuddles may not have a huge impact on overnight feeding, but it can help some parents feel that they are moving in the right direction. Toddlers may wake up sooner when they first shift away from nursing to sleep (we don’t really know —and some toddlers coast right through to the usual next wake up). Regardless, with the right routines in place, and an approach towards flexibility and gradual separation of nursing and falling asleep, your toddler may surprise you with their readiness.

  4. Close up shop: in the early days of breastfeeding, nursing shirts and button pajamas make it so much easier to breastfeed. If you are looking to wean, a change of clothes may be helpful. By switching to pull over shirts you’ve created a mild inconvenience; not enough to dissuade a child who continues to need the breast at night (physically or emotionally), but enough that a child that could take it or leave it might decide it’s not worthwhile. Button-up pajamas on backwards never appealed much to me, but by the time I was ready for nighttime weaning, the buttons on my pajamas were so loose that I may have seemed to have a flashing (no pun intended) neon sign that said “no need to knock: the door is already open”.

  5. Different space, different parent: Shifting primary parent at night to your partner, and potentially to a different room (a twin mattress floor bed in a toddler-proof room, for example) can allow for some musical beds. For a toddler who is ready, the different caregiver and different environment can make the shift through night weaning easier. A favourite sippy cup of water might help too, and expressed breastmilk in a bottle may help bridge the change.

  6. Shorten the meal: Keeping the nursing time to shorter and shorter intervals can still give toddlers the comfort they seek from the breast, while reducing how long they are on, and giving them the opportunity to adjust to coming off the breast before falling asleep. Your toddler will let you know loud and clear if they are ready for this! Adjust the interval if it’s not working as well as you hoped.

  7. Shorten the hours: Choosing a window of time when the diner is closed can work well for some kiddos. Some parents have “closed” one breast, and have found that the lower flow of the other breast has led rather smoothly to less interest in nursing.

  8. Use language to bolster your plan! Sometimes as parents we forget that our words, and tone of voice matter. In addition to reading picture books about night weaning, and explaining what to expect (in clear, simple words), having a short phrase to say at night as you unlatch or as you turn down a request for nursing, can have a profound effect. Not only is your voice one of the nurturing nighttime tools you have, but the combination of your simple, and soft words, with your actions can help move the process of night weaning forward.

  9. If it’s not working, it’s ok to pause, and re-evaluate. Sometimes timing is everything. I know how challenging it is to set your mind on something, and then have half a dozen other factors completely knock over your carefully laid plans: two year molars, a move to a new room at daycare, family vacation, and illness, can all make your dream of a night without nursing seem impossibly difficult to achieve. Pause, re-evaluate, and try again. No parent should feel they need to continue night nursing when they feel “done”, but it is ok if it is a jerky walk to the finish line: be gentle with yourself through the ups and down, and look at the trajectory over time.

As with all stages of childhood and motherhood, weaning is a natural and expected part of the mother/child relationship. As babies become older there is a shift more towards balancing the needs and intentions of both mama and babe. It is ok to move towards night weaning when you are ready. And like so many other aspects of mothering, it is a dance: with some back and forth, a shift in who is “leading”, and the occasional toe might get stepped on! You are both on the dance floor together, but sometimes mama gets to pick the next song.

RESOURCES:

Picture Books on Weaning/Night-Weaning

Havener, K. (2013). Nursies When the Sun Shines: A little book on night weaning.

Susan, M. & Low, H. (illustrator) (2018). A Time to Wean.

Saleem, J. (2014). Milkies in the Morning: A gentle night weaning storybook.

Parent Books on Night-Weaning

Wessinger, D. et al. (2014). Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and nap time strategies for breastfeeding families.

Gordon, J. (2002). Good Nights: The happy parents’ guide to the family bed (and a peaceful night’s sleep!)

Pantley, E. (2002) The No Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night.

Plooij, F. & van de Rijt, H. (2010). The Wonder Weeks: How to Stimulate Your Baby's Mental Development and Help Him Turn His 10 Predictable, Great, Fussy Phases Into Magical Leaps Forward.

Online Resources

Bonyata, K, Flora, B., & Yount, P. Night Weaning, www.kellymom.com.

Sears, W. & Sears, M. Night Weaning: 12 Alternatives to the All Night Toddler Nurser. www.askdrsears.com.

Peer Reviewed Articles

CDC (2014).

Cunniff, A., & Spatz, D. (2017). Mothersʼ Weaning Practices when Infants Breastfeed for More Than One Year. MCN, The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing, 42(2), 88–94. doi:10.1097/nmc.0000000000000310  Accessed online June 13, 2019.

World Health Organization (2015).

Neufeld’s Six Stages of Attachment and What They Mean for Bedtime (Part I: Stages 1 to 3)

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My favourite Canadian developmental psychologist, Gordon Neufeld, outlined six stages of attachment to explain the development of attachment in children. I have found these stages helpful as a mom in knowing what emotional and attachment needs my boys could be expected to have, and how that can shape my parenting. Knowing the stages has allowed me to anticipate their needs better over the years, and has helped me understand their behaviour better too, something that any parent of a toddler will tell you is a bit of a miracle!

The stages that Gordon Neufeld describes are:

  1. Proximity

  2. Sameness

  3. Belonging or Loyalty

  4. Significance

  5. Love

  6. Being Known

As I watched my first two boys move from stage to stage, almost exactly as Neufeld described, I was awestruck with the idea that something as seemingly “soft” as attachment could be so predictable. I was also well aware that the attachment I was seeing emerge from them would form the basis of every healthy relationship they have in their lives. My third kiddo, somewhat obscured by the busy-ness of life with three boys, has benefited greatly from my understanding of the natural progression of attachment, while at the same time I have paid far less attention to the details. Despite my lack of attention, the stages of attachment have marched on anyway. I can say, though, that anticipating each stage, and reveling in this natural emergence of attachment, is really rewarding.

Here, I outline the first three of Neufeld’s six stages of attachment and describe what each stage may look like, and how parents can respond to the needs of their child at each stage.

In general, the six stages of attachment correspond to age in years. Developmental and neurological challenges, trauma, illness, and separation can all have an impact on the timing of these stages —and when this is the case, understanding these stages can be helpful for establishing attachment on a child’s own timeline. It is useful to appreciate that the stages of attachment are worth working through gradually, at a child’s pace, and with the intent to ensure the needs at each stage are fully met. It is also helpful to appreciate that we can be grown adults and still have needs that correspond to earlier stages of attachment, particularly if we have had negative relationships early on in our lives, or have experienced trauma and adverse childhood events. Babies don’t entirely abandon earlier needs (e.g. the need to be close), However, Neufeld feels that the better a child’s attachment needs are met, the more easily they will be able to move to the next stage of attachment. It is never too late.

It is also helpful to understand that attachment is “in the present moment”. Attachment can be temporarily ‘broken’ if we are distracted, angry, or disconnected, or if our children are frustrated, overwhelmed, or angry. And attachment that has fallen apart earlier in the day can be re-established through connection, empathy, and attention. By focusing on re-establishing our connection with our children “in the moment”, we can re-establish the bonds of attachment. In practical terms, this means bedtime can be wonderful one evening and then feel like it is falling apart at the seams on another: look at ways to reconnect at your child’s level, if things feel disconnected. It also means that bedtime can be a wonderful time of day to repair attachment: focus on slowing down, listening, paying attention, and reconnecting during the bedtime routine to finish the day with strong, secure attachment.

STAGES OF ATTACHMENT

  1. Proximity (1 year old)

What it is:

  • The need to be close, to touch you, to be touched by you, to be nearby, to see you, to hear you, to smell you.

What it looks like:

  • Babies will curl into you, reach out to you, cry when separated from you, be soothed by skin on skin contact with you, and have an easier time regulating with touch, breastfeeding, being held, or being carried.

How parents can meet this need:

  • Expecting babies to need to be close to you can help set reasonable expectations in the first year and beyond. Ways to meet this need for proximity include babywearing, roomsharing, holding, rocking, breastfeeding, bedsharing, and orienting yourself to hold baby for bottle feeding in ways that mirror breastfeeding (skin on skin, frequent cradling, considering having one primary ‘feeding person’ for bottle feeds) can all meet this need. Hugs, and squeezes, horseplay and cuddling are all very physical ways to meet this need. Using your soothing voice, your eye contact, or even remaining visible are all ways that help babies relax through your proximity.

  • As babies become more mobile, they will begin to move away from you but will circle back to you for proximity in order to get reassurance, particularly when unsure in a new situation. As they get older, this ‘circling back to you become visual: they will turn to check that you are still there.

  • By ensuring the need for proximity is met, we are reassuring our babies that we love them and are taking care of them.

2. Sameness (age 2)

What it is:

  • Two year olds tend to want to be like the people they love.

What it looks like:

Your child will mimic or imitate the behaviours, actions, and words of you and other very key caregivers (usually one or two key adults). Two year olds love to imitate household activities, facial expressions, gestures, and mannerisms. Children will often show an intense need for sameness of one caregiver over another at certain points in time. This may be difficult for the other parent or caregiver who can feel rejected and not understand why: the intensity of attachment is so great that it is often directed really strongly to one parent. This changes over time, and requires patience and understanding that it is typical.

What parents can do to support this stage:

  • Take pleasure in this imitation. Be playful with it. Model calm self-regulation, and share in these imitated activities as much as you are comfortable with. Enjoy this shared behaviour, and know that this imitation indicates a strong attachment to you. Encourage your two year old to help you around the house: wiping windows, folding cloths, using utensils, putting toys away. Imitation is a powerful indicator of attachment, but it is also nature’s way of setting the stage for behaviours that we come to expect our children to have. Know that if you are a loving parent who is not the object of this imitation, your presence, consistency, and love will lead to this happening: it is worth the wait!

  • At bedtime, create some ‘sameness’ with same physical belongings like pillow cases or even two stuffies that are the same (one for you and one for your two year old!) if you sleep apart. Same pajamas can also be a fun way to build on this stage.

  • The same routine, and reveling in that routine, can be a powerful way of providing security and predictability for your two year old. The same book, the same chair, and the same tuck in routine each night lets your child know what to expect.

3. Belonging/Loyalty (age 3)

What it is:

  • A strong sense of acceptance as a family unit to you and one or two other key caregivers.

  • A sense of you ‘belonging’ to your child. This can feel like ‘ownership’ or possessiveness, but is based on a strong sense of unconditional belonging.

What it looks like:

  • This stage can be clear to see when our children start using the phrase “my _____”. “My mommy”, “my cup”, “my toy”, and “my baby” are frequent at this age. Often, this age coincides with the birth of a baby which can make children feel even more possessive of parents and cherished things. Eventually, this sense of belonging extends to the new baby too, though this takes patience and time to get there!

How can parents support this stage:

  • At bedtime, belonging and a sense of loyalty can be supported through continued bedtime rituals that strengthen your child’s sense of safety and unconditional love.

  • Urie Bronfenbrenner, father of attachment, has said that every child should have at least one adult who is crazy about them. Enstilling a sense of unconditional belonging supports this stage of attachment.

  • Leaning into the need for your presence and for feeling the need to belong allows a child to relax in the reassurance that you and they are a family unit. It may also help them feel, over time, less concerned about how a new sibling can threaten this feeling of belonging.

  • This is a great age to consider shifting children to their own bed or own bedroom. Pulling the space together for them and focusing on phrases like “your room” and “your bed” can be helpful. Follow through by respecting that space and protecting their space from siblings in order to maintain this space as something that belongs to them.

In closing:

Consider these stages ‘signposts’ of attachment development, rather than as set-in-stone measures of attachment. Use them to guide your parenting, to anticipate your child’s needs, and to take pleasure in the ever changing emotional landscape of childhood! It can be quite a ride.

Next month I will add stages 3 to 6. If you don’t want to wait, you can view my 5-8 minute videos describing each stage of attachment via my facebook page. Stage #3 is a stand alone stage pinned at the top of my facebook page, but the rest of the videos are all in a folder together (securely attached!).

If you want to understand more about how to use the Stages of Attachment to strengthen your child’s sleep routine, or want to explore other shifts in parenting and the environment that can support infant sleep development, I welcome you to connect with me via email or phone.

If you want to read or learn more about Gordon Neufeld’s approach to attachment and child development, I recommend his book, Hold Onto Your Kids (co-authored by Gabor Mate). I also highly recommend the online courses offered through the Neufeld Institute, most especially Making Sense of Preschoolers.