night-time parenting

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).

Even With Older Children, Attachment and Connection Support Sleep

A photo from quite a few years back of a relaxed and joyful part of our bedtime routine —hanging out together. Sleep is important. And so is connection. The two can work together. (It is recommended that children under two not bed share next to a sibling.)

A photo from quite a few years back of a relaxed and joyful part of our bedtime routine —hanging out together. Sleep is important. And so is connection. The two can work together. (It is recommended that children under two not bed share next to a sibling.)

There was a time before kids when I was not as attachment-focused in my sleep approach. And if I am completely honest with myself, there have been times even after becoming a mother where I have struggled with attachment-based approaches to supporting sleep. Shifting my perspectives and expectations this much has been a process.

But now, with my youngest at age 4, and with my two older boys, I’ve hit my stride (without perfection, but with calm intention) when it comes to supporting their sleep most nights.

Tonight’s bedtime routine (with all it’s imperfections, and bumps) feels like a story worth telling, in that it reflects how profoundly I’ve shifted my priorities around night time parenting. I don’t dismiss the importance of sleep (enough of it, and of good quality). But I do know that more often than not the best way for our kids to get good sleep is to meet (and exceed) the need with an open heart and a calm, unhurried state of mind.

Perhaps some nights an open heart and a calm, unhurried mind are a struggle. On those nights it’s a challenge to dig deep and meet the need. It becomes a war against our intentions, which often comes out looking like a battle against our kids: them resisting sleep, and us trying to overpower their resistance.

But tonight there was no strong arm, no temptation to coerce, and no resistance. Instead, the evening started with rather feeble efforts on my part to start the routine, and ended with a sense of such connection that I am smitten.

At the usual bedtime, as I do on nights when I am distracted and trying to get work done, I was verbally guiding my two older kiddos (6 and 9) to bed. But as with so many pieces of parenting, you’ve got to walk the walk….and actually walk with them upstairs! Instead, I was giving instructions about shutting down screen time while tapping on my laptop, and listing off bedtime steps without modelling them myself. Hardly “leading by example”.

Now I do know that my children are capable of walking up stairs independently. Of brushing their teeth independently. Of getting dressed independently. Of climbing into bed and crawling under the covers independently. But I have learned well both through research and through parenting experience, that the ability to do something independently is not the only factor in accomplishing a task. Not by a long shot. Coming alongside, and “doing with” are powerful strategies for connecting and accomplishing.

So instead of escalating the volume of my voice, getting sharper and snappier and frustrated, I paused, and heeded the call from my spouse to please come upstairs and help usher them to bed (we both play integral parts in the bedtime wind-down) —tonight things weren’t going all that smoothly. There seemed to be a frenetic energy in the upstairs loft (full moon?!). A lot was happening that had very little to do with bedtime. There were push ups and jumping jacks, karate punches and kicks into cushions, building of forts, requests to make elaborate paper plate faces to tape to these “punching bags” (yes that sounds terrific; yes, it will have to wait till tomorrow), and a lot (a lot) of talking.

But step by step, slowly and calmly, we made our way to their beds where story time was pulled off the roster but gratitude questions and a review of their day remained intact. By now it was very late and despite having more work to take care of, I lay with them a while, and I closed my kindle (did I say screens shouldn’t be part of bedtime? Direction not perfection!), and just lay there as my middle child told me elaborate explanations of how things work. He chatted while holding my hand. His volume was louder than usual, and we kept having to remind him that his little brother was sleeping. He talked with excitement and enthusiasm and while he talked he played with my hair. And then, interrupting his story, he requested that I get the detangling brush….so that he could brush the knots out of my hair.

Now the old me —before I became a mother, or before we got to a point where I was getting enough sleep most nights to make flexibility and patience easy— would have said no, it’s bed time, good night. But tonight I paused, considered how comfortable and content he was: he was getting one-on-one time with me as he peered at the full moon out his window and lazily shared contemplative explanations of zombies and werewolves.

Here was a kiddo whose one-on-one time often gets squeezed out between the needs of his younger brother and the activities of his older brother. The kiddo who sometimes stops talking out of frustration that no one is listening, or that he’s been interrupted again. Here he was chatting to me, connecting with me. So I did what I felt compelled to do: I got the comb, I brought it up, and he combed my hair while talking, while solving dilemmas of his day, while unwinding for sleep.

When all the knots were out I said good night, gave the boys kisses, and left. They both fell asleep without another peep.

There is something liberating about approaching night time this way. For all the conflict, or upset, or missed opportunities to connect during the day, night time has fewer distractions. Night time is a chance to put a cherry on top of the day, no matter how bad the day has been. Night time could be (and often is!) a stressful, exhausting ritual of resistance when we as parents can be maxed out. But by “finishing strong”, and finishing with connection, I’ve made up for some of the less-than-ideal parts of today.

Whatever needs he had not had filled during the day seemed topped up well by my spending this time with him as he lay in bed. And his need for sleep is fulfilled too: maybe not as early as ideal, but certainly as smoothly as I could ever wish for.

Snug as kittens: even older kiddos need to feel relaxed and to unwind with parental support sometimes.

Snug as kittens: even older kiddos need to feel relaxed and to unwind with parental support sometimes.

Cry-It-Out and Martyrdom: The Third Choice Mamas Ought to Know About to Get More Sleep

Cry-It-Out and Martyrdom: The Third Choice Mamas Ought to Know About to Get More Sleep

There is an impression that the two options for helping your infant sleep are to “Cry it Out” or to sacrifice it all. There is a third option: Meet the biological, developmental, and emotional needs of your infant while also meeting your own needs. It may look different than you planned, but you can find a way to do this that feels right to your vision as a family, that feels good in your heart, and that aligns with the evidence on infant sleep.

Preschoolers: Reflections on Nighttime Parenting

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If you'd asked me when I first gave birth what kind of night-time parenting my child would need when he was three, I would have guffawed.  Three seemed so far away, so hypothetical.  And besides, don't all three year olds fall asleep on their own, and sleep all night?  The kids I babysat did.  Surely it will be bath, book, and to bed, lickity split.  More to the point, I really would have had no interest at all in speculating on the sleep of a three year old --I had a newborn baby to contend with!!

Fast-forward eight years and three babies later, and my view on preschool sleep needs has evolved quite a bit.  We're at the tail end of our 'official real time learning' about infant and preschool sleep, and we've had three very different teachers along the way!

Currently, my youngest is three and a half, and I've had a bit to reflect on how sleep needs have shifted for him in the last several months.  In the spirit of sharing experiences, I've written down a few observations that I have had around night-time parenting my youngest. 

We bed-share with our three and a half year old.  With a few bumps in the road, my son has generally slept through the night since two and a half years old, if we are there when he stirs.  When he sleeps with us, he likely stirs and falls back to sleep without me being fully aware that he has woken up.  When he sleeps alone he tends to wake up some time in the middle of the night, upset and looking for us, settling quickly when I join him. 

However, there are times when I am up far too late (past midnight!), forgetting all about my OWN sleep needs in my attempt for some quiet 'me time'.  Staying up as late as that has had one wee benefit: it has allowed me to see a bit of a trend this spring: at midnight, nearly without fail, my preschooler was waking up enough to call out for me, and would not settle till I am settled in next to him.  I knew that this would not happen forever, and I knew that he slept well with me there.  I figured, however, that until that happens, midnight is obviously a time that he has been aware of being separate and alone, and has not felt safe or relaxed enough to fall asleep on his own.  

Most recently, however, as we move towards summer,I have slept in my own bed (at a decent time!), or stayed up past midnight (oops!), and have expected to move into his bed around midnight when my son wakes up.  This has led to the discovery of another new trend: in the past month or so he generally sleeps through the night with no support or night-time parenting from me at all!  As the sun comes up, he wakes, crawls into my bed, and falls asleep: and we get some nice slumber, lots of cuddling, and even a book or two, before we both wake up fully.  It is progress like this that gives me confidence that nurturing the need, even when it doesn't fit with my own "Dr. Spock" upbringing, is the way to peaceful sleep.

Seeing these changes emerge gradually, I am reminded that independent sleep develops at a pace that is much slower than the frantic pace of our lives in general.  It reminds me that no matter how hectic the world is around us, infant and child needs have not changed much at all.  They are still the same as in pre-history!  If I keep this idea in mind, I can be the parent my child needs me to be, and I feel good about meeting that need.

The following ideas may be helpful for those who night-time parent their preschooler:

  1. Generally, three and four year olds have stopped napping (but not always, and not consistently!), and are sleeping 11-12 hours per night.  This is 'average', which means that many three and four year olds will sleep more or sleep less than the average, and that it is still OK!
  2. Flexibility, especially for those  who still occasionally nap, or who fall asleep in the car late in the day, is key.  Adjusting bedtime to fit their readiness can be more enjoyable and less frustrating than trying to put a preschooler to bed who is simply not tired.
  3. No matter what is going on, routines can help.  Having a flow of activities, turning off screens, and keeping noise and activity level lower can help everyone wind down into bedtime readiness.
  4. Your chatty, reflective, observant, and aware preschooler may use conversation to wind down at night.  Lean into this connection: fighting their nature and their need to wind down can be more frustrating than taking a deep breath and listening to what they are sharing.  You might discover some very interesting things about how your three year old thinks!
  5. During times of change in sleep needs/timing, it can be helpful to have a partner or other caregiver to help keep older siblings engaged in play outside the sleep space, or to take care of the bedtime routines of older siblings when your preschooler is up later because they napped.  There are ways to roll with these changes without a partner, too --it may take more creativity, patience, and flexibility, as well as a reminder of what the long term goals are.  Support in one way or another (including chatting to someone who listens and understands) can make a big difference. 
  6.  What works for your family may be entirely unique, even if the values and parenting goals are the same as other families who believe in night-time parenting.
  7. If it doesn't work, change it.  If you are resentful, over-tired, and frustrated, come up with a new plan.  Although any new parenting approach or routine takes a bit to 'try out', do not continue with a failed experiment.
  8. Stubborn habits that cannot seem to be changed may actually be needs.  True habits are more malleable.  If you're hitting a lot of resistance, re-evaluate, and consider changing your approach.
  9. Trust your instincts: if you feel sleep may be being interrupted by a health or medical issue, speak with a knowledgeable Health Care Provider.
  10. If in doubt, let love rule.  Preserve the relationship, even if it means taking time to figure out a bedtime routine that works for everyone.
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