What stories are you telling yourself about your baby’s sleep? Are these stories true? How do they impact your parenting? And how can you re-write them when the stories are no longer working for you?
How we interpret the science of infant sleep can have an impact on how we are able to trust our instincts. Our hearts and our minds can align if we ask ourselves the right question: “How can I support my baby’s sleep development?”.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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).
Bridging to the next connection is an attachment-based strategy for separating from a child in a way that reduces anxiety and resistance, and respects a child’s developmental and emotional ability to separate. The concept of bridging to the next connection was developed by Dr. Gordon Neufeld, Developmental Psychologist from British Columbia who co-authored the book “Hold Onto Your Kids”, and whose Neufeld Institute runs courses on understanding the emotional and attachment needs of children. Bridging is a strategy for separation that I have used as a parent, and have recommended at my workshops and private consults. It can be a tricky concept to get the hang of, and so I am describing it below so that parents who feel their child is ready for separation at bedtime have a developmentally-sensitive and attachment-oriented way to nudge their toddlers and preschoolers towards more independent sleep.
Bridging is a strategy that can pave the way for all sorts of separation situations including the separation to school, for a sleepover at grandma’s house, time with a co-parent, and even getting yourself out the door for much needed solo time. I’ll focus here specifically on using bridging as a strategy for solitary sleep in toddlers and older children but have included two children’s books in the resource list that address a broader idea of separation. Despite its usefulness in a number of scenarios, bridging is a particularly useful strategy for parents who are working towards leaving their child’s sleep space while their child is still awake, with the expectation that the child will stay in the bedroom and fall asleep on their own.
The premise of bridging to the next connection is that by focusing on being with, rather than leaving, you help your child relax because they trust you will return. The focus is on reconnecting, not on leaving. Children are more likely to fall asleep alone when they can relax in the knowledge that you will return before they need you. They will, in effect, not be chasing your attachment literally right out of the room when you get up to leave.
Although the concept works well in practice, it is somewhat difficult to explain and does require hitting a bit of a sweet spot in the yin and yang of meeting a child’s nighttime needs. So here are some ways to approach bridging, and ideas on how to implement it with your three year old or older child.
To pull off this bit of bedtime magic effectively, be in a place of surrendering to the present: you are in your child’s room, so bring your brain and future self back upstairs and be there with your child! I know this is easier said than done, but when your thoughts are on dishes or the email you need to return, or the thirty minutes you will relish when you finally can kick up your feet and watch TV, your child will know you are not fully in the room with them…And they may not relax enough to fall asleep.
When you are in the room at bedtime and are fully present and focused on being there, do not check your phone, or check the time. Fully suspend the thought around how soon you can leave! After finishing off any bedtime routine in ways that bring joy and calm to both of you, it is now time for you to leave. But the focus is on coming back. Yes. Just when you are feeling so close to escaping from the room after a very touched-out day, focus instead on when you will return. Tell your child you are going to step out of the room for one minute, and describe to your child what you will say when you come BACK (“I’ll come in to tell you I love you”) or what you will do (I'll tuck you in again, I’ll cuddle with you till you fall asleep). Tell them to listen for you to come back and that when you do you will be so glad to get one more hug before they fall asleep.....Then leave for as short as you need to (10 seconds? A minute? Five minutes if they -and you- are good at this) without her calling out for you. Return before she worries you aren't there. Then build from there.
What will you do while you’re gone? Go pee. Wash one dish. Tidy the bathroom counter. It’s likely worthwhile staying away from email (we know how time magically disappears when that happens!). Do anything that is short, is verifiable (they hear you), and is easy to end early (a good long pee aside). Then return before they call out! Return early as a way of shoring up their trust in you, and as reinforcing your promise to return. They may not be sure you will return initially, especially if bedtime separations have been rough in the past or they have never fallen asleep on their own. But build slowly (step into the hall to blow your nose every night if that will help) and over time you can grow their trust and help them relax in the knowledge you are coming back.
How does this actually look in practice? When our son was three and our second born was still an infant, we were desperate for a bit of separation from the bedtime routine of staying in his bed until he drifted off. I would like to say we wanted that time to relax together, but truth be told we were thrilled by the idea of cleaning the kitchen together which, I’ll point out, was actually a wonderful way for us to work together and connect at the end of the day. I had just completed Gordon Neufeld’s Making Sense of Preschoolers online course and the idea of bridging to the next connection made so much sense in terms of his development (separation anxiety was high!) and his needs (he had a great deal of difficulty falling asleep without us there).
We went through the regular routine and then I, not without trepidation, said “I’m popping out of the room for a glass of water. I’ll be right back”. And then I left. It was short, and I returned before he called out.
When I returned, I stayed with him as usual until he fell asleep. The next time, I left twice, and attempted to leave for more than a minute. It worked!
Until it didn’t. The third night I was over zealous perhaps, and thinking of what I could get done after I left. Or perhaps he just needed me more that night. Regardless, I was staying out of the room too long, and he was not relaxed enough to fall asleep, even coming out of the room before I got to the end of the hallway. And so, as we continued working on this separation gradually, we ebbed and flowed with the idea that some nights would be easy peasy, and on other nights his need for our presence would be high. When these higher-need nights happened, we suspended our expectations that this was a straight trajectory. Nothing in parenting seems to be, except the straight trajectory of our child following us out of their room when we want them to stay in bed!
I gradually, and with various excuses, left the room for progressively longer time. Within the first week, I was leaving the room for about 5 to 10 minutes at a time, and returning to a kiddo who was awake but calm, in bed, and happy to see me. I recall there being a joyful “you came back!” look on his face, happy that his faith in me returning was warranted. By about the fifth visit (and occasionally the eighth or ninth), he had drifted off to sleep, confident I would return as promised.
There were nights, in the coming weeks, that he called out soon after I left. There were other nights when I forgot to return, and he would call out wondering where I was. Yet more and more frequently, he would not call out at all, I would return once or twice, and be pleasantly surprised to find a peaceful sleeper with nary a peep of protest.
On the nights that he drifted off to sleep and I remembered an hour later that I hadn’t returned, I made sure to pop up and peak in on him, and to tell him in the morning how nice it was to come in and see him sleeping so soundly, and to whisper I love you. “Did you hear me in your dreams?”, I’d ask him? He never did, but I like to think that his knowing I came to check on him reaffirmed his feelings of safety and love we wanted to give him.
We have continued to use this approach for all of our kiddos, sometimes with great success, and other times not so much. When it hasn’t been working, it usually has been for one of two reasons:
We were already “out of the room” before we left, and our kids knew we were not present and focused on them.
Their needs were higher on a particular night (impending illness, a rough day, overtired, wound up) and we hadn’t adjusted our night time routine to accommodate that.
When it wasn’t working, we didn’t throw the idea out the window. We did our best not to become authoritarian and threaten separation (“You HAVE to stay in that room or I am not coming back!”) —that, if you didn’t notice, is about the polar opposite of what bridging is trying to do.
To this day, when the boys ask us to stay with them to fall asleep we know that for some reason they need us more that night, and we do it (mostly) with an open heart. But more nights than not we can check on them a few times after lights out and find that like candles burning themselves out, the boys quietly fall into a relaxed sleep at some point when we are not in the room; even when they are certain they are not the least bit tired and will still be awake when we come check on them.
And that, for us, is a parenting win.
I have been less active on the blog front lately, but have certainly still been writing.
You can find my most recent writing in the following places:
Kathleen Lockyer’s RxOutside.com, a website and Occupational Therapy practice dedicated to using access to nature as a means for improving health and wellbeing. (March 11, 2019).
Rachel Marie Martin’s FindingJoy.net compilation from writers and entrepreneurs on what we would tell our 20 year old self about motherhood. (February 4, 2019).
And soon, a review in Occupational Therapy Now magazine of the book “Broccoli Boot Camp”, which focuses on evidence-based strategies for solving picky eating. This book adds valuable strategies to my approach to supporting families when mealtimes are not going quite as well as they pictured.
La Leche League’s 2014 book, Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family, is a book for families of infants which focuses on attachment-oriented research evidence and strategies for understanding and addressing sleep challenges. The intent of the book is to provide breastfeeding-friendly infant sleep knowledge, support, and problem-solving and, as I describe below, the authors have succeeded in meeting this aim.
Writing in a calm, articulate manner, Weissinger, West, and Pitman are appealing to educated and informed parents who are at least somewhat familiar and open to attachment-based parenting approaches to sleep. Likely the La Leche League publication naturally draws the attention of those already inclined to providing nurturing measures, in general. Although not an academic paper, the level of education required is rather high. The book’s strengths lie in its use of evidence and research balanced with clear descriptions and case studies that highlight the key points.
It is quite a lengthy book that takes several hours to read, something that may be a challenge for all but the most motivated sleep-deprived parents. Despite this, the depth and quality of the information and evidence provided make this my new primary recommendation to clients who are keen to read about infant sleep. Unlike other books on infant sleep, this books looks specifically through the lens of breastfeeding. However, it is still appropriate for non-breastfeeding families if shared in a sensitive way to those not currently struggling with breastfeeding or with previous decisions/necessity of weaning. There is enough valuable information to firmly entrench this as an infant sleep book for professionals to consistently draw from when providing eager parents with detailed information or references scientific evidence.
Reading this book now, as a weaned mother of three children who now sleep well, I was so excited about the evidence they include that supports attachment-based sleep support for families. In particular, their section on bedsharing (detailing La Leche League’s Safe Sleep Seven principles) is both evidence-based and instinct-focused: you, as a parent, must weigh the information available to you in the context of your own infant, yourself, and your family.
The references and citations are the real strength of this book. Subtitles and indexing make it fairly easy to navigate the kindle version. The richness of the content makes it likely that families would benefit from a print version, rather than kindle version, in order to mark particular sections and to use the index more freely. I suspect most families who are so inclined will have print versions decorated liberally with sticky notes.
For those concerned about their infant's short naps and night waking, a new study led by Dr. Pennestri at McGill adds to our knowledge that:
-Interrupted sleep in infancy is normal.
-Consolidated sleep happens gradually over time.
-Interrupted sleep is not correlated with developmental issues (contrary to some previous studies).
Pennestri’s study coincides well with a much older study (Scher, 1991) that showed an increase likelihood of regular night waking at 9 months of age: although 40% of babes were waking up regularly at 6 months of age, this increased to 60% at the 9 month mark, dropping only slightly to 55% by 12 months of age. These studies explain what many parents have experienced at this age and explains why a significant number of my clients call me by the 10 month mark, concerned and exhausted! This bump in the road might be explained by the enormous social and emotional changes that are happening at this age.
What does this mean for you and your little one?
1. Biologically normal night waking can be approached through perspective changes, self care, and environmental adjustments to help nudge children gradually towards longer sleep periods.
2. Listen to your instincts about whether there may be an underlying issue (colic, reflux, environmental and food sensitivities) --these can all be sleuthed out and addressed to bring sleep more in line with your child's natural sleep needs.
3. Lean in to what is normal for babies and soak this intense, amazing, draining, and exciting time in as a season of parenting that can feel tiring, but does not need to feel terrible.
4. Call for support! Even if your baby is sleeping "normally", it can be helpful to have someone support your efforts through evidence, reflection, suggestions, and guidance. Sometimes the best intervention is through understanding.
Because there are significant (and often challenging) changes to infant sleep between 6 and 12 months, expect further articles of the research on “what is normal” for this age range soon! And even though it is hard to “rest” assured, most babes are shifting towards more regular and longer sleep periods by the one year mark. Better sleep is ahead!
The McGill study, by Dr. Pennestri et. al., is in the December 2018 issue of Pediatrics. and is reported in McGill.ca, November 2018. Parents shouldn’t worry if their infant doesn’t sleep through the night by 6-12 months of age
Scher (1991). A longitudinal study of night waking in the first year. Child: Care, Health, and Development, 17 (295-302).