I just couldn’t do it anymore.
It was 4 in the morning.
I had been woken up at least a dozen times since midnight.
Actually, I’m not even sure I ever went to sleep.
My 2 year old daughter was having a tough time sleeping and the only thing that was helping her drift off for even a few minutes at a time was her beloved mama milk. I blame that late afternoon cupcake. Or she may possibly have been teething. I didn’t really know, all I knew was I was exhausted. And I wished she would just let me sleep.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love breastfeeding my daughter. I love snuggling up with her in bed every night. And I have especially loved doing both at the same time. But after 2 1/2 years my body was screaming at me.
I had spent almost every night of my daughter’s life curled up on my side, in a sort of contorted fetal position. If I was lucky, it would change and I would be pinned on my back while she slept sprawled out over my chest. Yes, Its exactly as uncomfortable as it sounds. My back had been in a constant state of pain and my hips felt like they may never be right again. It was rare that I was able to sleep for more than 3 hours straight and some nights I was convinced my nipples would just abandon ship from the nonstop nursing.
Something had to give.
I knew we needed to night wean. But how? How on earth could I get this boob-crazed kid to learn that she could indeed go back to sleep on her own. Without leaving her to cry it out. Was it even possible?
Yes it was.
And I’m here to tell you how we did it and how you can do it too. I will be sharing some crucial information and 6 of the most helpful tips. If a good nights sleep, and a slightly more independent child, is what you are craving then you have come to the right place!
Night weaning is daunting, especially if you are a parent who doesn’t want to resort to the “cry it out method”. (This is a great article on why I’m not a fan of this method). Most mother’s feel frustration at their child’s nursing dependence while simultaneously feeling guilt at the thought of forcing their child to night wean just so mom can get some sleep. So lets clear that up first.
Mama, sometimes you have to take care of yourself. You cannot be a good mother to your child if you are in a permanent state of exhaustion. If you have reached the point where you resent nursing because of the lack of quality sleep, you are not alone. This is a very normal feeling! Its not selfish or self centered and it doesn’t make you a bad mom. On the contrary, the fact that you have done it this long tells me that you are a GREAT mom.
Mom’s needs aside, many children, especially toddlers, can also benefit from more quality sleep once you get through the process of night weaning. This was especially true in our case. I don’t at all regret our decision to co-sleep and nurse on demand but at the age of 2, it was only interfering with my daughter’s sleep, not to mention my own. We wanted to continue with our family bed setup, but we all just wanted a bit more sleep. I’m so glad we found the solution!
So how did we do it?
Before we start, I do have to make one important note: night weaning is NOT appropriate for a child under about one year old. In the first year, they simply do not have the ability to go 10-12 hours without eating. This is biologically normal. In some rare cases you may hear of this happening but its generally the exception, not the rule.
We did a modified version of the Jay Gordon method. You can see his full method description here but here are the basics:
- Day 1, 2 and 3 – Nurse your child whenever she requests, just as you have always done, but do not let your child fall asleep while latched. Gently remove the child right before she dozes off so that she “goes to sleep on her own”.
- Day 4, 5, and 6 – Setup your non-nursing times and if the child wakes during that time, simply tell him that he may not nurse (we said that milk “was sleeping”) and offer to cuddle, rock, pat or whatever will help him get back to sleep
- In theory, your child will be night weaned by the 6th day, if not, continue with the second step until your child is weaned.
You’ll notice I used the phrase “in theory”. It took us about 10 days, even though the majority of the work was done after the first few days. Part of that could have been because we modified slightly, but mostly I credit my child’s boob addiction to be the problem.
Stay tuned to the end of the post to see my actual daily journal entries. I wanted to capture the raw emotion and thoughts of each day to give hope to other moms!
We basically skipped the first step because it didn’t work for us. I tried everything I could think of, but because we had been night nursing for so long, I would simply either sleep through a nursing session (its called a dream feed for a reason!) or I would wake, get her started and then fall back asleep and miss unlatching her. Fortunately, I knew she was capable of going to sleep unlatched because it happens fairly often. So we just skipped that first step and went straight to the second step.
Now for the second step. We did our best to prepare her for this. We purchased the “Nursies When The Sun Shines” book and have been reading it once in awhile for a few months. I also had a very in depth conversation with her before bed on the night we started to make sure she really understood what was happening. I believe kids do better when they have all the information (that is age appropriate for them.) We decided we would stick with the theme from the book and told her that when she went so sleep that “milk was going to go to sleep also” and if she woke up and looked outside and it was dark (this is a line straight from the book), that we would snuggle and she could go back to sleep that way. Then once the sun came up, she could have milk again. I don’t think she fully comprehended what that all meant, but I know she heard the words.
The first night was tough. She was genuinely sad at not being able to nurse. She was also angry and frustrated. Who can blame her? I would be too. It would be like someone taking away my pillow and blankets and telling me to get over it. There was lots of crying, and even some hitting, but we (her daddy and I) just kept trying to hold her, soothe her and pat her back. I never wanted her to feel alone or abandoned.
And you know what? We all made it. Sure, we were tired the next day, but we survived. And when the sun came up at 6am, she got her milk and that day she was as happy as ever!
Now this is the part where I see most gentle parenting moms struggle. They say “How am I supposed to just let my child cry, scream and be frustrated like that? When the simple solution is to just continue nursing.” And my answer is always this: What would you do if your child grabbed a sharp knife? Would you take it from him? Of course! What if he got mad and cried, would you give it back? Of course not.
Granted, this is not a danger to this child’s life but at some point, Mama has to realize that nursing all night IS bad for his health – and mama’s health too. And sometimes we have to ask children to do things they don’t like when we truly know it’s in their best interest. All of the crying and screaming and even hitting that my daughter did was no worse than what she’s done on occasion when I’ve told her she can’t watch tv right now or can’t go outside because it’s too hot. A toddler is going to get mad and push back, that’s what they do. But if you are right there trying to console him and reassuring him that you love him and are there for him, that’s the best you can do. And that is enough.
And I promise, it will only last for a few minutes. The longest period of time my daughter was upset was maybe 10 minutes. And then she went to sleep. And I went to sleep. And Daddy went to sleep. And we all slept! And we woke up and we all still loved each other!
And here’s the good news, night 2 was absolutely nothing compared to night 1. After that first night, we’d have a little bit of fussing and then that was it. The only problem we were having after that first night was her continuing to wake up several times a night and then it would take us 10-20 minutes to get her to go back to sleep.
And really, that’s it! When she wakes, we simply remind her that “milk is sleeping” and we have to wait for the sun to come up. She fusses a bit, maybe 20 seconds, then she rolls over and goes to sleep. My sleep has improved and her sleep has improved. Our nursing relationship has definitely improved also. And I actually feel like she and I may be closer now than we even were before. To be able to snuggle my child to sleep without nursing is something I’ve never been able to do and I cherish every time it happens! My hope is for you and your nursling to be in this same position soon!
I had to snap this picture of the first time my daughter had EVER gone to sleep in my arms without milk.
I have now used this method with my second child with even greater success. Second child was 19months when we did this and I was 2 months pregnant and desperately needing extra sleep. We had been reading the book off and on for 3 months so she was more than prepared.
After that, she never asked for milk again at night. She nurses at bedtime and either right as she is falling asleep or as soon as she falls asleep, I would move her from the nursing position to laying on my shoulder and then after a few moments I lay her on the bed. Some mornings she never requests milk, sometimes she asks at 7am.
6 Tips To Help You Be Successful In Your Own Night Weaning Journey:
Every family and nursing relationship is different, but I feel these 6 tips are fairly universal and can help any family in their journey to successful night weaning.
1. Make sure your child has some sort of security object
Many children, especially toddlers, use mama (and her milk) as a sort of security blanket. This is crucial to keep in mind as you are not only going to be taking away a child’s overnight food, but you will also be removing this security. Its important to find a replacement. Before you attempt to wean, find something your child will bond to and snuggle with. This can be a blanket, stuffed animal, doll, sippy cup or maybe even one of mom’s shirts. Whatever it is, it has to be something baby bonds with, not just what you choose.
This never worked for us. Try as I might, I have been unable to get my child to bond with any blanket, stuffed animal or even sippy cup. She’s never even taken a pacifier. What worked for us was to allow her to “hold” one breast to go back to sleep. Its not ideal, but its the best I could do in our situation. After the first couple of weeks, I found that this was no longer necessary and she usually just goes back to sleep without it.
2. Preparation is crucial
Having a solid plan and preparing your child in advance is an absolute MUST. Talk about it, calmly, for a few days or even weeks. Mention that milk/nursies needs to start getting more sleep. I highly recommend purchasing “Nursies When The Sun Shines” and reading it for a few weeks or months before starting the process. Its a very gentle book that highlights just how wonderful it can be to sleep without nursing. The artwork is beautiful too!
The most important thing is to NOT just decide one night at 2am that you are done and are ready to wean. That’s not fair to your child. And I guarantee you wouldn’t want someone to do that to you. Children do best when they are given advance notice of things.
3. Keep environment in mind
Choose to do this during a time that is the least stressful. In other words, not right before vacation, not the week the older kids get out of school and not the week that Daddy is out of town for work. Those are all big changes for a small child and will make him feel even less secure. Also, choose a quiet time that you don’t have anywhere important to be. The first 2 or 3 days (of the second step) are the hardest, so starting on a weekend may be best. I think we got maybe 4 hours of sleep those first two nights. Thankfully, due to pre-planning, neither of us had to work nor did we have any big plans, so the lack of sleep affected our lives less.
4. Do not change sleeping arrangements
This is not the time to change sleeping arrangements. If you bed share, then continue bed sharing. If baby sleeps in another room, then leave baby in the other room. You need to continue your usual night time routines with everyone sleeping where they normally sleep. Changing any of this will throw your child off and make the process harder. Where and how she sleeps is just as much security as anything else. If changing sleeping arrangements is super important to you, then work on this either a few weeks before or a few weeks after your night weaning experience.
5. Working with an early riser
We discovered pretty quick (as you will read in my journal) that my daughter started waking up around 6am (instead of her normal 8am), when the sun would come up, and wouldn’t go back to sleep. After about 2 weeks of being up at 6am (I’m not a morning person!), I reached out to my favorite mommy group and was given some advice. Unfortunately, one friend of mine pointed out that she tried everything suggested and her child still wakes at 6am, so there’s no guarantee any of these suggestions would work, but I think they are worth a shot if you find yourself in a position with a child waking early. The suggestions were:
Don’t nurse to sleep. Because if baby nurses down, then she’ll want to nurse back down when she wakes up. This seems like a legitimate thought process but several people noted that it didn’t help in their case. This will be farther down on our list to try, because I really don’t feel it will help much and will be an INCREDIBLY difficult transition. (Also she already wakes up numerous times at night and puts herself back to sleep, so I don’t see this as the problem for us.)
Putting her in her own bed. This was not an option in our home for a couple of reasons, mostly because we wanted to keep the family bed and also because our home is small and there is very little space for an additional bed setup. But this may be a good option for your family (once you have successfully night weaned.)
Buying an “OK To Wake” clock. This is actually one my husband and I are discussing. I had originally dismissed it because since she’s only 2, she can’t exactly tell time but I think she’s probably smart enough to at least comprehend the concept. So then I could change it to “milk is sleeping” during these times. If I could stretch it to 8am then even if she wakes up early, it at least wont be the 4am that it is now!
Having something for her to eat when she wakes early and truly wants milk. I really think sometimes she may be hungry. She tends to snack and doesnt eat a full dinner so asking her to go 12 hours without eating may be too much. The first thing we tried was to have a fruit/veggie squeeze pouch for her to snack on when she wakes up. She liked the pouch during the day but would have nothing to do with it at night. A second option is pumped milk. Unfortunately she’s never taken a bottle well and doesn’t like pumped milk in a cup, but circumstances are different now so we may give it a try with a sippy cup. That would satisfy her need for milk at that time and let me get some sleep.
Give her something to eat right before bed. Oatmeal and yogurt were suggested and one friend said they gave their kiddo cod liver oil right before bed, which makes sense, as fat would keep her fuller longer. We are still experimenting with various food options.
Try Essential Oils. I’m not the type of person to use oils as the first option. I love them and use them but I tend to use them after trying other things. I personally feel they are a little too potent to use first. However, I did purchase a KidSafe essential oil blend from Plant Therapy that’s supposed to help give better sleep. Luckily, its lavender free because I’m pretty sure lavender energizes my daughter (strange, I know.) It seems to be helping a little bit, but the verdict is still out.
6. Put up a barrier
Here’s a bonus tip for you! If you have a child that is all about the self-serve, then do yourself a favor and buy a thick sports bra. I was able to use a swimsuit tankini top that I had because it was tight enough that she couldn’t serve herself. I also wore a shirt over that. This made it so she was unable to just roll over and nurse and if she fiddled around trying to get access, it woke me up enough that I could stop and remind her..