By: Aileen Dunbar, Baby-Led Sleep and Well-Being Specialist
Are you contemplating night-weaning your older baby or toddler? Here are 8 things to consider before you begin this process!
1. Make sure it is what you truly want to do and that your baby is old enough
Like many areas of infant sleep, there can be stigma around overnight feeding and parents may be receiving external pressure from others that they should no longer be feeding baby overnight by a certain age. However, feeding at night is natural and normal and is a lovely way to connect with your child during the night, particularly if they are at school/daycare the whole day. It’s very common for babies to need to feed throughout the first year of life and even beyond. It is ideal to wait until your baby is 12 months old before weaning from breastfeeding/formula feeding as it should be the primary source of nutrition up until this time. If you cut back on night feeds before this time, this could affect your supply if breastfeeding.
2. If your child is waking hourly, then it is important to address the underlying reason before night weaning
It is normal for babies to wake at night in the first year and beyond but if they aren’t doing even one 2-hour stretch overnight, then it is definitely a good idea to further investigate what could be causing these hourly wakes. Some possible causes of these wakes could be iron deficiency, food sensitivity, or undiagnosed tongue tie, just to name a few. If you are concerned about this, you could always book a discovery call with me to further discuss and/or speak with your pediatrician or other health professional about your concerns.
3. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing
Night weaning doesn’t mean you have to give up all overnight feeds. It could mean that you don’t want to feed your baby at every wake but are okay with feeding them twice overnight, for example. Your plan can also be flexible in the sense that perhaps you start off intending to give up all feeds but once you begin the process, you realize you are okay with keeping some. It doesn’t have to be set in stone and just like any parent-led change when it comes to your baby’s sleep, I always encourage parents to follow their instincts as opposed to a step-by-step plan. Furthermore, weaning slowly is critical to avoid getting mastitis (inflammation in the breast that can occur due to clogged milk ducts). Common symptoms that would indicate mastitis are fever, chills/headache, increased pulse, flu-like body aches, pain and swelling at the site, and a hot area that is painful and red. You should seek immediate medical attention if you notice any of these symptoms. Weaning may take several weeks or months to complete.
4. Night weaning may not necessarily lead to fewer night wakings
A 2010 study that examined infant sleep from 0 to 36 months demonstrated that it is normal for children to wake throughout the night (Paavonen et al, 2020). These night wakings tend to decrease as babies get older, but are still typical throughout this time. I wanted to emphasize this in case you have been led to believe that breastfeeding is the reason your baby or toddler is waking overnight. Babies wake for reasons other than just hunger, such as seeking closeness and connection and as a protective mechanism for their survival. Furthermore, as babies mature, so do their sleep-wake rhythms which will lead to a reduced number of night awakenings, so it is more of a natural process that will occur over time and uniquely for each baby.
5. Before night weaning, it is important to ensure you are comfortable with supporting your child’s emotions
Breastfeeding provides more than just calories to a child. It also provides emotional connection and closeness so weaning often comes with feelings of sadness from your child (and likely you as well!). With that in mind, it is key that you feel comfortable supporting your child’s emotions as they express these emotions when you set a boundary around nursing. I would recommend practicing setting these boundaries during the day (not necessarily with nursing, but with any loving limit you set). For example, let’s say your child wants to play with your phone but this is not something you allow them to do. Instead of using distraction and giving them something else to play with, set the boundary and support the emotions that come with it (i.e “I can’t let you play with my cell phone as it’s not a toy. I understand you are sad because you wanted to play with it. I am here with you.” and stay with them as they express their sadness.) Letting them express their emotions over a situation they can’t change allows them to adapt to the boundary that has been set by you.
6. Avoid starting the process at times when baby/toddler is undergoing other challenges
There is no perfect time to begin but here are examples of situations where you may want to delay weaning:
a) When baby is teething: Breastmilk is a natural pain reliever so baby may be looking to nurse more at these times. Furthermore, teething pain is often worse at night.
b) When baby is sick: When baby has a cold or ear infection, they may seek increased comfort from nursing. Also, breast milk contains substances such as antibodies and protective enzymes that fight infections and help with healing.
c) When baby is going through a sleep progression: During these times, babies/toddlers are going through intense development and growth which typically leads to increased night wakings and potentially increased hunger, so it is not a time we would want to limit feeding sessions.
d) When other changes are happening: If your baby has just begun daycare or has a new sibling, for example, these are not the ideal times to begin weaning as they are already adjusting to big changes in their little world. Weaning can be very emotional, so it is best to choose a time when there isn’t a lot of other stress going on for them.
7. Consider how you will support baby back to sleep other than nursing
If your baby relies upon breast/bottle feeding to go back to sleep, consider adding in other sleep associations to help them go back to sleep before beginning night weaning. For example, while you are nursing them you could be shushing or rubbing their backs at the same time. This will help them get used to other ways of going to sleep other than just by nursing. This will make it that much easier to shift to a different way of supporting them back to sleep upon waking. If you decide you would prefer for your partner to be the one to support them to sleep when getting rid of an overnight feeding session, this could also help with this shift as they could start using this sleep association with them as well.
8. Decide upon a general plan for how you would like to proceed (but know that it may not be a linear process and can take a while!)
There are various strategies you can use to night wean and it depends on what is best for your family and your baby’s temperament. I will briefly go into a couple of examples of methods.
a) Gradually reducing the amount
This strategy involves gradually reducing the length of time you feed until that feed is completely gone. If you are bottle feeding, you could reduce the amount by approximately an ounce.
For example, it could be for the first feed of the night or the feed closest to the baby’s waking time. If you are wanting to get rid of another feed, it is best to wait about a week or so.
b) Gradually reducing the number of feedings
This is very similar to the first method, except instead of reducing the length of time you feed, you fully get rid of one feeding at a time. This is perhaps better suited for a baby with a more easygoing temperament as it is a bit less gradual than the first method. Similarly to the method above, you should wait a week or so before getting rid of another feeding. For this method, since you are fully eliminating a feed, make sure to give baby a full feed before bed and to give them full feeds for any subsequent night feeds other than the one you are eliminating.
Night weaning can be a challenging process that can take time and patience. If you would like individualized support with this or any other sleep challenge, click here to set up your free discovery call to see how I can support you!