One subject that comes up frequently in our Facebook group is how to gently wean your toddler from their night time breastfeeds. This is my own story of how we made the transition away from relying on breastfeeding for sleeping and settling. Like a lot of mums breastfeeding past infancy, my son was breastfeeding on demand, I had always fed him to sleep, he didn’t take bottles and we bedshared.
It was a shock to find myself considering night weaning my son, because I had been working towards the elusive holy grail goal of allowing him to self-wean. To me, this meant allowing my son to breastfeed whenever and wherever he wanted until he no longer needed it. But when I formed that goal and those opinions, I had not considered the fact that I would fall pregnant when my son was 27 months old, or that he would be breastfeeding with the voracity of a much younger child. At that stage, Billy was still breastfeeding at least 2-3 hourly through the night, and more times than I could count during the day.
The elation of that positive pregnancy test was immediately followed with a brick wall of fatigue, nausea and sudden, extreme nipple pain. I must have unlatched Billy a thousand times to carefully check my nipple for cracks or signs of trauma. I have never felt pain like that, including the early days of establishing breastfeeding, when a tongue tie shredded my nipples into a bloody mess. Whether it was my hormones, a reduction in my milk supply, or my son’s sixth sense for knowing when I’m unsettled for some reason, his night feeds increased. He was suddenly needing to sleep with my breast in his mouth all night long and between the fatigue and the pain, I couldn’t deal with it. I suffered as long as I could, but as I ventured to the middle of my pregnancy, strong aversions came to me, in the form of feeling furious and protective of my personal space during breastfeeds. These aversions were worse the more tired I was. I masked my anger with impatience, but I knew in myself that it was not the right way to deal with the problem. I knew I needed to make some changes.
I was scared of night weaning. I was scared of bringing another baby home to meet Billy, and was worried about how he would react to no longer being my one and only. Continuing to breastfeed was my plan to reassure him that he was still loved. I was afraid that night weaning would damage our relationship, but it was a necessity. I couldn’t continue the way I was.
The only actual experience I had with sleep training was when a beautiful social worker from my local Family Care Cottage visited me when Billy was around 14 weeks old. I had just returned to work and wasn’t coping with the night wakings, and she taught me about responsive settling, which is where you put your baby down in the cot and comfort them as best you can while they are lying down. I was allowed to pick him up whenever I felt he needed to be held. As kind and gentle as that social worker was, the method was not gentle enough for me, and since my only experience, I’d only really heard negative stories about sleep training. As a mum trying my best to parent as gently and lovingly as I could, leaving my son to cry on his own was not in line with my values.
So I read. I searched for gentle night weaning advice and my search yielded results from many, but most notably from Pinky McKay, Milk Meg (Meg Nagle) and Dr Jay Gordon. Nearly everything I read offered insight and tips that were very valuable to me, but in the end no single method felt exactly right for us. Every family is unique and every child is unique. After reading as much as I could, I took the bits that I liked, discarded what I didn’t, and made my own way.
Talk about it
Respecting my child as a person was important to me, so I told him that our situation would be changing. Our kids may not always understand what we are saying, but I am always surprised at how they understand what we mean. He knew there was a baby in my tummy, and that when the baby was strong enough, they would come out of my tummy and would live with us at our house. I explained to Billy that growing a baby makes mum very tired. We talked about how my breasts hurt, and that I slept best when my breasts were held snug in my bra with no one touching them.
We talked about how we get grumpy and upset sometimes when we’re very tired, and how we felt good after we had a good sleep. We discussed the way that neither of us had very much fun when we were tired, and mums that are tired find it hard to go out and do fun things, like going to the park and riding the bike.
We discussed food. One of the key elements to our flexible approach to eating is that we have a fruit bowl on the dining table, which Billy has always been allowed to help himself to. I told Billy that if he’s ever hungry or thirsty, he can have food or a drink, even if it’s night time. We started taking a bottle of water to bed with us.
Lastly, we talked about day and night. We can have milk in the day time. Night time is for sleeping.
Move on from feeding to sleep at bedtime
The consensus among the expert advice I read was that the first step was to move on from feeding to sleep at the start of the night. Although Billy had always fed to sleep with me, my husband was able to settle Billy to sleep in other ways when I wasn’t around, so I knew it would be achievable.
And we began. We would go to bed as we always had, and I told him that I wanted him to finish his milk before he went to sleep. I breastfed him in my bed just as we did every other night, but when I noticed his eyes starting to roll and flutter, I asked him to hop off so we could go to sleep. His eyes would snap back open and he would continue feeding for another minute before he started nodding off. I would unlatch him by putting my pinky finger into the corner of his mouth and I asked him if he was ready to sleep. If he said no, he was allowed to suckle again, but as I noticed he was falling asleep, I asked him again if he was ready to sleep.
This step was actually not too bad for us. My son was always tired when we went to bed, and he didn’t put up as much of a fight as I expected. He found it irritating that I was interrupting his sleep and that I would physically break his seal at my breast and make him unlatch, and there was a little bit of moaning and wailing, but overall, he handled this change very well.
Move on from feeding to sleep during the night
I continued my plan throughout the night. If Billy was seeking a breast, I allowed him to suckle, but I counted to ten out loud. When I reached ten, I made him unlatch. I asked him if he was finished and if he said no, he was allowed to latch on while I counted to ten again. My end goal was to cut out breastfeeds between bedtime and sunrise, so I repeated my mantra over and over – night time is for sleeping, you can have more milk when the sun’s awake.
Some nights he was really upset and insisted he needed more milk. I would offer him something to eat or drink. There were many nights when he ate a banana and had a drink of water before lying back down to sleep.
This step was very upsetting for Billy, and it really tested my resolve. There were two or three nights where Billy would work himself up into hysterics at least once during the night. I felt awful about upsetting him the way I did, but I was confident in my decision to instigate night weaning, and knew that it was necessary for us. I think the confidence in my decision made my resolve stronger on those really hard nights. I stuck to my rule of not feeding to sleep and although it hurt me to see Billy so upset, I was always there with him offering cuddles and reassurance.
Celebrate the small wins along the way
After about three long nights, Billy was handling these changes much better. It felt like a massive step the first night when he suckled and then lay down in my arms and let me cuddle him until he went back to sleep. As we stayed consistent with this method, over the next few weeks Billy started only suckling until I counted to three, and then to one and he was happily unlatching and going back to sleep with a cuddle.
I was so happy with this progress, that I kept this arrangement in place for a few months. I was getting more sleep through the night and still knew Billy’s needs were being met, so I felt no need to push to the next step of refusing any suckling at night.
My changes didn’t stop Billy from waking every 2-3 hours, but he was basically waking up for a cuddle and then going back to sleep, rather than hanging off my breast, making my nipples hurt or leaving me in uncomfortable positions, which was unacceptable to me while I was pregnant.
Then my daughter was born and my milk came back, and Billy’s nursing frequency increased. A combination of the excitement of a really abundant milk supply and the need for reassurance with a beautiful but demanding baby joining us meant he was nursing as much, if not more than his baby sister. He actually gained a kilo in the first month after Penny’s birth. It was also really handy for me to have a convenient way to relieve my engorgement.
By three months post pregnancy, I felt like we’d found a good rhythm within our family, and I was ready to move to the next step of ceasing all night feeds. I felt mentally prepared for this step. Although I knew it would be distressing for Billy, I knew my approach was as gentle as could be, and I didn’t feel guilt. I was prepared for difficulty with emotions, but I was confident that Billy would handle this step, because he’d handled our previous progressions to this point so well.
We talked about it again. We had a new baby in the home, and Billy was already afraid that Penny would take all of my cuddles, all of my kisses, all of my time and all of my love. He didn’t tell me this, but he did tell me that he didn’t want Penny to take all of his milk. I promised him that I had enough cuddles, enough kisses, enough time and enough love for two kids. And I definitely had enough milk. I told him Penny needed a lot of milk at night and he didn’t – we already knew that if he was hungry at night Billy could have a banana and a drink of water. Penny couldn’t have a banana and a drink of water. But I assured him that I would “save” his milk up so that he could have a big drink in the morning.
And we began. As I expected, he was upset. But not as much as he’d been when I had previously counted to ten during his night time feeds. And again, after about three nights, I saw a big improvement after about three nights.
Initially night weaning didn’t make much of a difference to Billy’s waking habits, but they gradually improved. At a few months past four years old, he is still waking usually once but up to three times between bedtime and wake-up time (so between 9pm and 7.30am) but there is no distress and the disturbance is minimal.
In the end
I’m really glad that I researched as much as I did to tailor a solution that worked for us. Being able to make our own plan based on informed decisions made the process much less complicated. I didn’t wonder if I was doing the right thing – I’d read enough to be confident in my decisions. In the end, I believe night weaning helped Billy’s and my breastfeeding relationship. Not only was I sleeping more at night, but the reduction of angst around night wakings and feeds made me feel capable of being a better parent during the day.