Night weaning a toddler can feel overwhelming. If you’re breastfeeding past a year and venturing into extended breastfeeding you’ll know the child/boob relationship becomes quite different. It isn’t about sustanance anymore, although the nutritional benefits of breastfeeding beyond infancy are still rife, it’s part of your parenting relationship and a huge source of comfort. So the idea of taking a part of that away is a big thing, for both parent and child. I was worried it would impact our relationship or I would traumatise her but there are definitely gentle ways of doing it and bar the occasional strop when she’s offered a second rate cuddle instead of a boob at 3am, we’ve all adjusted really well!
I think I started googling ‘how to night wean a toddler’ when Lily was around 14 months. Her sleep has always been challenging with an average night involving her waking up every 2 hours, usually going back to sleep after being fed but there almost always being a substantial amount of time with her being wide awake. From the very beginning of her life she has always needed a lot of help to go to sleep. I spent many frazzled hours rocking her in her baby chair, walking round and round the house with her in a wrap, driving aimlessly up and down the dual carriageway and sobbing into her fuzzy head when she would wake up the second I even thought about laying her down. Eventually, after many, many months of berating myself and thinking I was failing as a mum because I wasn’t doing things the way I thought other parents were, I realised that I needed to just do whatever we needed to to survive. And so I stopped trying to force something that wasn’t working for any of us and embraced feeding to sleep (which is completely and utterly biologically normal) and continued to co-sleep.
However, up until we started night weaning at two years and one month, Lily had never slept for longer than three hours which meant that I had not slept for more than three hours at a time either. Personally I’ve never been a great sleeper either so although I was (ha, still am!) completely and utterly bone achingly tired, I’ve managed. I think after a certain length of time I tried to stop resisting it and my body accepted its fate somehow.
As such it wasn’t necessarily the lack of sleep that made me want to night wean Lily (because I never imagined it would improve her sleep, rather I would just have to find a different, less instant way to get her back to sleep). It was more that the night feeding had become so invasive and was making me feel so irritated that I began to actively dread night-time and I was not enjoying our feeding relationship anymore.
Knowing that Lily really only knew how to go to sleep with a boob in her gob (or in the car) I knew I needed to wait until she was at a developmental level where I could have a conversation with her and she would understand. Almost everything I had read about night weaning said the same; that in order for it to be successful your child needs to be able to comprehend what you’re saying and able to negotiate. Although Lily’s speech developed quite early and she’s been able to understand us from quite young I didn’t feel as though she could really negotiate or grasp why we were doing it. After a lot of discussion and to and fro-ing as to when would be the best time and who would take what role, we decided to wait until she was at least two and just go with it.
Preparing To Night Wean
I researched gentle night weaning advice from various places I trusted, specifically the Dr Jay Gordon Method, La Leche League, Kelly Mom and Sarah Ockwell-Smith, to understand more about how to go about it. None of the specific planned methods felt right for us but I took advice and ideas from each of them.
I bought a couple of books on night weaning from Amazon; Nursies When The Sun Shines and Sally Weans From Night Nursing. We read them (changing the term ‘nursing’ to ‘milkies’) every evening at bedtime for a week before we even had a conversation about trying it too. Lily wasn’t too fussed about the Sally book at first and much preferred Nursies When The Sun Shines, I think because she could relate it to our sleeping situation with us bedsharing. And there was a naughty cat on the bed too which she found hilarious! After a few nights she even started referring to the ‘baby’ in the book as Lily so I knew it was sinking in. As suggested by Sarah Ockwell-Smith we had changed our bedtime routine and environment a little in the weeks before so bedtime itself had become less of a battle. We started talking about the book during the day and making a note of mentioning when it was getting dark and dark = nighttime and the sun shine = daytime and us waking up for the day.
The First Night
To be honest I hadn’t really set a specific day to start but I remember one night after feeling like I wanted to peel every inch of my skin off starting with my chewed up nips saying to Haydn that was the last night I was going to feed her, that I couldn’t do it anymore.
And so, the next day I told Lily that tonight, milkies were going to go to sleep when she did and that they would stay asleep until the sun shone in the morning. She was fine with it and come bedtime we read the book, she fed as usual (after saying ‘night night milkies’ and giving them a kiss!) and told me ‘mummy goes to sleep, Lily goes to sleep and milkies go to sleep’. It went really well. Until she woke up. She came into our bed and immediately went for the boobs before she’d properly opened her eyes but I reminded her that milkies were asleep and repeated lines from the book about it being dark outside and at night-time we sleep, that she could have some water or milk in a cup and did she want me to cuddle her or rub her back. In response she screamed at me, kicked me and headbutted me for a solid half an hour. That happened four times during the night and each time I felt like the world’s worst mum. Haydn had been swapping with Lily and sleeping in her bed at her first wake up of the night because it just made life easier. Plus, he works 12 hour shifts in a brain injury rehabilitation unit which is incredibly tiring so he needs a decent nights sleep. However, at one point I had to go and wake him up and beg him to swap with me for ten minutes because I just felt so awful. He went to comfort Lily whilst I sobbed in her bed about what a horrible mum I was until I had regained my strength and went back in. Despite that, and the headbutting and screaming every time she woke up, I stuck to my decision and I didn’t feed her. I had told myself that unless she was desperately upset (as opposed to angry) or distressed I wanted to be consistent and I wouldn’t feed her. I think sticking to that really helped.
The first few nights were the same. She woke up as much as she normally did, went for the boobs and got very cross when I didn’t produce one but she always went back to sleep after a maximum of about 20 minutes. During that first week there was one night where she slept for seven solid hours for the first time in her life! I obviously didn’t sleep for seven hours because I woke up every two hours to make sure she was still alive but it was a very welcome shock.
The First Month
Quite soon, she stopped waking up at her usual time of 10/11pm and was sleeping through until somewhere between 1-3am and then waking again around 4/5am. For those first four weeks there was always at least one wake up during the night where she would scream for milkies and spend a good while flinging herself around the bed in protest and trying to kick us both in the face before accepting that this is what the deal was and letting me cuddle her or rub her back until she fell asleep.
Strangely after she had gotten into the new routine of not feeding during the night she wanted to read Sally Weans From Night Nursing every night as well as the Nursies When The Sun Shines. In the former the mummy explains to Sally that if they get more sleep at night then they will be able to do more fun things during the day because they won’t be so tired. At the end Sally celebrates being a big girl and not needing milk at night anymore so I think once Lily realised she had entered this new stage of no milkies at night she saw herself in Sally. Possibly? I’m just guessing really but I did think it was interesting how she didn’t want to read it until she had really gotten used to having no milk at night.
Six Months Later
On a good week Lily sleeps through the night, usually from around 7/8pm to 5/6am, at least two or three nights and the rest of the time wakes up once and easily settles back to sleep with a cuddle or occasionally a cup of milk. I never, ever believed night weaning would help her sleep and I’ll never really know if it was that or whether it would have happened anyway. Stopping feeding through the night was definitely the right thing to do in regards to our feeding relationship. I was at a point that I dreaded nighttime because I knew there was no rest waiting for me, just hours of sheer irritation, invasion and feeling incredibly touched out.
We now only feed before bed, first thing in the morning and the occasional nap when we’re home and it suits us all perfectly. Since night weaning I’ve had my first (and second!) night away on my own with varying degrees of success from daddy’s point of view but delightful, restful, restorative success on my end! I did wonder if night-weaning may encourage natural weaning but it hasn’t at all. Our breastfeeding relationship is still as strong as it ever was and I can’t see natural term coming for quite a while yet which I’m fine with. We night weaned because feeding at nighttime wasn’t working well for us anymore and if at any point the two remaining feeds start not working for us then I’ll address it again but I really can’t see that happened. Night weaning was absolutely the best decision we could have made; we all sleep a hell of a lot better, I don’t dread nighttime anymore and best of all, it was completely gentle and nobody was traumatised!