Gentle Night Weaning
There often comes a time when a breastfeeding mother feels that, although she still loves to breastfeed, the night feeds are becoming increasingly tiresome.
This mother may wish for longer blocks of sleep, or simply to cuddle her little one close without them needing a breastfeed to go back to sleep.
It is at this time that mothers may consider night weaning.
So what do families need to know about night weaning?
When is the best time to do it?
And will it lead to more sleep for mother and child?
What is night weaning?
Night weaning is the process of stopping or limiting overnight breastfeeds. In this context, it is a process started by the mother, as opposed to waiting for their child to stop night feeds on their own.
When is the earliest time I can gently night wean?
Many babies continue to require nighttime breastfeeds throughout their first year, and into their second year.
In order for the process to be as gentle as possible, it is ideal to wait until a time when your child has the mental cognition to understand the process. This enables the mother to talk to her child about what is going to happen, and to explain that breastfeeding is a daytime activity, and nighttime is for sleeping and cuddling.
How is night weaning different to sleep training?
The intention behind night weaning should never be to encourage your toddler to sleep through the night, or even for longer blocks at night. This process is about moving away from night time breastfeeding, not from removing comfort or to enforce self-settling.
Although you may not be offering feeds anymore, it is imperative that you still offer full comfort to your toddler during the night when they wake. This can be an arduous process emotionally for your toddler, and they need to be supported through it by loving arms.
Isn’t it only gentle if the toddler decides when they wean?
No. Breastfeeding a toddler is a relationship. Both mother and toddler’s feelings around feeding are equally important. If mother feels ready to move away from breastfeeding at this stage, that is okay.
If my baby is eating lots of solid food, is this a sign that they are ready for night weaning?
Not necessarily. Keep in mind that breastfeeding provides babies with more than just food and especially at night it is used for comfort and to help them feel safe and connected to their mother.
If I night wean, will my baby or toddler start to eat more solid food?
There is no evidence that night weaning will lead to a greater intake of solid food.
Is it okay to continue to bed-share or co-sleep while I night wean?
Yes. This process is often easier when mother is close to her toddler at night so she can offer as much comfort in other ways that the child needs.
I feel like I am ready to night wean. How should I begin this process?
The first step in night weaning is to talk to your toddler about what is going to happen. Use simple language that they can understand. For example: “Mummy is very tired and she needs to sleep at night."
The next step is to establish some boundaries around breastfeeds during the day. This can mean encouraging your toddler to wait to breastfeed at certain times, such as when you are trying to leave the house, or if you are about to have a meal. Giving your toddler a timeline can help, so they know exactly when they can have milk next.
If your toddler gets used to you putting up boundaries during the day with breastfeeds, then they will be used to this process when you put up boundaries during the night.
Another option is to limit the time your toddler can stay at the breast during the day. You can count to five, or ten, etc. Then when you stop counting, encourage your toddler to come off the breast and distract them with a different activity.
Finally, moving away from breastfeeding to sleep may be useful in some situations. For more information on how to do this, click here
What is the next step in gentle night weaning?
Once the above is established, you can move forward with night weaning.
It is important to note that not all approaches will suit all toddlers, and temperament of your child should be taken into consideration.
It is also important for the mother to consider her own needs and emotions around weaning.
If you would like to organise a consultation to discuss the best options for night weaning your toddler, with all the above taken into consideration, click here.
Finally, once night weaning is complete, will my toddler sleep for longer blocks?
Not necessarily. Although there is no formal research on this, many parents report that their toddlers do sleep for longer blocks after night weaning, though many report just as many wake-ups.
As mentioned above, we should not use night weaning as a strategy to encourage toddlers to sleep for longer.
For more information on night weaning, or to organise a consultation to discuss how to approach weaning your toddler, click here.
Georgina Dowden is a mother, midwife, and lactation consultant (IBCLC).
In her day to day life, she looks after her two beautiful children and also supports other families on their parenting journey.
If you would like to get in touch sleep/settling support, click here:
Home visits for breastfeeding support available if you live in the Northern Rivers of NSW.