I was hesitant to write this post. Depending on the company you keep you can be faced with lots of judgment when it comes to baby sleep and weaning. Everyone has a different comfort level, parenting style and, well, child. So you do you. I’m writing about this topic today just in case someone else out there has actually tried a number of things and is looking for solidarity or some guidance.
I haven’t always been present in this space, but when I have, I’ve often been here to talk about sleep. And well, I’m back to talk about it again. The last time I was writing a lot about sleep was nearly a year ago. And I’m here to tell you my son still doesn’t sleep through the night. He’s 19.5 months old. Sleep isn’t a strength in our house. And I have come to terms with that. The one thing I knew needed to help facilitate better sleep though? Night weaning.
Breastfeeding is such a complex relationship, and for me, I feel like I worked so hard to make it to the goal of one year, that once I got past that, I suddenly felt like, “Well, now what!?” Weaning has been a hard thing for me to wrap my mind around. The first priority for me is night weaning, and then we’ll begin to navigate weaning altogether. W is very attached to nursing and setting up boundaries has been the way we’ve been able to slow down the relationship. And, at this point I’m not interested in seeing how long it’ll take him to get there on his own. I’m burning out and I want to end things in a positive place before I feel like I need to end breastfeeding out of necessity for my well-being.
We’ve made several attempts over the past year to night wean W, and each time we’ve been met with obstacles. Grumbling tummies (full stop for me). Horrendous teething. Illness. I was too tired. More illness. The list could go on. The reality being none of us were ready for it.
It’s been a difficult thing for me to figure out an approach until recently. And now, we’re finally here! There are many factors that have contributed to our readiness that I would like to highlight.
Age and comprehension. For the longest time, W couldn’t communicate his needs outside of crying. Then he could ask for milk, and we could start explaining to him boundaries around it. Offering alternatives. This made it easier for me because before now I would question whether he needed the milk for hunger or pain.
A break in teething. Until about March, W was always teething. We legitimately never had a break from teething until March of this year. He now has 16 teeth and the two-year-old molars don’t seem to be on the horizon quite yet. Though his fingers are starting to be more tasty these days, so our window to night wean appeared narrow.
A shift in needs. I noticed a big shift around months 16-17. W was more demanding about and more emotionally attached to breastfeeding versus mostly for hunger. This shifted again around 18.5 months where it started to be less on his mind. Distracting him from feeds became very easy, and we were able to drop most of our daytime feeds.
Dropping daytime feeds. By creating more boundaries during the day, I think it makes him more ready to understand new boundaries at night when we’re all sleepy. I only nurse him first thing in the morning, before a nap if we’re home together (2-3 days a week) and before bed. The early evening feed was the one that took the longest to drop.
So, all things considered – we’ve been readyish for a few months. The next part was me committing to potentially longer wake periods in the nights. Often times I just couldn’t wrap my head around night weaning because I knew it would require me being awake longer in the night, versus the ease of just feeding my son and getting back to sleep more quickly. It would involve tears. I had to be ready for the adjustment period too.
I’ll also just sidebar this and say that often times the co-parent plays a very strong role in night weaning. And we’ve tried that too. It boils down to two things. One, my son is most comforted by me in the middle of the night and often sending dad in first just creates an even more emotional process. And secondly, my husband is the deepest sleeper in the world (the irony is not lost on me here). He is nearly impossible to wake in the night. When I can get him up to help he’s very helpful, it’s the waking part that is so challenging sometimes I don’t even try, or I give up after a few minutes.
So, what did we do?
For a few months we have had some success gently pushing the time frame of what time a first overnight feed was allowed. This was a huge indicator of W’s readiness and within a few days we would often see improvement in his first stretch of sleep. However, this is also where obstacles would come into play. To the tune of Hand Foot and Mouth Disease, and then a stomach bug the next time we decided to go for it with gusto.
This past week we were one week out from the stomach bug that never ended and ready to go for it for real.
The first time W wakes up is usually right around when we go to bed. Somewhere between 10:30-11:30pm. This feed can sometimes be easy to skip. We bring him in our bed and cuddle, or snuggle him in his room and W will immediately go back to sleep. Mostly though, he would ask for milk and would be determined for it.
Here’s the thing we are firm on. If I say no to milk I follow through. No matter the severity of the reaction. It can be really difficult and there have been times where he has cried for 30-40 minutes. However, this has only been the first night or two and then he quickly understands and will let out a few tears and then usually negotiate a means of comfort. We acknowledge his feelings and offer alternatives, such as a stuffed animal, water, a song, a cuddle. It goes something like this, “I’m sorry W, remember you’re a big boy now and you don’t need milk overnight. Mama and Dada are here. I know this is frustrating. We love you and know you can do this. We can cuddle with you. (Wait for response). We can sing you a song. (Wait for response). Would you like some water? (Wait for response).” We continue to offer options for him until he says yes. Each night it’s usually different and he’ll generally go back to sleep very quickly after he finds his “thing” to comfort him. It has definitely been frustrating having to start over before we’ve made real progress as a result of illness, but we are officially in the night weaned zone and I feel confident there is no going back now!
We’re in a bit of a pattern now, where he wakes around 11-12:30 now, and then again at 3am. A few times he would skip the 3am wake-up and sleep until 5, and that’s when we knew we were ready follow-through until morning. I was really nervous dropping that second wake-up feed because I’m so sleepy at that hour and, but it really only took one particularly bad night. He woke at 3:30am and didn’t fall back to sleep until 5am. He wasn’t crying or anything, but it was a bit of a maddening experience for me with him constantly asking for milk and being wide awake. I also started to worry about my message to him, since I had said “the morning” and it was starting to get light out. Thankfully he fell asleep again for a couple hours after that. Also, I know now that my message has been no more milk in the night that I cannot make exceptions anymore because I want to have a consistent message.
Now that he knows that he can’t nurse until morning the wake-ups are going fairly easily and most nights he won’t even ask for milk anymore when he wakes up. He just needs a quick cuddle back to sleep. He has had a few surprise nights where he was upset again, but the wake-ups are much shorter than the first few nights.
With the summer light, our first feed of the day is currently between 5:00am-6:00am and that will be the next thing I tackle. It’s been an adjustment already and I’m giving my boobs some time to catch up too.
I’m hoping that by dropping the feeds, that we’ll start seeing longer stretches and better sleep for everyone, but for now we’re still waiting! He still hasn’t figured out that waking up isn’t worth it anymore.
Did you have to navigate night weaning a toddler?