Night Weaning, Gently, With Love

While we tend to think of small babies needing night feeds, it’s actually very common for babies to wake and breastfeed at night-time throughout the first year and beyond.

There are some sound physiological reasons for night feeds, from growth spurts to boosting your mobile baby’s immunity as he is exposed to an increasing array of bugs. And of course, emotional connection, security and ‘refuelling’ your baby’s ‘love tank’ after a busy day exploring are equally valid reasons for night-nursing.

If your toddler (over one year) nurses at night and you are OK with this, go with the adage, ‘if it’s not a problem for us, it’s not a problem’. However, if you are feeling that you would like to stop night feeds or if your toddler is nursing what seems like ‘non-stop’ all night, there are kind ways to night wean, gradually, with love.

Why is your toddler waking at night?

Firstly, though, it’s worth considering why your toddler is waking at night. Often when you deal with the reasons for waking – from teething (molars can be rough), to food sensitivities (eliminating foods high in salicylates such as berries, grapes, tomatoes and citrus, for instance, can make a difference within a few days) and you are patient around developmental stages such as separation anxiety and learning to walk and talk, when it’s hard to switch off busy little brains – the waking stops or at least decreases, and you don’t even put yourself in a ‘weaning’ situation.

To address reasons for night waking, check out my book ‘Sleeping Like a Baby’ which offers gentle sleep solutions from birth to three years.

How to wean from night feeds

Weaning from night feeds should, ideally, be a gradual process just like day-time weaning – choose which breastfeeds would be easiest to drop then drop them one at a time or perhaps set a time that you won’t be nursing but will comfort in other ways, then as your little one becomes used to this, extend the non-nursing time. For instance, you may decide you will comfort your toddler with cuddles before midnight but you will offer breastfeeds after midnight or perhaps you will nurse before midnight but comfort with cuddles only for the next block of time say, around four hours, depending how often your little one is waking and whether this is frequent waking or a fairly predictable number of times.

Remember, it is always best to address the reasons for waking before you make any changes. This way, you may find it much less stressful for you and your little one as arousals and waking will reduce naturally, so you won’t need to actively wean.

Teaching ‘full’ and ‘empty’

Whether you are bed-sharing with your toddler or not, you can try this to encourage night weaning. It is best to wait until your little person is over stressful teething times – molars and canines can wake little ones and they will naturally seek comfort at the breast. Your toddler will need to be older than eighteen months and understand the concepts of ‘full’ and ‘empty’. To teach him, play lots of games when he is awake, pouring water into cups and containers and talking about ‘full’ and ‘empty’.

Once your toddler consistently understands this concept, you can start the weaning process: as he wakes the first time during the night, tell him ‘boobies are empty’ and offer a little drink of water and cuddles. He may be grumpy, but with cuddles he will soon settle. Of course, if he is very upset, he may not be ready, so perhaps wait a few weeks and try again – you know your little one best.

The next time your toddler wakes, please don’t refuse the breast. Over a few nights, as he settles calmly the first waking without a breastfeed, you can gradually increase the times between night nursing. For instance, you can stretch from not breastfeeding the first time he wakes to the second time as well, telling him ‘boobies are empty’, gradually decreasing breastfeeds as you offer water and cuddles., until he stops those night-time feeds.

Wait until the sun shines

If you have an older toddler (usually over two years) that you can discuss night weaning with, you may talk about ‘having boobies when the sun shines’ then, if she seems to grasp the concept, you can start to set some limits. You can also do this gradually too. For example, you can nurse during the early part of the night then, depending on her usual wakeup time, a few hours before morning suggest, “you can have ‘boobies’ when the sun shines.” As your little one becomes agreeable about waiting until the sun shines, this time-period can be extended.

Get your partner to soothe little night howls

Often, little ones will be happy to snuggle, and they won’t request a breastfeed because your partner isn’t the one with the milk. However, some little ones will find this distressing and will cry for Mama. You will know whether your child is upset/distressed or whether you can persevere for a little while and see whether he calms down. If your child is distressed, it is better to wait a few weeks and try again – there is so much development happening in the second year that even a few weeks can make a big difference in readiness for transitions.

Co-sleeping and weaning

Is your baby co-sleeping? A lot of breastfeeding babies and toddlers nurse frequently through the night. While this is biologically normal for a little one who is busy during the day and seeking connection during the night, it can be more difficult to night wean while they are sleeping right next to the boobs that offer so much delicious comfort. It’s rather like if we slept with a chocolate muffin on the pillow –it would be difficult not to nibble, wouldn’t it?

Also, often when toddlers co-sleep, they can be fairly restless and as we move, they move, and they tend to arouse more. It’s easy to simply allow them to nurse because everyone manages to sleep, you aren’t getting up to settle your child, but it can feel overwhelming to be an all-night ‘milk bar’.  One possible solution to this is to cuddle your little one with his back to you – so he has the security of being close, but the yummy mummy milk is not ‘in his face’.

Another option is to move him gently out of your bed, at least for part of the night. To do this, you might consider placing a single bed or larger mattress on the floor either in your room or his own, depending on space and the age and development of your child.  Settle your toddler in bed on the mattress (start during the day at first so he gets used to this new sleep space over several days), breastfeed or cuddle him to sleep as you usually do. Then when he is asleep, move away from him – this works better than moving a sleeping child, as he will wake in the place he went to sleep and he will call you if he needs you.

Overnight, do the same. If or when he wakes during the night, join him on his mattress and resettle by nursing. You can either stay awake and go back to your own bed or if you are too tired, you can finish the night on your child’s mattress.  Chances are, there will be fewer wakings, and consequently, fewer night-nursings.

Listen to Pinky’s podcast ‘Weaning Gently,With Love’ where she discusses night weaning in a bit more depth.

Pinky McKay is Australia’s most recognised and respected breastfeeding and gentle parenting advocate. Pinky is an Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), Mum of five and best-selling author of Sleeping Like a Baby and Parenting by Heart (Penguin Random House). Find Pinky’s Books and her podcast ‘Tits Up’ at her website