- Nurse on demand day and night, until the baby/toddler/child stops requesting it
- Stop nursing
The truth is that while these are the two main categories of choice when it comes to night time parenting, the shades of gray within each choice are quite varied and there will be many different situations that work for many different families, and at different stages in each child’s development. If all-night nursing is no longer working for your family, you do have the option to change things up.
Unlike the mantra of baby-trainers and many sleep experts, you do not have to “start as you mean to go on”. Allowing your baby to develop a sleep association, such as falling asleep at the breast or in a carrier, does not mean that your child will continue to need that association until they are moving out to go to college. If you do find yourself needing to change a sleep association, remember that babies and toddlers are adaptable. It might be difficult at first or take a long time to gently change a well established night time routine, but it is possible.
What Causes Poor Sleep for Parents?
When sleep is going badly for us at home, first I check my own habits. Am I:
- going to bed soon enough? I can’t blame the baby for my lack of sleep if I’m not rolling into bed until 1am.
- keeping my caffeine intake under control?
- getting enough exercise?
- eating healthy?
- feeling stressed?
Next, I look at what’s going on with the kiddo. Is she:
- having a growth spurt?
- approaching a developmental milestone?
- upset or feeling like our attachment is changing?
If I know that our sleep is being disrupted because of one of these factors, it’s more productive for me to work on changing what I can to ease us through that rather than embarking on a new sleep routine. If there isn’t any obvious cause pointing to a temporary sleep disruption, and you’re starting to resent your child’s needs at night, it might be time to gradually introduce a new sleep routine.
How to Change a Baby or Toddler’s Sleep Routine
There are lots and LOTS of resources out there that promise to help parents get a better night’s sleep. Approaches to changing a baby or toddler’s sleep habits all fall somewhere on the spectrum between quitting cold turkey and very subtly and gradually changing elements of the routine. Cold turkey approaches work the fastest, but carry higher risks of elevated cortisol levels and stress in both parent and child. Gradual approaches are slow and involve more effort on the part of the parent, but they are generally more respectful of both parent and child’s emotional health and instincts. It’s important to listen to those instincts: if any changes to the sleep routine don’t feel right, it’s ok to stop and go back to the way you were doing it before.
Many attachment-friendly approaches to changing a toddler’s sleep routine involve Night Weaning, which means not nursing your child back to sleep and using other comfort or distraction measures to help them go back to sleep. Sometimes this involves using a bottle of milk at bedtime, other parents prefer to avoid using artificial bottles at all. Most often it will involve recruiting a partner to provide comfort. A toddler who is used to nursing to sleep will most likely have some very strong feelings about not nursing to sleep, and there is a certain element of “out of sight, out of mind” when Mom sleeps away from the family bed for a little while.
For more details on night weaning and changing toddler sleep routines, here’s some resources that might help you get more sleep and be a happier, more rested parent:
The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers by Elizabeth Pantley. The No-Cry Sleep Solution offers realistic, practical tips and information for parents of 1-4 year olds who want to change their child’s sleep routine. Pantley also has books that focus on sleep routines for infants and naptimes.
Dr. Jay Gordon’s Night Weaning Plan A fairly gradual, attachment friendly plan to implement night weaning for a toddler over ten nights.
Dr. Sears’ The Baby Sleep Book and Night Weaning: 12 Alternatives for the All-Night Nurser Fairly standard Sears stuff, and while it’s not as detailed and step-by-step as Pantley or Dr. Gordon, it is useful philosophically.
Kellymom’s Night Weaning Resources A really great perspective from Kellymom, who views sleeping through the night as a developmental milestone. Some babies will be ready to sleep long stretches sooner than others, so if night weaning isn’t working for you, wait and try again in a month or two.
Getting enough restful sleep is so important to our health as parents, and for our children’s health too. For many families, continuing to co-sleep for several years is the solution that allows everyone to get the most sleep with the least stress, so don’t feel rushed or pressured to night wean or wean entirely because a relative has told you it’s time the baby stopped sleeping in your bed. Listen to your intuition, and if you really do need to make a change, night weaning is a worthwhile option.