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Resource Review Thursday: Notes on Night Weaning and Toddler Sleep

When it comes to breastfeeding at night, it often seems that there are only two choices parents can make:

  1. Nurse on demand day and night, until the baby/toddler/child stops requesting it
  2. 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:

  • teething?
  • sick?
  • 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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Lauren @ Hobo Mama October 25, 2010, 7:36 pm

    I never thought I’d think about night weaning, but as this pregnancy goes on and I get less able to sleep through the nursing (sore breasts, achy body, full bladder), it’s definitely crossed my mind. Particularly as I consider what it’s going to be like when I have a newborn and a night-nursing preschooler. I’m not ready to commit to night weaning yet, but I thank you in advance for this list of resources!

    • michelle October 25, 2010, 10:46 pm

      It’s always nice to know that you have options, even if you choose to continue what already works for you. :) I found that I got less sleep when I was 39 weeks pregnant than I did when I was 2 weeks postpartum, and that was without a night-nursing toddler! Maybe Mikko will be old enough to understand that he can nurse during the day but only the baby gets to nurse at night?

  • Dagmar Bleasdale October 25, 2010, 10:40 pm

    I have slept next to my baby since day one and am still nursing him to sleep now that he is almost 4. Honestly, I have no other way of getting him to sleep, and I am okay with that. But I am slowly going to suggest other ways more and more because I think it’s time he learns to sleep without nursing. Thanks for your suggestions!

    Dagmar’s momsense

    • michelle October 26, 2010, 9:07 pm

      Hi Dagmar, I wonder how night weaning a preschooler is different from night weaning a toddler… I assume they would still be upset, but hopefully would be more able to communicate and understand that you are still there for comfort, etc. I’m interested in hearing how it goes for you if you decide to make a change.