Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Breastfeeding help: Night weaning the serial nurser

note: In order to bring you accurate information concerning hot parenting issues, I've teamed with some local professionals who have agreed to share their knowledge in each of their fields of expertise. I will regularly consult with the professionals when writing about topics like breastfeeding, babywearing, health and natural childbirth, prenatal and pediatric chiropractic care and child rearing. This post includes information from International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and Registered Lactation Consultant Jeanne Cygnus. You can read Jeanne's Snapshot profile here.

It's no surprise that Gabe loves milk more than almost anything else in his little world. As the former Fat Kid Club President, I also can assure you my child has inherited the love for anything food or drink related. So, while considering both of those facts, I'm sure you can understand why I was [nervous, scared, frightened] absolutely freakin' terrified to begin the night-weaning process at 16.5 months in late Dec. But I couldn't hack it anymore. I began to feel like a walking zombie during the day after waking up every two hours to give my all night-nurser his favorite cuisine.

Plus, I was beginning to feel like my toddler, who eats enormous amounts of solid food and drinks quarts of cow milk and breastmilk during the day, no longer needed milk during the night. Actually, I began feeling like he was just waking up because mom's diner was open 24 hours, so why not indulge in all of those late night snacks.

So I spoke with John, who quickly got on board, and we began devising a plan to night wean our serial nurser. First, thought, we consulted Dr. Sears' The Baby Book for some tips on night weaning, and I also spoke with Jeanne Cygnus, our lactation consultant.

After hearing my diagnosis of the situation, Jeanne reassured me that Gabe was at the age where he could go all night without needing to nurse.

"As far as age goes many babies start sleeping through around 3 mos (with interruptions around 4 mos!)," Jeanne said. "Some aren't ready until 6-8 months; most babies should be able to by the time they are 10-12 months, but there are always exceptions."

And those exceptions make it hard to give an exact age where parents can definitively say their child is ready to night wean.

"The problem with giving any concrete answer here is that there are many different reasons babies nurse at night," Jeanne said. "Some babies nurse at night because they are so active during the day that they do not stop long enough to take good feeds and need to make up calories during the night to maintain their growth. Some babies also do this if they don't feed well from bottles while at day care --they'll eat enough to get by [during the day], and then make up for it by eating during the night. Trying to force these babies to forgo eating at night can cause them unnecessary hunger and poor weight gain."

Jeanne said other babies have very vivid dreams, wake themselves up, become frightened and need the comfort of nursing to settle back down into a sleep-mode.

"These babies may not nurse for very long, but they rely on the comfort of the connection with mom in order to feel safe and secure again. These babies can be 'trained' that they have to cry it out alone, but it may not be the best message to send for their long-term emotional health."

And finally some babies seem to just get into a rhythm of sleep/wake cycles and become "used" to nursing as part of this cycle.

"These are the babies that really don't 'need' to nurse, but are in a habit," Jeanne said. "These are the night-nursings that are generally fairly easy to eliminate and doing so can actually be beneficial to both mom AND baby as baby starts sleeping for longer stretches."

Overall, no one can tell a mom when to start night-weaning better than mom herself!

"Most moms often have an idea of which of these is going on, based on their baby's temperament and patterns," Jeanne said.

I could tell Gabe, at 16 months, was waking because his body simply had become accustomed to waking several times per night and then nursing back to sleep, so we proceeded with night-weaning plans.

Dr. Sears recommends asking dad for help during the night so that baby will accept forms of comfort other than the breast. He also recommends in his book talking to your little milk monster and then sticking with the plan. There will be rough nights, Dr. Sears, says, and I agree. But those first few nights were not as hard as I thought they were going to prove.

The first night we began night weaning, we laid down in Gabe's big-boy bed (a full size mattress on a box spring on the floor), and explained that Gabe was going to "night night" (our word for sleep), mama was going to go night night, dada was going to night night and milk was going to go night night. He looked at me, smiled and asked for milk. I nursed him before bed, and then again told him that everyone, including milk, was going night night until it was light outside. I doubt much of that sank in because like clockwork he woke up two hours later expecting a boob. John then went into Gabe's room, laid down with him and snuggled him back to sleep. Gabe cried. He wailed for mama. John calmly explained that everyone, including milk, went night night.

But it worked. Gabe went back to sleep. And after a few nights of crying for milk, he finally accepted the new form of comfort from John. After about a week, Gabe began sleeping in his bed until about 4 or 5 in the morning every night. Gabe also comes to bed with us after waking and snuggles with us until about 7 or 7:30. When he wakes at 5, I do nurse him, and he falls right back asleep.

I had a few concerns about my day-time milk supply dropping, so Jeanne gave me a few tips. She said because my supply had dropped so much and Gabe was nursing so frequently through the day, I might want to consider waking up about 5 hours after his last night nursing to pump. Little did we know when she offered that advice that my supply actually dropped because I was pregnant, so pumping would not have helped.
"The only time I recommend pumping after 5 hours is if you experience a dramatic decrease in supply during the day and are trying to increase over-all milk supply OR in the early months of breastfeeding when babies really aren't meant to be sleeping through the night and your breasts need that nighttime stimulation," Jeanne said. "In most cases, with most moms and babies, sleeping through the night at [Gabe's] age is normal, and mom should not be concerned as long as she's comfortable, as the body does adjust."

Generally, though, most moms who are ready to night wean need not wake to pump.

"As [baby grows] older and is taking solids, going longer at night should be fine as long as you are not waking up uncomfortable or engorged, which could put you at risk for mastitis," Jeanne said.

Need Jeanne's help? www.cygnuslacation.com.


  1. Is that the sneaky way of you announcing your pregnancy!?! Congrats!!

  2. Haha, no. I had a less sneaky post a few weeks back. Thanks for the congrats!

  3. Sleeping with dad also helped Jensen sleep through the night. He didn't do it until I wasn't available. Weird, huh?

    Glad you guys have agreed on the night weaning thing. I'm curious how it'll work with Anna.

  4. I'm so glad you composed this post. DS1 night weaned at 12 mos but didn't fully wean until 20 mos and now DS2 is 20 mos himself and still nurses on demand! But he's got another 1 1/2 weeks and I'm going to night wean him. I've been feeling so guilty about it but it's not doing either one of us any good to be up so much at night (check out the time stamp on this comment!) and hopefully he'll eat more during the day now.

  5. I am starting to go through the same thing. We're getting Camryn a big bed for her 2nd birthday and we're going to try to night wean and move her to the bed together at the same time. She's definitely an "out of sight, out of mind" sort of kid so hopefully things go smoothly with this approach. But, if she's not ready, I am not in a huge hurry now that she is sleeping better after getting a few of her 2-year molars. The 15-18 month age was really rough for us so I am happy for a little reprieve. Sorry to write a novel here... good luck!

  6. LOL, this accidentally posted under Jay's address. Whoops!

  7. I found your post when googling night weaning. My wee one just turned 2 years old, and I am totally exhausted from the every 2 hours nursing out of habit. But, wanted to night wean in a way that would not be too traumatic. So, we begin tonight - I hope it is as successful as yours was!

    Thanks for the advice!!

  8. Amy, you are welcome! I hope you find success in night weaning your little one so you both can be better rested. :)

  9. I came across your link while searching for night weaning. My son is 14 months and has never slept through the night while waking every 2 hours or less expecting to be nursed back to sleep. Our plan is to get dad involved this weekend so I'm hoping for the best! Thanks for your blog. It helps knowing that my son isn't the only one that likes the all night milk buffet :)

  10. I am so glad to know I'm not alone in this! Our DS is just shy of 16mos and he most definitely falls into this category. What makes it challenging is my husband's work schedule...it rotates every 7 days. But he's home tonight!! And for the next several, so we start in with this tonight. I've actually already nursed the babe and he's sleeping--for now. I hope we have the resolve when he wakes in another hour or so! Thank you so very much for your post!!

  11. I am in the same situation and just found your site when googling "night weaning". So glad to know I'm not alone in this! Tonight is our first attempt with getting DS (who is just shy of 16mos) to sleep through AND being willing to be comforted by Daddy. Hopefully we can make some progress before DH goes into another shift at work...it changes every 7 days--yuck. Thank you so, so much for posting about your experience with this!!

    1. Susannah, I am SO glad to hear it's going well! Thanks for the updates. I hope it continues to go well. A mama needs some sleep to continue to be a good mama. :-) Best wishes!

  12. Last night was night #4 and it is going so much better than I ever anticipated! Sure, our little one has some fits, but nothing like I imagined. The other night he only woke up TWICE - and then again at 5am and I nursed him then. It was wonderful! Thank you again, Hyacynth!!


There's nothing better than good conversation ... but not while talking to myself. Will you play a part in this discussion?

AND will you pretty please have your email linked to your account or leave it for me so I can respond?

Thanks for taking the time to make these thoughts into conversation.