The First Steps to Night Wean
When to night wean will depend on details more specific to each mother’s situation. In general, weaning as a concept says that weaning needs to be done “gradually and with love”, to quote a La Leche League guideline. And weaning implies that a child is being weaned from one thing in his life onto another thing. Night weaning usually means that the mother is OK with daytime nursing and just wants to stop the night nursing. Daytime weaning does seem to be easier. There are so many other activities going on, and usually, most of the daytime nursings are “short and sweet”. At night, however, the baby/toddler/child has Mom all to himself and is also not so easily dissuaded from his nighttime pattern of waking and nursing.
What is a good age to night wean?
So, your question is not so much “how” to night wean, but what is a good age. And the short answer to that is that you know when your child is old enough to handle negotiation. Other situations that call for negotiation might be “we’ll have lunch first, then we will nurse” or “you may not play with the scissors but you can play with tongs (or whatever)”. When your child can easily let go of something, and can easily wait for something, and can understand “this before that”, then you can reasonably anticipate that she can handle a negotiation for nighttime. So much depends on her temperament – and yours! You know your child well enough, and yourself well enough, to intuit how much frustration you both can handle.
Changing the Pattern
Remembering that weaning needs to be gradual. You would start the night weaning process by encouraging your little one to fall back to sleep without nursing. If just patting on the back will help him be lulled back to sleep, maybe just for the first time he wakes, or the second time. When that is working, then you know he can accept the alternative soothing. If that doesn’t work, then you give it more time. Little by little you will negotiate. Another way to approach this first step is to substitute another pattern for putting your child down at bedtime. Rather than just nursing him off to sleep, develop a bedtime routine that helps him relax: quiet play in a quiet part of the house, a bath, a snack, toothbrushing, a story, a back rub, and then a quiet time with Dad in the rocking chair or a soothing stroll in Dad’s arms around a quiet house.
Explain the Story
When you are ready to say the final “bye-bye” to night nursing, and your child is able to negotiate other important parts of her life, explain to her that you are putting a limit on night nursing. (In fact, you have already put limits on daytime nursing by saying “not now, but later”.) Explain the strategy, the plan, the story, to her: We only nurse when Mr. Sun goes down and when Mr. Sun comes up. Have the talk for a few days ahead of the time that you have picked. And then remind her during that day in a way that she can see you are confident. When she has her bedtime routine, tell her the story again.
Now, during the night, the plan/strategy/story may not sound nearly as positive as it did during the day leading up to it. But you have the special back rub you offer, a certain item to snuggle with, and you hum that special lullaby that she has already learned will soothe her back to sleep. It also helps to prepare your child ahead of time to visualize how it will work by reading a story.
You can both put together a story, a scrapbook of pictures showing a little one nursing in the evening after a bath, in pajamas, and cuddling to sleep, then nursing in the morning (see, Mr. Sun is up!). There are some children’s books that follow this storyline. One that we really like is called Nursies when the Sun Shines. The mother in the story explains that “Baby goes to sleep, Mommy goes to sleep, Nursies go to sleep…”. Then it shows them waking and looking out the window and seeing that it is still dark (“It’s still nighttime, my baby”) and they cuddle back to sleep. Finally, when they wake and see the sun, “nursies” wake up too! It’s time for nursies again!
More about night weaning on our website, click here.
Martha is the mother of Dr. Bill’s eight children, a registered nurse, a former childbirth educator, a La Leche League leader, and a lactation consultant. Martha is the co-author of 25 parenting books and is a popular lecturer and media guest drawing on her 18 years of breastfeeding experience with her eight children (including Stephen with Down Syndrome and Lauren, her adopted daughter). Martha speaks frequently at national parenting conferences and is noted for her advice on how to handle the most common problems facing today’s mothers with their changing lifestyles. Martha is able to connect with both full-time, stay-at-home mothers and working mothers because she herself has experienced both styles of parenting. Martha takes great pride in referring to herself as a “professional mother” and one of her favorite quips when someone voices their concern about her having eight children in an already populated world is: “The world needs my children.”