What is the Best Way to End Night Feeding?
This is one of the top questions we get from our friends, from the parents of our little patients and our website followers. The night weaning information you are about to read is gleaned from Dr. Bill’s experience in fifty years of pediatric practice, Martha’s experience from night weaning their toddlers, as well as the night weaning of Sears’ grandbabies from the experiences of their parents. You will find additional reading in our books: The Baby Sleep Book, The Baby Book, and The Breastfeeding Book.
DISCUSS WITH YOUR DOCTOR FIRST
How to get your baby to sleep through the night is not a one-size-fits-all. Sleep biology and parental lifestyles vary. Also, there may be medical conditions (such as reflux) that would prevent you from using some of the tools we recommend. Be sure to discuss our recommendations with your healthcare provider to determine what are the right tools for you, your baby, and your family.
8 Night Weaning Tips to End Night Feeding
We prefer to use the term “night weaning” rather than the outdated and sometimes medically unwise term “sleep training”. Also, be aware that some of that sort of advice is simply a variance of the old “let baby cry it out” (CIO) advice. When the CIO advice became popular, I discussed it with my infant-sleep mentor, Dr. James McKenna, Director of the Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame. In my experience, medical conditions of night-waking, such as reflux and breathing issues were being missed, and Dr. McKenna’s research raised red flags about the hardhearted advice to: “Insert earplugs, put baby to sleep in another room and let baby cry it out for so many minutes,” and so on. With this background, let us share a plan that worked for us and that we hope can help your family get a more peaceful night’s sleep.
Dr. Bill notes: In discussing night feeding practices with my friend Dr. McKenna and reading what other anthropologists have studied it seems that in most societies, night nursing is the norm and that babies are “wired” for night nursing. And in ancient writings, the term “weaning” meant “filled” or “completed.” This explains why the age and stage of night weaning can vary a lot among older babies and toddlers.
1. Trust Your Instincts
Mom knows best, despite what the books and internet advise. A baby’s cry is a baby’s language. When you grow a baby inside of you, you also grow a GPS, or radar system, in your brain that tunes you into the need messages of your baby’s cry. Our experience is that unsupported “let baby cry it out” advice can desensitize a mother to her intuitive feelings and create a distance between mother and baby. You will naturally know what is working, what is not, and how to respond. Those minutes of night nursing are a short time in the total life of a child, but the cerebral impact of those touches last a lifetime.
2. Be Realistic About Night Weaning
There reaches a time in many mother-baby nighttime relationships when mother’s need to sleep overpowers baby’s desire to nurse. Sleep is meant to be peaceful and recharging for mother, father, and baby. Clue: if you find yourself not looking forward to going to sleep because it is work, rather than rest, take that as a gentle nudge that you need to make some nighttime changes.
Martha notes: After six children you’d think I would know this. But with Stephen, number seven, I remember one frequent-waking night when I was in that “I don’t know how much more of this can I take” frame of mind I said to Bill, ‘But Stephen needs me so much…” Bill responded: “Dear, what our baby needs most is a happy, rested mother.” From that night on we went on to follow the rest of the plan you are about to read, and we all enjoyed more peaceful nights of sleep.
Early in our parenting and writing experiences, we added an extra “B” to our Baby B’s of attachment parenting – BALANCE. Achieving balance means having both a thriving baby and a thriving mommy. Only you can know when the time is right. Our daughter Erin, who is in the thick of night weaning her toddler as we are writing this, says, “I knew I was ready when the benefits/convenience of night nursing no longer outweighed the stress, as it had the first 20 months. I will forever cherish the precious and challenging moments of my nighttime parenting journey, and I also knew it was time to find more balance. I trusted Johnny to be open to other soothing methods to get back to sleep, and so far, we are an even stronger, more trusting pair for it!”
Mother quote: I love her dearly, but I am tripping over the bags under my eyes.
3. Tank Up Baby During the Day
It helps to get behind the eyes or, in this case, the mouth, of your all-night sucker to understand why babies like to nurse at night. During the day toddlers are busy and often forget to nurse. Oftentimes, moms are busy during the day, especially if they need to work outside the home. Then comes nighttime. Baby misses Mommy – and her milk – and makes up for that nursing time missed during the day. Nighttime is the only time when baby has mom all to himself, in touch literally, and can “milk” the situation for all its worth. “Ahhh…nightlife is good!” the baby may be thinking. But tired mom is not so convinced, and tired dad is not convinced that baby needs this.
Erin advises Tank Baby up on food high in healthy fats like avocado and salmon, and food high in iron like beans, eggs, and tofu. Also, magnesium-rich food can help Baby find more restful sleep.
As often as possible, tank up your toddler with more nursing during the day. Try nap-nursing. Oftentimes moms will consider naptime as a time for them to get something else done while the baby is sleeping. Mind change: this is a time for you to rest and recharge and spend those precious touch times with your napping baby. Again, these are precious times that will pass all too soon. You will be amazed by how much other “stuff” can be put on hold for a while. Babies who get more touch and milk during the day are more likely to need it less at night. The goal of more daytime nursing is to teach baby that daytime is for feeding and nighttime is for sleeping. A baby’s need for night feedings will lessen with time and maturity. Yet, many need more nighttime nudges from mom to help this happen.
Martha notes: Let your baby be the barometer. If your baby’s cry continues to deeply push your “respond” button, or you notice your baby is less happy during the day, such as becoming more clingy, whiny, distant, or you feel something is not right, hold off on your night-weaning plan. However, if you feel burned-out from nighttime breastfeeding, formulate a plan for night weaning. Again, your baby needs a happy, rested mother. Listens to your signals of breastfeeding burnout and try not to feel guilty about it.
Many babies breastfeed more at night after their mothers return to work. They feed more often, or “cluster feed,” at night because mom is more available. On non-workdays try to cluster feed more often during the day.
Mother quote: Cluster feeding before bedtime made a big improvement in how long our baby slept.
Also, increase daytime touch. Give your baby more cuddle time and “sling-time” during the day. Even a before-bedtime back rub is a wonderful nighttime touch for older babies and toddlers.
4. Nurse Partially Off To Sleep
Awaken your baby for a full feeding just before you go to bed. Yet, as soon as baby slows down sucking, and starts closing her eyes quickly do what Bill and I called the “handoff technique.” (I had to use football language so Bill would remember it.)
Martha notes: As soon as I saw Hayden’s eyes starting to close and her sucks starting to weaken, I would slowly hand her off to Bill who would do a father-baby dance while doing what he called “the neck nestle” – draping his head and neck over the top of her head (babies hear with the vibration of their skull bones, too) and he would sing a monotonous, low-pitched song:
“Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep, my little baby. Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep, my little girl.”
Then he would ease Hayden down, or even lie with her for a while until she settled back to full sleep.
Babies are more likely to go back to sleep with the same method they use to go to sleep in the first place. So, when Hayden woke up the last thing she remembered was going to sleep in daddy’s arms which made it easier for Bill to put her back to sleep. Then when she woke up in the morning it was daddy-daughter time out of the house. Ahh…it felt so good for me to be able to sleep through at least part of the night and occasionally sleep in in the morning. This extra sleep was good for our whole family.
5. Relocate Mom’s All-Night Diner
Martha notes: Sometimes I would sleep in another room while the toddler and Bill slept together in our room. Once babies figure out that Dad is a “milk dud” they are likely to stop their protests and go back to sleep.
Yes, there will be times during night weaning when the protest crying becomes unbearable to your naturally baby-sensitive ears. Naturally, you will know when enough is enough and to go in to do a nighttime rescue feeding. Yet, crying while being held in daddy’s arms is not the same as leaving baby alone to cry herself back to sleep in her own room. Only you will know how many minutes (or decibels) are required to push your go-feed button. Most likely you will find that your toddler will gradually settle down in Daddy’s arms and then start sleeping through the night once she realizes that she is not sleeping inches away from her favorite cuisine.
6. “Nummies Go Night-Night”
Between 18 and 24 months, most babies can understand simple and fun language. Before putting our babies to bed we would occasionally say: “Now, nummies go night-night too” (as you try to explain to your toddler that she can wait to nurse until morning.) You could add: “We’ll nurse again when Mr. Sun comes up.” Then when our babies would wake up, we would repeat, “Nummies are night-night.” A note from Erin: We love the book Nursies When the Sun Shines. Read the book and talk about it with your toddler. Do this in the weeks or even months leading up to a change in night-time routine.
Mother quote: Around 18 months I explained that he could have milk to go to sleep but not after that until the sun came up. Then he started to rise earlier with the sun, of course. That is the price I pay for getting him to sleep through the night without feeding. I guess you cannot have it both ways.
Remember our top nighttime teaching: sleep should be a restful and peaceful state to be in.
Martha notes: As your child nurses off to sleep, tell her, “Mommy go night-night, daddy go night-night, baby go night-night, and nummies (or whatever cute word you use) go night-night.” When she wakes up during the night you hope she remembers that gentle reminder: “Nummies go night-night, baby go night-night, too.” As part of the gentle reminder and as a simple way to reinforce this, you can use sleepwear with a high neckline to help you both remember that “nummies are night-night”.
7. Share Night Duty
Honor your husband with his share of nighttime parenting. Remember, “nursing” means comforting not just breastfeeding. Dads can “father nurse.” Choose a long weekend when Dad can take over for a couple of nights of the new reality – once you know all three of you are ready.
8. Lean on Your Village
Think of this night weaning or sleep transition as a toddler version of the 4th trimester. Remember when you had that precious newborn and friends and family most likely seemed more eager to help? Reach out again to your village to help with daytime duties. Therefore, you can be as peaceful and rested as possible as you enter this nighttime challenge. Our daughter Erin gave us her top serenity tips to set herself up for success:
- Practice a few restorative stretches before bed to release stress in your body and calm your nervous system.
- Order take out
- Ask for help around the house
- Get a pedicure or other soothing self-care routines
- Most importantly, give yourself lots of grace as you navigate this transition.
The Sears family wishes your family a successful night weaning experience, a good night’s sleep, and a forever imprinting on your baby the healthy sleep attitude that sleep is a peaceful state to enter and a fearless state to remain in. As we frequently say, parenting is giving your children the tools to succeed in life. Healthy sleep is a life-enriching tool. Sleep well!
For additional information on night weaning, visit our website.
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.”