12 Alternatives for the All-Night Toddler Nurser
Frequent night nursing is characteristic of high-need children. It’s like going to their favorite restaurant. The ambiance is peaceful, the server is familiar, the cuisine is superb, and they love the management. Who can blame the all-night gourmet? Yet as baby ages and turns into a toddler, nursing every few hours is not a necessity, rather a comfort mechanism. Try these suggestions for dealing with a toddler who wants to nurse all-night.
How much of a “problem” is the frequent night nursing? This stage of high-level night nurturing will pass. Both you and your baby will someday sleep through the night. Yet, if you are sleep deprived to the degree that you are barely functioning the next day, you resent your nighttime parenting style (and your baby), and the rest of your family relationships are deteriorating, you need to make more of an effort night weaning.
A parenting principle we learned many kids ago is: IF YOU RESENT IT, CHANGE IT!
Even if you can’t get your baby to sleep through the whole night, you can help him cut back on nighttime nursing, making the situation more tolerable for you. Here’s how:
1. Tank your baby up during the day.
Toddlers love to breastfeed, yet they are often so busy during the day that they forget to nurse, or mom is so busy that she forgets to nurse. But at night, there you are, only an inch away, and baby wants to make up for missed daytime nursings. (This is a common scenario when a breastfeeding mother returns to work outside the home.) Finding more time to nurse during the day may make the night weaning easier.
2. Increase daytime touch.
Wear your baby in a sling and give your baby more touch time during the day. It’s easy when babies get older to greatly decrease the amount of touching time without realizing it. All-night nursing can sometimes be a baby’s signal reminding mothers not to rush their baby into dependence. In developing a healthy independence, a child leaves and comes back; lets go and clings, step by step until she is going out more than she is coming back. Many mothers have noted that babies and toddlers show an increased need for nursing and holding time right before undertaking a new stage of development, such as crawling or walking.
3. Awaken baby for a full feeding just before you go to bed.
Rather than going off to sleep only to be wakened an hour or two later, get in a feeding when you retire for the night. This way, your sleep will be disturbed one less time, and you’ll (hopefully) get a longer stretch of sleep.
4. Get baby used to other “nursings.”
Try wearing him down to sleep in a baby sling. After baby is fed, but not yet asleep, wear him in a baby sling around the house or around the block. When he’s in a deep sleep, ease him onto your bed and extricate yourself from the sling. This is a good way for dad to take over part of the bedtime routine. Eventually, your baby will associate father’s arms with falling asleep, and he’ll be willing to accept comfort from dad in the middle of the night as an alternative to nursing. Other ways to ease your baby into sleep without nursing him include patting or rubbing his back, singing and rocking, or even dancing in the dark to some tunes you like or lullabies you croon.
5. Make the breast less available.
Once your baby has nursed to sleep, use your finger to detach him from the breast. Then pull your nightgown over your breast and sleep covered up. A baby who can’t find the nipple quickly may just fall back to sleep. If you can stay awake long enough to put the breast away, he may not latch on again so soon.
7. Just say no!
When our son, Matthew, was two, Martha felt desperate for sleep if awakened more than two times. I would wake up to hear a dialogue like “Nee” (his word for nurse)…”No!”… “Nee!”… “No!”… “Nee!”… “No, not now. In the morning. Mommy’s sleeping. You sleep, too.” A firm but calm, peaceful voice almost always did the trick. You can manage to stay peaceful in this situation when you know you are not damaging your very secure, attachment- parented child.
8. “Nummies go night-night.”
Now the marketing begins. Around eighteen months, your child has the capacity to understand simple sentences. Program your toddler not to expect to be nursed when she awakens, such as “We’ll nurse again when Mr. Sun comes up.” When you nurse her to sleep (or have the first or second night nursing) the last thing she should hear is “Mommy go night-night, Daddy go night-night, baby go night-night, and nummies go night- night” (or whatever she dubs her favorite pacifiers). When she wakes during the night the first thing she should hear is a gentle reminder, “Nummies are night- night. Baby go night-night, too.” This program may require a week or two of repetition. Soon she will get the message that daytime is for feeding and nighttime is for sleeping. If “nummies” stay night-night, baby will too — at least till dawn.
9. Offer a substitute.
High-need babies are not easily fooled; they don’t readily accept substitutes. Yet, it’s worth a try. Remember, nursing does not always mean breastfeeding. Honor your husband with his share of “night nursing” so your toddler does not always expect to be comforted by nummies. This gives dad a chance to develop creative nighttime fathering skills and the child a chance to expand her acceptance of nighttime comforters. Martha notes:
One of the ways we have survived toddler’s who wants to nurse frequently during the night was for me to temporarily go off “night call.” Bill would wear Stephen down in a baby sling, so he got used to Bill’s way of putting him to sleep. When he woke up, Bill would again provide the comfort he needed by rocking and holding him in a neck nestle position, using the warm fuzzy and singing a lullaby. Babies may initially protest when offered father instead of mother, but remember, crying and fussing in the arms of a loving parent is not the same as “crying it out.” Dads, realize that you have to remain calm and patient during these nighttime fathering challenges. You owe it to both mother and baby not to become rattled or angry when your baby resists the comfort you offer.
Try this weaning-to-father arrangement on a weekend, or another time when your husband can look forward to two or three nights when he doesn’t have to go to work the next day. You will probably have to sell him on this technique, yet we have personally tried it and it does work. Be sure to use these night-weaning tactics only when baby is old enough and your gut feeling tells you that your baby is nursing at night out of habit and not out of need.
10. Increase the sleeping distance between you.
If the above suggestions do not entice your persistent night nurser to cut back, yet you still feel you must encourage him to do so, try another sleeping arrangement. Try putting him in a bedside co-sleeper bassinet, on a mattress or futon at the foot of your bed, or even sleeping in another room with a sibling. Dad or mom can lie down beside baby to comfort him if he awakens. Mom can even nurse, if necessary and then sneak back to her own bed if continued closeness seems to encourage continued waking.
11. Sleep in another room.
If your baby persists in wanting to nurse all night, relocate “Mom’s All-Night Diner” to another room and let baby sleep next to dad for a few nights. He may wake less often when the breast is not so available and when he does wake, he will learn to accept comfort from dad.
12. Let baby be the barometer.
When trying any behavior-changing technique on a child, don’t persist with a bad experiment. Use your baby’s daytime behavior as a barometer of whether your change in nighttime parenting style is working. If after several nights of working on night weaning your baby is her same self during the day then persist with your gradual night weaning. If, however, she becomes more clingy, whiny, or distant, take this as a clue to slow down your rate of night weaning.
Babies will wean and someday they will sleep through the night. This high maintenance stage of nighttime parenting will pass. The time in your arms, at your breast, and in your bed is a relatively short while in the life of a baby, yet the memories of love and availability last forever.
If you would like to work with a Certified Health Coach during your pregnancy, or postpartum, you can find a Coach in your area.