You might be totally exhausted from your little one keeping you up all night, nursing every few hours. One solution is to stop nursing at night. And even if it is difficult, it is possible to gently night wean your toddler.
So how do you do it? Night weaning before your toddler decides to give it up on his own is a big undertaking. There’s likely going to be some protest!
And on top of that, you have your own feelings to contend with. Even if you plan for a very gentle night weaning, you may still feel emotions of guilt and/or anxiety (Is my baby really ready to sleep without night feedings? Am I going to damage our relationship?). Frankly, your lack of sleep probably plays into these feelings and makes them worse.
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You have given so much of yourself through your child’s babyhood and toddlerhood. And I commend you for it. You are awesome. Don’t let your tiredness and worry take that away from you.
But let’s be honest: If you’re so exhausted that you can barely function (extra anxiety, moodiness, brain fog), it might be time to night wean. After all, a year or two of only getting broken sleep takes its toll mentally and physically.
Your 2 year old, 18 month old, or even 14 month old will be okay to learn how to sleep without the na-nas, and you will end up being a better mommy for it.
(By the way, if you’re wanting to wean from breastfeeding entirely, check out gentle weaning tips for toddlers instead.)
That’s why I’m here to help you learn when to wean off of night feedings, how to gently night wean, and how to know if the process isn’t working.
When to night wean from breastfeeding
One of the most important things to remember is that, at least in Western countries, we have a really skewed perception of how baby and toddler sleep “should” be.
Baby sleep is big business. Lots of people market books, programs, blankets, night-lights, and more telling us that if we just use their product, our child will magically start sleeping through the night!
But remember, supply and demand is an important principle in breastfeeding, and going 8 or more hours at a time without nursing can lead to decreased supply.
For this reason, I believe it’s important to not night wean until at least six months. If you do choose to night wean before that time, you will need to get up at least once in the middle of the night to pump (which, frankly, sounds like more of a hassle than nursing a baby).
And some children really do need to night nurse all the way up to a year. It’s just a matter of both baby’s tummy and mom’s milk storage capacity.
I personally chose to wait until after my children were over a year old to night wean. Both girls were night weaned around fourteen months, and Budrow night weaned closer to twenty months (I’m not saying this is what you should do, I’m just telling you what I did).
I have found that, at least in my household, things go more smoothly if I start from a child-led approach: If I know my child wakes up several times a night (which is perfectly normal for babies and even toddlers), I need to make a point to go to bed early enough that I can still get enough sleep. In an ideal world, I would “sleep when the baby sleeps” and take naps, but as a full-time working mom, that option wasn’t in the cards.
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How to prepare for gentle night weaning
Often, night weaning happens because you’re tired and desperate for sleep. Or for me, I chose to night wean my first two children when I became pregnant and lack of rest and night-time nursing contributed to my nausea.
RELATED: Tandem nursing – Breastfeeding while pregnant or breastfeeding two children at once
But do yourself a favor! Don’t just charge in the very next night and refuse to breastfeed your toddler. She will be very confused (and upset), and you will be setting yourself up for a struggle. Instead, take a few days (or maybe a week) to get you both ready for the idea.
Separate sleeping from breastfeeding
There’s nothing wrong with nursing your child to sleep. I love to nurse my child to sleep – it’s so easy! But if you’re trying to night wean, you will want to make sleeping and nursing two separate events.
Instead of lying down to nurse your child each night, cuddle up in a rocking chair for your night time nursing. Start doing this for at least a week or two before night weaning. You’ll likely need to take more time helping your child go to sleep at night once you stop nursing to sleep, but just remember it’s the first step towards you getting unbroken sleep back.
Prepare your toddler
A few days or weeks before the big night, start explaining to your child that a change is coming. When getting ready to night wean my son, I told him, “Soon, Budrow will sleep all night long. Momma will sleep all night, and Budrow will sleep all night, and the na-nas will sleep all night. Then the sun will wake up, and Budrow can come see Mommy in the morning and get na-na!” We had this little conversation multiple times a day.
If you are bed sharing, you should introduce a new “big kid” bed (like this one) if possible. Don’t forget to look for non-toxic mattresses for your little one (like these).
RELATED: Best non-toxic toddler mattresses
Trust me, it’s much harder to night wean your little one if the boobs are right there, in easy access range. And if you’re wondering how to night wean while co-sleeping, you can, it’s just much harder. Basically, you’ll have to be really firm with setting limits.
Your child might appreciate the size of this little bed, perfect for toddlers. Plus, the guard rails are really helpful for children just learning to sleep in their on bed (trust me on this).
Even if you have a few nights in which you end up in bed with your little one halfway through, you’re at least getting her used to the idea that she sleeps in a new place now.
In addition, read books related to night weaning! There are a few gentle, beautiful stories that tell children what to expect after night weaning. These bedtime stories can make a BIG difference in your child understanding and accepting what’s to come.
If you want a book that’s personalized just for your child, check out my night weaning book template.
RELATED: Personalized books about toddler weaning
Prepare yourself for night weaning
It’s easy to remember that you have to help your baby get ready for night weaning. It’s a lot harder to remember that you need to put support systems in place for yourself too.
(UPDATE: My last baby (cue crying emoji) is now 14 months, and I’m exhausted. And even though I know he’s old enough to night wean, I still have angst over making the decision to do so. All this to say, you’re not alone if you’re having a lot of big feelings yourself. Just make the decision that works best for your family.)
The most difficult part of night weaning is keeping yourself from getting upset through the process. You’ll be lacking sleep, you’ll be frazzled by your child’s emotions, and this is a big transition for you too.
If you allow it, your own overwhelm will either cause you to give up after a night or two, or it will cause you to lash out at your child, adding to his already stressful transition.
For that reason, don’t try to night wean during a time that’s already stressful! First of all, your child can pick up on your mood, so if you’re already overwhelmed, he’s likely to be less easy. On top of that, if you already have something that’s going to keep you up, you don’t want to have an extra tax on your sleep on top of that. Choose a long weekend if possible to start the night weaning process.
How to gently night wean in a week
So you’ve prepared. You’ve read your night weaning books, you’ve explained to your toddler what to expect, and tonight is the night. If things go as planned, you should have your toddler fully night weaned within a week, possibly sooner.
The first night of night weaning
When your first night of weaning begins, make it clear what you are doing (but you’ve been doing this all along, right?). Before bed (preferably on a surface other than the bed), go ahead and breastfeed your little one before prefacing what the night is going to hold.
Explain to your child, “Okay, you’re going night-night, Mama is going night-night, and the na-nas are going night-night. In the morning when the sun comes up, you can have na-na!”
TIP: Go to bed early this night (you, not your child). You’re probably going to be up a few times, so give yourself a chance to get as much sleep as you can.
Even with preparation, you’ll likely have a few bad nights that involve a fair amount of crying. But your job is to prepare yourself and stay calm and responsive.
If your little one is upset, screaming, and/or crying, stay with him. Remind him that he will get na-na in the morning when the sun comes up, and that it is time to go night-night. You might have to do this a few times throughout the night.
RELATED: 11 steps to calm tantrums
Of course, dad is welcome to help your little one get to bed. This might work better for some families, since, you know, he doesn’t have the goods. For us, my kids usually would not accept him for bedtime, so it was easier for me to just handle it. On top of that, listening to the screaming and crying (from baby not dad, lol) makes me more stressed than just being present myself. Do what works in your home.
I’ll be honest: we usually have a hellacious first night of night weaning, complete with multiple wake-ups. If it’s summer and the sun is barely peeking through the window at 5AM, you can bet your bottom dollar that we go ahead and celebrate as early as we can. “Hooray, the sun is up! You must be so proud that you slept all night without na-na!” And then, we nurse, emphasizing that it’s allowed because the sun is awake now.
The second night: It may be harder, or it may be easier
Congratulations on making it through your first night of night weaning! You deserve major props.
Make sure you do a great job of congratulating your little one too. One great way is to let him overhear you praising him to someone else. “Daddy, did you know that Budrow slept all night in his bed, without na-na? I know he’s so proud of himself!” Note that we’re focusing on the positive, and even if it was a terrible night, you’re still using this as a chance for encouragement.
Depending on your child’s personality, the second night may be harder or easier than the first. For many children, the second night may start with crying, but have fewer wake-ups. Do yourself a favor and still go to bed early tonight, just in case.
But some children are a little more
stubborn determined than others (like my oldest). With these kids, the second night can be worse than the first! Your child remembers the first night of weaning, and is ready to fight back and try to keep you from winning this round. Getting him to sleep may be a real challenge!
Btw, this behavior of freaking out is called an extinction burst. It’s a totally normal psychological phenomenon. You’ll need to stay firm but gentle again, and remember that your child is going through a very difficult transition. Give him grace.
Once again, first thing in the morning when he wakes up, congratulate your child and offer to nurse, repeating the rules (as Anna said, “The sky’s awake, so I’m awake”).
Finishing the night-weaning process
After the second night, you’re *likely* through the hardest part. You’ll have to repeat the process again for a few nights, but your little one will likely accept the new rules with much less resistance.
At this point, it may be tough for you to stay patient (especially if you’re tired). But remember, your little one needs your understanding right now! Stay mindful of his needs, and continue to remark on how well he’s doing each morning.
RELATED: How mindfulness can make you a better parent
How to know if your little one isn’t ready for night weaning yet
If by night 4 or 5 things are still just as bad, you may be better off waiting just a few months and trying again. There’s no shame in trying again later. In fact, this is what happened with Budrow after our first night weaning attempt. The second time (about 4-6 months later) went much more smoothly.
Setbacks with night weaning
For each of my children, it felt like every time I got him or her night weaned, they’d catch a cold or stomach virus. Like, the kind of illness that kept them up, miserable, and cranky all night long.
When they’re like this, it’s so much easier to deal if you just nurse. But at the same time, you just got them night weaned! What do you do?
Honestly, it’s up to you. Sometimes, I would let them night nurse for one or two nights, and then explain after they were better that we were going to start sleeping all night without na-na. Other times, I would just struggle through with them. Trust your Mama instinct.
Another situation that might trip up the night weaning process is travel. It can be much easier to get little ones to sleep in an unfamiliar location if you breastfeed them. Again, it’s up to you.
Conclusions on night weaning
I hope this info gives you great ideas on how to night wean your toddler. Within a few weeks, your toddler should sleep through the night (hallelujah!).
The most important part of night weaning is keeping your cool so you can support your little one through this difficult transition. A great resource for this is the Night Weaning Action Pack. Make sure you grab your copy to get an easy printable list of prompts, a progress tracker, and more.
And don’t forget to appreciate yourself for all the love (and milk) you’ve given your baby over the years. It’s so incredible that you’re showing your toddler that you’ll be there for them always, both through night nursing and then when they are weaning off of night feeds.
If you have any more questions or problems with gentle night weaning, be sure to let me know in the comments. Happy Parenting!