To wean or not to wean? That is the question! All babies are different. Some will wean off night feeds altogether at four months, others will wean at two years.
Weaning is as much about the parent as it is the child, so if you’re getting tired of being woken once or multiple times a night by your toddler for feeds, here are some things to consider before you break the breastfed or bottle-fed milk habit.
Before you give birth, lower your expectations
You know that friend, the one who tells you that her son was sleeping through the night at eight weeks of age? Who points at your 36-week belly and coos “you’re going to let mummy sleep, too, aren’t you little one?” Just smile, nod and politely ignore that friend.
Because every baby is unique, and while your little one may be sleeping through the night at just a few months of age, they may also need night feeds until they’re two. Lower your expectations of what life will be like, and wait to get to know your little one and their needs and preferences.
Eight hours isn’t always realistic
We know doctors recommend getting a minimum of eight hours sleep, but that just isn’t feasible for all parents. Instead of using eight hours as your benchmark, shift your expectations to about five or six hours, so you don’t feel like you’re ‘failing’.
Know your body and your limits
Lack of sleep is exhausting, and until you become a parent, there’s no way of knowing just how debilitating constant sleep deprivation can be.
Some days we get a rush of adrenaline and can go for hours on little sleep, and other days it can feel like we’re dragging a 10 kilogram bag of potatoes behind us with every step.
Postnatal depression and anxiety can be exacerbated by lack of sleep, and leave a mother much less able to cope with sleep deprivation. Do your best to stay attuned to the messages your body is sending you, and know when to ask for help with sleep and settling if you truly can’t cope.
Consider the deeper causes for why your child might be night waking
• Mental and emotional: Young children need time to process their days, particularly if they’ve had a new or overstimulating experience.
If they’re not allowed space for this before bed, this can be one of the causes of night waking. A lovely little thing to add into your bedtime routine is recounting the events of the day with your toddler as you dress them for bed and brush their teeth. It helps them process and understand the experiences they’ve had, and put them out of their mind so that they can sleep more peacefully.
• Physical: Children need lots of opportunity to run, move and use their bodies to their full capacity.
If your child has spent a lot of time sitting (inside on a rainy day, or on a long car trip perhaps) this can keep them up at night. Factor this into those days, and make sure your toddler has ample opportunity to run around and expend energy well before bedtime.
• Dietary: Has your toddler eaten a significantly larger amount of processed foods, or foods with colours, preservatives or additives? Maybe more wheat, dairy or gluten?
If they’re still having a feed before bed, think about your diet too. Have you sipped a cup of coffee later in the day and then breastfed them afterwards?
Keeping a food and sleep diary for your baby can help you recognise patterns that link their diet to their sleeping. If you notice they are particularly wakeful and gassy on certain nights, look at what they ate during the day and that may give you a clue.
Wait until they are healthy and not teething
This is a good rule of thumb for any transition you make with a child, be it introducing solids, weaning, or transitioning to their own bed. Make sure you attempt this at a time when they are healthy, not teething and there are no significant life changes happening (such as moving house or a busy season such as Christmas).
Use a signal to communicate when it’s time for a feed
This only works if you’re still feeding your toddler in the morning. Try using a timer to signal when it’s time to feed (this works for two to three-year-olds who can understand the concept of waiting). That way, if they wake up at 4.30am and it’s not time for a feed until 7am, the clock will be red and they’ll know they have to go back to sleep.
Ask, is it really milk that they need?
Some toddlers genuinely wake for a feed, others wake for other reasons and are more than happy to take the boob or bottle that’s pushed in their face to settle them.
The Raising Children website has helpful recommendations for how to wean off night feeds for both bottle-fed and breastfed babies.
• They suggest that if the feed is more than five minutes, the toddler is actually wanting the milk. Whether or not they need the nutrition is another question though (the WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding until six months, and continuing with solid foods until two years of age). In this case, wean them off the milk gradually, over a period of a week or so, and by offering water first to quench their thirst.
• If the feed is less than five minutes, immediately start replacing it with comforting such as shushing, patting or rocking, and gradually shorten the period of time you settle them over a period of seven to 10 nights.
• Another signal that the toddler is ready to wean off night time feeds is if they’re waking up sporadically (eg. 10pm and 3am one night, 1am and 4am the next.)
One Babyology reader shared: “My 18-month-old weaned off his night feeds around 13 months, but occasionally he still wakes up in the middle of the night and if he’s sleeping next to me, will roll over my body to his favourite side to feed. On the first really warm night of the year, I spent 45 minutes fending him off my breasts and trying to settle him in my arms, only to realise that he was looking for hydration, not breastfeeding comfort. When I eventually offered him water, he sculled it and was happy to go back to sleep after that. Now I offer him water as soon as he wakes up every time.”
Prepare for a few rough nights, and get hubby to help
If it’s possible for him to take time off work mid-week to help, start on Friday night and ask him to sleep on a mattress on the floor in the toddler’s room every night until the Wednesday night. That will give you at least six nights to help break the habit. Whenever the toddler wakes up, he will comfort and settle. He can gently explain that mummy is asleep and that he or she can have a little drink of water if they are thirsty. His presence will be reassuring. It will get easier and the little one will wake up less frequently after the first few nights.
Be consistent, and remember tough love will be less confusing for your child
Even when you’ve successfully weaned your toddler, be prepared for a sleep regression if and when the toddler starts teething or gets sick. Sometimes this is inevitable and is particularly tough when you’re finally getting sleep again, but thankfully it should only take one or two nights of crying and a clear settling routine to help them understand that mummy doesn’t have milk for night time feeds anymore. Remember, you are loving them best by sending clear signals, and helping them to self-settle and sleep peacefully is a wonderful gift.