Night Weaning: When & How to Get Started
You knew when you had a baby there would be frequent night waking for feedings and other baby needs. But there comes a point for most new moms where you ask yourself, is my baby ready to night wean?
Or what you’re asking yourself might be, “Will I ever get a full night’s sleep again?” The answer to that question is, a definite maybe;)
Seriously though, IS your baby ready to night wean? And are they capable of sleeping through the night without a feeding? Although every baby is different, if your baby is past the 6 month mark, night weaning is a reasonable goal to work towards. (Check out my printable step by step guide to night weaning at the bottom of this post!)
Not Quite Ready to Night Wean? Check out these tips to make nighttime breastfeeding easier: Nighttime Breastfeeding Tips for Exhausted Moms
Some babies can start night weaning and sleeping longer at around 4 months of age. And others will continue waking for feedings long after the 6 month mark. As with all baby milestones, every baby is different and will reach them at their own pace.
However, at six months of age, most babies are able to get the calories they need during day time feedings. And are physically capable of sleeping a long stretch at night.
But night feedings are about more than calories. They are about comfort, habit, security, and feeling loved. So, the process of night weaning is something that should be done gently and gradually so you and your baby can adjust.
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Is My Baby Ready to Night Wean?
Night weaning doesn’t have to be difficult and it shouldn’t be traumatic for you or your baby. But it does need to happen gently. And at the right time for you and your baby or toddler.
As a mom, you know your baby best. And are the best person to decide when night weaning should begin.
For most moms, it will happen between 6 and 12 months (some a little younger, some a little older).
*My kids were both night weaned well past 6 months. One around the 10 month mark and the other over a year. So, I’m inclined to view six months as an optimistic time frame.
It’s not unusual for babies to continue waking for nighttime feedings for months beyond the six-month mark. Sometimes it’s because they need the calories, but often it’s also because they need the physical reassurance of being held by mom.
Comfort is a legitimate need. And If you and your baby enjoy night feedings, don’t feel pressured to night wean because of your baby’s age. Or what other moms you know are doing. Figure out where you and your baby are at with this and when the right time for night weaning is for YOU.
Other signs your baby might be ready to drop night feedings are if they are eating less during the day because they are getting full at night (try to get them to consume more calories during the day!). Or, the opposite. If you’re baby barely eats at night and just wakes up to play and see mama.
And before you even consider night weaning, make sure your child is a healthy weight. And that they are meeting age appropriate milestones. If you have any concerns about your baby’s weight or growth talk to your child’s doctor before beginning to night wean.
Need Help with Sleep Training? Check out this Post: How to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night
Why Gentle Night Weaning Works Best
Sleeping through the night is a big milestone for you and your baby. Nursing at night can be a source of comfort to your baby and they may not take quickly to the idea of giving that up.
When you’re ready to night wean, it’s important to consider the timing and start the process gently. It’s helpful to avoid beginning night weaning at the same time as your baby or toddler is experiencing any other stressful changes in their lives.
If you recently went back to work or your child changed daycares or teething pain or a cold virus is causing sleep disruption, now is not the right time to tackle night weaning.
Allow a few weeks for your baby’s routine to settle down before you begin the process.
Night Weaning Cold Turkey is Not a Thing
Night weaning is not something you’re going to accomplish cold turkey in one night. If your baby is already decreasing night feedings on their own, the process may actually happen fairly quickly. But if you need to eliminate multiple night feedings, it’s going to take a little more time.
I found a step by step process worked best for everyone involved. And caused baby (and mom) the least amount of stress.
Allowing your baby time to adjust with each step of the night weaning process helps you make lasting changes with fewer regressions.
Before You Begin Night Weaning: Things to Do
Preparation for night weaning begins during the day. To make sure your baby’s nutritional needs are being met once they drop night feedings you might need to increase the number of feedings during the day.
Consider offering extra feedings, especially during the evening when you begin to night wean. And be aware that if your baby has started solid foods, the calories in baby food in NO way replace the calories in breastmilk. So do not expect baby food to make up the difference from fewer nursing sessions.
Unless you’re weaning a toddler who is eating full meals, breastmilk or formula is still going to be your baby’s main source of nutrition until close to a year and sometimes even after. Talk to your pediatrician about your baby’s nutritional needs if you have questions.
If your baby often wakes and wants to nurse for comfort, offer lots of extra cuddles during the day. And plenty of time and attention from both parents.
Night Weaning vs. Sleep Training
So, night weaning and sleep training are not actually the same thing. And typically sleep training should happen first.
Need Help with Sleep Training? Check out this Post: How to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night
The essence of sleep training is teaching your baby how to fall asleep independently. And if they can do that, night weaning is going to be much easier.
At that point night weaning is about eliminating feedings. And your baby will already have the skills to help get them back to sleep when they wake up during the night.
Once your baby is falling asleep independently at the start of the night and after night feedings, eliminating those night feedings becomes much less of a challenge.
How to Start Night Weaning When Your Baby Nurses to Sleep
If your baby needs to be nursed in order to fall asleep you might have a more difficult time with night weaning in the beginning. This is so common. And such an easy way to get your baby to sleep in the early weeks and months.
But over time if your baby becomes dependent on being nursed in order to fall asleep then every time they wake at night, they need to be nursed.
And babies wake up at night. So do adults. All people do. Most of us fall right back to sleep (the lucky ones, anyway). So if your goal for night weaning is for your baby to sleep through the night, then they need to learn how to go back to sleep without breastfeeding.
This is where we talk about sleep associations. If your baby has fallen into the habit of nursing to sleep they may have trouble falling asleep without it. And that’s something you may need to work on before night weaning can be completely successful.
You can start by separating nursing from bedtime by at least 15 minutes. I would try this at naptime and at bedtime. It may be difficult at first but you need to break the link between feeding and sleeping.
One of the best ways I’ve found to do this is to create a bedtime routine (and a naptime routine) that let your baby know it’s time to go to sleep. And nursing should happen BEFORE this routine.
Set up a routine for putting your baby to bed that lasts in the 10 minute range (maybe a little longer if a bath is involved).
If you already have a bedtime routine but it includes a feeding, think about how you can separate the feeding from the bedtime routine. Move it earlier so that it happens first and then allow 15 minutes before doing the rest of your bedtime routine.
Elements of a Non-Nursing Bedtime Routine & Sleep Associations
A few things to consider including in your bedtime routine that do not involve a feeding:
- Putting on PJs
- Bedtime Story
- Baby or Toddler Massage
- White Noise
- Pacifier (if your child uses one for sleep)
Rocking your baby may also be a part of your bedtime routine. HOWEVER, a word of caution from personal experience. If you replace nursing your baby to sleep with rocking your baby to sleep you might regret that.
(Ask me about the time I bought a folding rocking chair to take on vacation because rocking was the only way my baby would sleep-EVER!)
Rocking is still a sleep association that requires your time and presence to get your baby to sleep. Just because they aren’t attached to your boob and eating doesn’t mean they won’t wake up demanding mama if the way they fall asleep is by being rocked.
Focus on creating a bedtime routine to help your child know it’s time for bed. But in the end the goal of the routine is to help your child get sleepy enough to fall asleep on their own.
So, for help falling asleep after a bath, story, and massage with mom and dad, consider non-human sources of comfort like white noise machines, loveys (if your child is over a year), pacifiers, etc. This is the white noise machine I use for both of my kids and recommend.
If your baby is really struggling with this step, consider having your partner offer a bottle before the bedtime routine. And possibly having them handle the bedtime routine for a few nights to break the connection between nursing and sleep.
Night Weaning Step By Step
How to Gradually Night Wean
Night weaning step by step begins by tackling one night nursing session at a time. The earliest one is often the place to start. Or the one that annoys you the most (I’m talking to you, 2am feeding!).
This will allow you to stretch the time between night feedings over a period of time while your baby gets used to sleeping for longer stretches without waking/eating.
If you want to maximize your own sleep, you might consider keeping a dream feed for a while. A dream feed is typically offered around 10-11pm before you go to bed. It involves feeding your baby while they are still sleeping, hopefully enough to hold them until morning.
Eventually, you’ll be able to drop the last feeding.
With both of my children, as nighttime nursing sessions became further and further apart, eventually the last nighttime breastfeeding session merged with the first morning session at about 5am.
The last one of the night often occurred about 9:30pm or 10pm. Because I did do a dream feed for at least one of my kids. Eventually, we even got to 7pm-ish to 5am. Simply by eliminating one feeding at a time.
But How Do You Actually Eliminate Night Feedings?
Once you know which night feeding you want to eliminate first, begin shortening the duration of that feeding each night. Eventually, it should only be a few minutes. Then you drop it altogether.
If you’re bottle feeding, rather than shortening the duration, you can simply offer less pumped milk or formula.
Once you’re down to a few minutes, decide when you’ll be done with that feeding. If you get extremely lucky your baby might stop waking for this feeding.
But that isn’t something you can count on. When you’re ready to completely eliminate a feeding have a plan for other ways to soothe baby back to sleep. When your baby wakes up, comfort them with patting, soothing, whatever they need short of offering the breast or bottle.
This is not a cry-it-out situation. Your baby isn’t being left to self soothe at a time they normally expect to be fed. You or your partner are there to soothe your baby back to sleep, just without a feeding.
(Hint: Your partner is the ideal person to soothe your baby when you’re trying to drop a feeding completely)
Pat your baby, rub their back, sing or talk to them, offer a pacifier. Help them get back to sleep without nursing.
Repeat these steps (shortening feedings one at a time until you’re ready to eliminate the feeding. Then soothing baby back to sleep without feeding) as needed with each feeding until your baby is night weaned.
If you haven’t tackled sleep training and instead started with night weaning, now is a good time to start helping your baby learn to sleep independently now that nursing is no longer involved.
Special Notes About Night Weaning a Toddler
The same basic process of eliminating night feedings gradually can be used with babies from six months through older babies and toddlers. The same tips of soothing them back to sleep without offering the boob also apply. But there are a few differences.
When you’re night weaning an older baby or toddler, communication is important. Find a way to let your toddler know that night feedings are coming to an end. (While also assuring them mommy or daddy will still be there for them at night).
I know moms who simply tell their toddler that there is no more milk at night. And I know moms who come up with elaborate explanations of boobies having owies at night or boobs needing to sleep at night.
Personally, I think straightforward is best. A simple “Daddy is putting you to sleep tonight. No more milk at bedtime.” But you do you! You know your child and what will work with them.
And definitely have your partner take the lead at bedtime and during night waking during the night weaning process. It will be so much easier on your toddler and you to stick to night weaning when you get to the point of eliminating feedings if you’re not even in the room.
Toddlers and older babies likely understand more than you expect. So clear communication is key. As well as plenty of love and snuggles and a solid bedtime routine to help them feel secure, safe and cared for during this transition.
I’ll be honest, I let my longest nurser self wean. From night feedings and breastfeeding. As an older baby and younger toddler, she was less interested in long breastfeeding sessions. And cuddling became enough most of the time. I took advantage of that and just stopped offering the breast and just held and snuggled instead. It worked.
With my other child, I needed to talk to her about the transition. And more actively work at eliminating feedings.
If your baby or toddler is showing less interest in night feedings, nursing for less time or inconsistently waking those could be signs it’s a good time to night wean.
When Night Weaning Doesn’t Work
On the other hand, if all attempts at night weaning are resulting in tears, frustration, and stress for you and your baby it might be the right choice to stop the process. Wait a few weeks and try again.
If attempts to gradually reduce the number of night nursing sessions with your baby are failing, it’s a good idea to try and figure out why.
Ask yourself if any of these situations could be sabotaging your ability to night wean:
- Is my baby simply not ready to night wean? Too young? Or just not there developmentally for a variety of reasons?
- Is my baby eating too much baby food? This can result in less nursing during the day which means not enough nutrition. For babies under a year, calorie dense breastmilk or formula should still be the primary source of nutrition.
- Is my baby getting enough nutrition during the day not to eat during the night? Are they distracted during day time nursing sessions and not eating enough? Or could you try offering feedings more often?
- Does your baby know how to go to sleep independently? Or are they dependent on nursing as a sleep cue? If this is the case, consider taking some time to focus on sleep training and helping your baby learn to fall asleep on their own before you resume night weaning.
Will Baby Sleeping through the Night Hurt Milk Supply?
One question many moms have about night weaning is how it will affect their milk supply. And this is a reasonable question. As a breastfeeding mom, chances are you worked hard to establish your milk supply and continue the nursing relationship.
The truth is that night weaning can affect your milk supply. But in most cases, the lowering in supply will not be enough to cause a problem as long as you continue regular breastfeeding sessions during the day.
As long as your baby or toddler nurses during the day (or you pump), you will continue to produce breast milk to meet their needs.
How to Avoid Engorgement During Night Weaning
The beauty of gradual night weaning over time is that your body will learn to produce less milk as your nursing sessions decrease in length and frequency.
But if your body needs some help adjusting to this change and you find yourself full and uncomfortable there are some things you can do.
You can use a breast pump of course. But a full pumping session will delay your body adjusting to producing less milk during the night. If you decide to pump, pump only what you need to for comfort. And not a full pumping session.
Or consider trying to hand express just enough milk for comfort. Basically, you want to avoid giving your body any signals to continue producing milk during the night as baby night weans.
Night Weaning Tips Step by Step
Babies and toddlers grow and change so rapidly during the first years of their lives. And becoming fully night weaned is one of many milestones to work towards.
FREE PRINTABLE STEP BY STEP NIGHT WEANING TIPS
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How to Night Wean a Breastfed Baby