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Gently Night Weaning a Toddler

Otherwise unrelated photos of the toddler in question.

As usual, Annabelle has done many new things this week, but the biggest change for all of us has been an end to nighttime nursing. Something about this pregnancy seems to have made Annabelle1 want to nurse all the more, and many nights she was nursing all night long, which made for lousy sleep and an aching back for me. While I know that some women manage  not only to tandem nurse, but to nighttime nurse two children, I also know that such an arrangement would make me personally a pretty grouchy mama. 

The Ideal Time

I knew that I wanted to night wean before the new baby arrived, and talking to the husband and looking at the calendar, we realized we needed to do it now. Between travels and moving preparations, there will be some major routine disruption or another every month until the new baby arrives, and I certainly don’t want to risk a negative association with the new baby by trying to night wean Annabelle too close to her sibling’s birth. So, December only made sense.

We chose the weekend of Christmas for the big night weaning adventure. When we first discussed it, it sounded awful. Yes, let’s have a major change in routine that will likely result in sleep deprivation for all three of us over Christmas! No thanks, I thought. Practically, though, it made sense. The daddy would be home to help in the night, and we could both offer support so that the other could take naps as needed. We had no commitments or schedule to speak of, save for one meal, for four days. It was perfect.

The Preparations

I typically sleep snuggled right up next to Annabelle, and I knew this could be a challenge when we started night weaning. She was so used to having quick and easy access to her milk supply all night long, and it would be hard to understand right away, while cozied up and groggy, that this routine was over. It was decided that during the long weekend, the daddy would sleep in between Annabelle and me in bed. Our snuggled up closeness, however, is part of what makes me feel comfortable with our bed sharing arrangement. I know she won’t fall out of bed and hurt herself in the night if she’s right up against me. With three of us in a queen sized bed, and her on the outside, I didn’t feel we would be very safe. So, for the weekend we moved our guest bed into the bedroom and created one giant sleep surface. We put Annabelle down on the guest bed, against the wall, and the daddy and I slept in the other bed, which was flush against Annabelle’s with no dangerous gap.

Before the bedtime routine on the first night, we sat Annabelle down for a very simple chat. “Things are going to be a little bit different tonight,” I said. “Mommy needs to be doing a little more sleeping and a little less nursing, so we’re not going to have milk in bed anymore. I will nurse you on the couch before bed, but then it will be time to sleep and we won’t have any more milk until the sun comes up.” She nodded.

Another important preparation was my pajama selection. I typically wear low cut or stretchy tops to bed that are easy to move out of the way for nursing, but while night weaning I chose snug t-shirts that restricted nursing access. This was just to further create a distinction between the old and the new nighttime routine, and to make it easier on Annabelle.

The Process

Annabelle’s usual bedtime routine involves going straight from dinner to the bath, then brushing teeth and hair and getting pajamed. Once ready, the daddy or I take her in to bed where we read through the four or five books in our bedtime book basket. The books are put away, a final trip is made to the bathroom, if necessary, and then I nurse Annabelle to sleep. This created a problem, since it typically occurs in bed, when the sun is not shining. It was also becoming my least favorite of our nursing sessions, since it was sometimes very long, and induced sleep for me much earlier than I was ready for, so I was happy to change it as well.

We changed things by nursing on the couch as soon as pajamas were on, and then heading to bed to read books before lights out. Once the lights were out, we tried various things: we took turns rocking her, I got in bed with her and kept still as she wiggled about and talked through whatever came to mind. The most useful thing seems to have been quietly telling her the story of my pregnancy and birth with her, and what she was like as a baby. Since we talk about my current pregnancy so much, this has really been appealing to her and become a permanent part of our routine. She asks all day about the “Baby Story,” and I remind her that we’ll tell it in bed.

Her first waking of the night was after the daddy and I both got in bed. He tended to her, but she did not like this arrangement. She is used to having only me at night, and did not appreciate my lack of attention. Despite his efforts to let me sleep, I woke when Annabelle did most every time, to her screaming, “No daddy do! No daddy do! Get mommy!” She literally would not let him hold her most of the time. After solid attempts, he ended up putting her beside me each time. The first night was really challenging, and I questioned myself a great deal. I almost threw in the towel, but reminded myself that she could do this, and that she was in loving arms. Physical boundaries are okay. She repeatedly asked for milk, and I reminded her that mommy’s body needed to rest and we would have some milk when we saw the sun shine in the window. Eventually she settled in, snuggled against me as usual, and was so very happy to nurse just as soon as the sun came up. In hindsight, I think the struggle probably lasted no more than five or ten minutes, but when she cries and I’m sleepy, it feels like an eternity.

Subsequent nights were similar, but much better. Once she got in bed with me after waking in the night, she asked for milk once or twice, but did not get particularly upset when I reminded her of the new arrangement. It’s amazing how quickly she settles back to sleep, and it makes me think, contrary to what I believed before, that she may have simply been nursing in the night because it was available, familiar, and comfortable. She certainly does not appear to need it to settle back to sleep, and doesn’t appear much more hungry on waking. With the amount she was nursing, I truly thought she may need to catch up on her energy needs during the night, but I’m not so sure now.

The Conclusion 

During the day, Annabelle has been talking through the change, “No more milk bed,” she’ll say, and then “Wait sun shine in window, yeah.” She seems to understand, and be fully okay. I have not noticed any real behavioral changes, or changes in our relationship, aside from a bit of extra tiredness due to the length of time it’s taking her to fall to sleep without nursing. I trust that this will improve as she adjusts to the change in routine. I am noticing that it seems to be getting shorter each night. On the first night, she seemed to be struggling a great deal with the idea of falling asleep without nursing, so I took her back to the couch and nursed her again before returning to bed. I was afraid I was setting myself up for a whole new dilemma – nurse in bed where I can sleep, or take her to the couch where I’ll be uncomfortable and awake? Fortunately, she has only asked for this once or twice, and I have simply reminded her that we’re all done nursing for the night and will have more milk when the sun comes up.

One of the many reasons I felt it was time to cut out nighttime nursing had to do with physical discomfort. Since becoming pregnant, I was noticing a bit of sensitivity and slight pain, particularly during the long bedtime nursing session. For some women, this feeling stays throughout pregnancy, but in my case it seems, fortunately, to be going away.

The biggest change I have noticed is not physical, but is also in myself. I am already finding that I’m so much more patient during the day, and far more relaxed. I knew that the nighttime nursing had become a source of frustration for me, but I did not realize how much it had me on edge throughout the day. I feel so much more able to parent in a way that’s in line with my intentions. I’m still not perfect, mind you – far from it – but I do think this change has been a very positive one for me. This confirms for me that we made the right choice for our family. I’m a firm believer in the idea that when the nursing relationship becomes a source of stress or discomfort, something needs to change. This change was just what we needed!

Do you have any night weaning tips to share? 

  1. Age 21 months, for those who aren’t aware.

14 thoughts on “Gently Night Weaning a Toddler

  1. 6512 and growing

    Glad the night weaning is going well. Mama needs sleep (especially while growing *another* human!). Sounds like Annabelle is very articulate and verbal and understands what Mama is saying. And great to have Daddy on board too.
    Is your upcoming move back to the mainland?

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Thanks, Rachel! We are most likely headed back to the mainland, but haven’t gotten a definite answer yet. We might possibly go to England, but then there’s also a fair chance we’ll end up back in Colorado(!!) – I’m excited to find out.

      Reply
  2. Anna

    I’m afraid all of my three decided that at 12 months they had had enough and went from lots to nothing in one fell swoop. Not very comfortable. I did find the same as you though – they made their own ways of making new routines and were settled and happy with them much sooner than expected. Well done you!

    Reply
  3. Christine

    Thank you so much for this post! I’m not quite ready to do this with my 18 month old, but have just been thinking about it. My biggest fear is how much she depends on it for comfort, and how it could affect her to remove that, and if I will end up regretting it. I also don’t want her to completely wean because I take away night nursing. But I understand the need for more uninterrupted sleep!! Also, I was wondering if you had any trouble nursing (other than some pain) once you became pregnant?

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Oh, dear, my answer to your comment must not have gone through! I’m sure I wrote one. Anyhow, I’m really glad this post was useful for you. In answer to your question, I have fortunately been totally free from nursing issues so far. Aside from the very slight pain I was feeling prior to night weaning (which has mostly subsided now), everything else is normal. I actually think my supply may be up! I know many women experience other issues, so I feel really fortunate and hope things continue this smoothly!

      I shared your concerns about the need for comfort, and the possibility that removing nighttime nursing might put us on the road to weaning completely, but neither of these things has been an issue. The comfort of a loving voice and a pat on the back or a cuddle has been enough since the first few days, during the transition. Daytime nursing is just as frequent as it was before, if not a bit more. Of course every child is different, but that has been our experience.

      Reply
  4. Janine @ Alternative Housewife

    I really want to night wean. Have I said that yet? I am thinking so. I don’t want to deal with myself and my husband after nights of screaming though. I really might just move Daddy into another room while I night wean. He would hand him right off to me and be totally unhelpful I’m sure. Be happy that your husband is a trooper!

    I know that you are going to have a new baby to night-feed soon, but boy am I jealous of the months you get to sleep through the night now! Last night was the WORST – My back is KILLING today. I swear the kid woke up every 20 minutes. It was either wake up fully to soothe him to sleep or stick him on the boob in a stupor. I did about 50/50 and did not wake up happy!

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      So sorry to hear about your back and general exhaustion/frustration. I definitely know what you mean! I really didn’t expect this to be the magic trick to get Annabelle to sleep virtually “through the night” (she still needs comforting once most nights, but I can do that half-asleep without getting up just like I used to nurse her back down half-asleep), but it has been amazing! Hard, but amazing. I hope you can find a solution that works for you and Sebastian, too – sleep deprivation is no joke!

      Reply
  5. TwinMama

    I almost forgot how hard it can sometimes be to nurse a toddler through the night. I tried to nightwean my twins at a similar age, but they reacted badly so I soon went back to nursing at night. As a parent, you just know if something isn’t right, and it sounds as if Annabelle has adjusted very well. I found nursing during my next pregnancy really uncomfortable – I was still feeding about 20 times a night (seriously!) and my back was awful. Perhaps luckily for me, they completely weaned during this pregnancy *just* before my energy ran out!
    TwinMama recently posted..Reducing our exposure to toxins found in plasticsMy Profile

    Reply
    1. melissa Post author

      Thank you for the encouragement! Nursing that frequently during pregnancy must have been exhausting! I’m glad everything worked out for you in the end!

      Reply

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