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Playful Self-Discipline: Night Weaning and Sleep

Claire on Christmas morning, about a week into the process of night weaning.

It’s January and I’m kicking off a year of playful self-discipline by focusing on my physical health. January’s a pretty good time to think about physical health: the holidays and their ritual sugar-binges are past (except for those last few rumballs in the freezer, shhh!) and it can feel good to settle back into regular routines for meals, exercise classes and daily activities.

I decided to focus on physical health first not only because it’s a venerable January tradition, but also because it’s part of the foundation that all other elements of self-discipline build upon. In Maslow’s pyramid of self-actualization, physical health falls into the wide “physiological health and safety” category at the base of the pyramid. It’s pretty hard to feel zen when you’re hungry, and difficult to be patient when you’re sleep-deprived after your toddler wanted to nurse all night.

Ok, Let’s Talk About Toddlers and Sleep…

When I was pregnant, the one thing I dreaded about caring for a newborn was the sleep deprivation. And it was true that I didn’t sleep much when my babies were little, but I was expecting that. What I hadn’t anticipated was the fact that sleep disruption would continue on through toddlerhood and the preschool years. According to Dr. Elizabeth Pantley in The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers, this pattern is totally normal. Almost half of all parents of toddlers and preschoolers are awoken by their children at least once per night.

After researching and reading about night weaning a couple of months ago, I decided to begin the process the week before Christmas. I began by cutting out nursing sessions between 11pm and 4am, replacing them with co-sleeping cuddles and two statements, “Na-na (nursing) is sleeping now.” and “We’ll have na-na again in the morning.” After the first 10 days, I stopped nursing her if she woke up between bedtime and 11pm. She still nurses to sleep and between 4-7am.

Even though Claire doesn’t talk much, she does understand most of what we say, and I’m sure she understood what I was saying. One night Tom woke up to Claire crying and he sat up in bed and calmly said, “Claire, please stop crying now. It’s time to go to sleep.” She took a deep breath, flopped down on the bed and went back to sleep. I was astounded!

Is Night Weaning Really About Self-Discipline?

I know that night-weaning appears to be more about changing my child’s behaviour than my own, but I see it as a positive step towards my own playful self-discipline in a few ways.

  • Night weaning was an assertive action I took to ensure my own needs for rest are met. If I’m not feeling confident about something I tend to be either too passive or too aggressive, but night weaning felt like a calm, considered, respectful move that wasn’t wishy washy or full of angry feelings. Claire had some big feelings about not nursing at night, especially during nights 3-7 or so, when she realized something was up but hadn’t fully processed it yet, but I did my best to stay calm and help her through this transition.
  • I had to de-program myself as much as I had to teach Claire a new way of falling asleep at night. I had come to rely on nursing as a cue to help me go to sleep, and the first few nights I found it hard to get to sleep myself, even after Claire had fallen asleep.
  • Now that Claire has mostly learned that we cuddle back to sleep instead of nursing, it takes some discipline to remember that myself when I’m awoken from a deep sleep. Sticking with the plan and being consistent requires willpower and self-awareness.

It’s hard to feel playful in a fun and games sense about implementing changes to a toddler’s sleep routine. In many ways night weaning doesn’t seem like a playful thing at all – Claire did some crying, I had a few nights where I slept even worse than usual, and a couple of times I doubted whether I’d made the right decision.

In the end I think it was the right time for us to night wean, and that it was a playfully self-disciplined choice. Night weaning was an experiment I was willing to take a chance on. It felt like the right thing to do at the right time, but if Claire had responded with truly anguished and prolonged screaming instead of a relatively short period of cranky fussing I’d have called it off and tried again in a few months. My choice to night wean was motivated by my own needs and the needs and abilities of my nursing toddler – I didn’t feel pressured to night wean because someone else thought it would be a good idea.

The other half of this coin is, of course, getting to bed on time myself so that I can wake up well rested. It’s no good to take night nursing out of the equation and shortchange myself on sleep anyway by staying up too late.

Now that I’m sleeping a little better, I’m hoping to have more energy and patience for dealing with other challenges!

Have you night weaned a toddler?  How did it go?  How is your sleep now?  I’d love to hear about it!


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{ 16 comments… add one }

  • Lia keller January 6, 2011, 8:37 am

    I had never thought about reprogramming myself! I too had trouble getting to sleep when I stopped nursing number one to sleep, but never made the connection. Great article, thank you!

  • Cynthia January 6, 2011, 9:04 am

    When I night weaned my older boy, I too found that one of the most difficult parts was actually remembering that myself when I was woken up during the night. I was so used to responding to cries with nursing that it was hard to respond differently while half-asleep.

    It took us a couple attempts, but I could tell when he was ready to night wean. It was different than the first attempt or two, where the crying was heartbroken and hysterical.
    Cynthia´s last [type] ..Welcome 2011!

    • michelle January 6, 2011, 9:54 pm

      Yes, we had one earlier attempt at changing up the night time routine, in which Tom tried to cuddle Claire to sleep with a sippy cup. She was most definitely NOT OKAY with that, but this time she was kinda cranky and confused but ready to make a change.

  • Quotidian January 7, 2011, 2:38 pm

    We nightweaned our beautiful babe at 16 months, which was about 4 weeks ago. We used the method suggested by Jay Gordon, as several friends had recommend it based on it’s gentle and respectful approach to the needs of both children and parents. On retrospect, I think it was such a success because we timed it so well – all three of us were ready for this next stage. The munchkin still feeds anytime up to 11pm, and then again anytime after 6am. I’ve been surprised at just how quickly he picked up on the new routine. He still occasionally wakes in the night and asks for “su su”, but is ok with it when I say “Not now, we’ll have su su again in the morning”. I came down with a tummy bug yesterday, and was so grateful that I could look forward to at least 7 hours of solid sleep to help me recover!

    • michelle January 8, 2011, 8:22 am

      That’s great! I’m looking forward to the time Claire sleeps right through from 11pm to 4am – even though she doesn’t nurse between those times she does still wake up and need some reassurance before she’ll fall back asleep. It is definitely easier to recover from an illness when you’re getting some solid sleep.

  • Linda June 28, 2011, 3:15 pm

    I night-weaned my kids when they were old enough to really understand what I was saying and have some sense of empathy and of future time. I’d tell them that mama was too tired to nurse, but promised that we would in the morning. We’d cuddle and I’d whisper sweet words of love to them and I’d ask if they wanted me to sing one of our bed-time songs. There was some whimpering, but fairly quick falling back to sleep in my arms. I think the longest it took was a couple weeks and then they were for the most part night-weaned (excepting special circumstances like being sick.)

  • elora January 20, 2013, 8:08 am

    my daughter is 16 months and completely addicted to ‘booby’. not just for milk…but mainly comfort sucking to go to sleep. we bedshare..and everytime she wakes up in the middle of the night, she needs booby to go back to sleep. she doesnt know how to do it on her own. and if i dont give it to her right away, she cries and becomes very upset (bc she never had to go to sleep on her own so she only knows sucking as a way to fall asleep). i can not latch her off until she is fast asleep. so if she goes to bed before me, and i am eating dinner or watching a movie and she wakes up, i have go into the bedroom and let her suck until she falls back to a sound sleep…which can take up to 30 minutes sometimes. and if we are in bed together and she wakes up i will give her the boob and sometimes we both fall asleep while she sucks…this results in kinked neck for mommy and a few times she bit down (bc she was in a deep sleep) which was awful bc i couldnt nurse her from that boob until it healed and i had to pump it instead bc it would get too full.
    all this being said, it is difficult at times and very time consuming to lay there as she sucks, but i know that motherhood is about being selfless. she would not/will not take the pacifier or bottle EVER. i feel now that she is getting older and so smart…like she should be able to put her self to sleep now. but when i have tried the jay gordons nighttime weaning approach (ok i tired it only 2 times) it resulted in her screaming and crying and FREAKING out). but sometimes i feel like a bad person that i never taught her how to sleep on her own. i dont want her to be reliant on my boob to fall asleep until she is like 3…i feel that a 2-3 year old has the mentality to fall asleep on their own and to stifle them from that would not be cool. and daddy had never put her to sleep (he works and i dont) and he is the ‘fun guy’…she gets giggly and hyper around him — so when her attemtped the other ngiht to put her back to sleep, she became super awake and ended up being up for like 3 hours and i finally got her back to sleep around 5 am!
    so my question is, with such a booby addicted child, will she ever NOT scream and cry when i attempt to cuddle her back to sleep, instead of have her suck, in the middle of the night?

    • michelle January 27, 2013, 4:47 pm

      Hi Elora

      At 16 months, being “addicted” to nursing is totally normal. In fact, I wouldn’t call it being addicted, or anything else with a negative connotation. She’s just a young toddler and hasn’t yet developed to the point of being able to soothe herself without the help of nursing. That’s normal! Both my girls were like this. I totally hear you about it being frustrating – I remember well those days of not being able to watch a show in one sitting because I was up and down to nurse the baby (or toddler) back to sleep. But it does pass. As she gets older she’ll be more and more able to be soothed in other ways, and by other people.

      If you really want to have a few attachment-friendly techniques to try, check out Elizabeth Pantley’s book The No-Cry Sleep Solution. Her toddler specific book is good too. We worked on the “Pantley pull-off” with reasonable success.

      Another thing I did to make nursing to sleep more comfortable for me (because I figured that if I was going to do it I might as well be comfortable!) was to nurse her to sleep in a big bed. (we had an extra double bed that we used instead of a crib) I brought a pillow and blanket for myself, just in case I did fall asleep. You can take the pillow away with you when you leave the bed if you’re worried about the risk of suffocation, but at 16 months most toddlers are strong and mobile enough to move themselves to a position with better airflow. Then I could nurse without the cricked neck!

      good luck!

  • squeeze January 27, 2013, 4:09 pm

    Elora I could have written your reply! I have a 14 m,month old who is exactly the same, sleeps for boob and nothing else (she’ll doze off in the sling or the care but wake if moved). Her daddy has never been able to settle her to sleep because I’d she doesn’t get boob she has as proper melt down. I wish us both luck!

  • Laura smith March 26, 2013, 3:53 pm

    I am crying as I read your post! I have been so frustrated my almost 17 month little girl is addicted to the boob. I am so ready to wean. We co sleep and I have been told by everyone the only way to wean her is to put her in her crib and let her cry it out! I attempted this one night at 9 months old and it was traumatic for both of us. I am cranky and run down all the time and I can tell Abby isn’t getting good sleep either. I feel like the worst mommy ever! I have tried the telling her bow bow is gone and can have it in the morning and she screams for hours in hysterics. Daddy can’t help she becomes hysteric with him to. Then ends up being up all night! I don’t know what else to try I just know that I could be a better mommy if I wasn’t exhausted all the time.

    • michelle March 26, 2013, 9:42 pm

      Hi Laura – it is so frustrating to not be able to get a good sleep, I totally feel where you are coming from! Nursing a toddler is so different from nursing a newborn, and by 17 months in it can feel like you’re going backwards instead of forwards towards better sleep when your little one is still nursing a lot at night.

      It’s interesting for me to look back at this post and remember where we were then. Claire is almost 4 now, (!) and sleeps through the night consistently. So if anything, it does get better! But I also remember that this first round of night weaning was more difficult than I made it seem in this post. Yes, we had several weeks where we didn’t nurse between 10pm and 5am, or something like that. But we went back to nursing through the night a couple of months later when Claire was sick and waking constantly and nursing was the only thing that helped. After that we were back in the habit of nursing a couple of times through the night again, until we night weaned again in the early fall and weaned completely in November, when she was 2 1/2.

      There are so many reasons why your little one is waking to nurse frequently at 17 months old. Toddlers often go through a phase of nursing less during the day and then nursing more at night to make up for it. Toddlers are also stretching their boundaries a lot and being more independent, but emotionally they still need a lot of comforting, and nursing is usually the most preferred way of being comforted. During toddlerhood I started nursing my girls down to sleep in the spare bed (which was a double), so they would at least start the night sleeping alone in their own bed. Then we would co-sleep the rest of the night after the first waking after I’d gone to bed.

      If night weaning really isn’t working out for you guys, it’s OK to take a break, go back to nursing on demand and try again in a few months. At that age a couple of months of development can make a huge difference to a toddler’s emotional development and she might be more ready to be comforted by other things in a little while.

      good luck!

  • stacy August 20, 2013, 2:16 pm

    I am so pleased I stumbled across this! I have the most wonderful 20 month old a mom could ask for…EXCEPT when she is denied the breast. She only nurses at nap or bed time. We have had periods in past months where I thought she was self weaning, but now she seems more obsessed than ever. I have no one in my life to speak to about this b/c all of my girlfriend either only breast fed for a short time or not at all and think/act as though I am crazy for continuing on for this long. I however have always felt comfortable in knowing that I am doing what is right for ME and MY child. That is until recently. We have always slept until recently and now most nights she starts off in her toddler bed and I go in 3-4 times a night and nurse her back to sleep OR if I am too tired for that ordeal she sleeps with us so I can get her back to sleep quickly. It has come to a point though where I am feeling it may not be the best thing for either of us anymore. I am not the mommy I want to be during the day b/c I am so tired and I get cranky with her when she wakes me up 3-4 times a night. She sometimes has bags under her eyes and I fear she is being sleep deprived as well. I am going to look up some of the authors suggested here before planning my next steps but I just wanted to thank all you ladies for not being ashamed and openly discussing this topic! It just feels so good to know I’m not alone :-)

    • michelle August 21, 2013, 10:01 pm

      Hi Stacy! Good for you for sticking to what you believe is right for you & your child! There are so many things that can cause a toddler to nurse more at night – teething, a cold, extra independence during the day (which rebounds as a bigger need for cuddles and nursing at night), or the time right before a developmental growth spurt. Knowing when the right time to wean or night wean is often a process of trying it out, leaving it until later and trying again. You’ll know when the time is right!

  • Sera February 6, 2014, 6:18 am

    Thank you all so much for your comments. I have a 22 month old and we are having the same problem. we co-sleep mainly because we do a lot of travelling. More often than not we are not in one place for more than 6 weeks. Often just as he is starting to breastfeed less, we move and he starts doing it more often. right now he is waking easily 8 times a night. I have been saying “just a little bit of booby then back to sleep” which he understands, but even this is becoming very exhausting. Neither of us are getting enough sleep at all, and I am at a loss as to what to do. We will be in one place for 3 months in about 2 months time…but I was really hoping to wean him before he was 2. I’m not sure what to do. He is boob-obsessed, and has never really fallen asleep without it, unless I’ve walked him to sleep. But we are in a heavy winter right now, and that has become more difficult…. I”m not sure if i can endure a week of crying at night. We did try once before at about 19 months and He was hysterical. Sometimes he won’t even let me unlatch him at all, and this has resulted in a really bad neck and headaches for me in the day. I feel like weaning let us both sleep. I’m interested in trying no boob from 11 -6 am…how long did it take for that to stick? thanks!

    • michelle February 8, 2014, 10:15 am

      Hi Sera

      Sounds like night nursing is pretty tough for you right now. Waking 8 times is a lot! I remember getting to that stage with my younger one – where I was sure I was getting better sleep when she was a newborn than we had in the toddler/teething stages!

      Nursing for toddlers is more about comfort than it is about nutrition, so anything you can do to increase their feelings of comfort and security during the day will help ease a transition away from nursing. Also, age and stage influence their need/desire to nurse too – if they’re making huge developmental leaps during the day that can often translate to more nursing at night. So all these factors go into how easily your child will take to night weaning, and how quickly it will stick. If they’re ready, it will stick more easily and quickly, if not there will most likely be many nights of extreme discomfort before they “give up”. I eventually nursed my youngest until she was 2 1/2 and although she still wanted to nurse, she was more ready to transition to other kinds of comfort at that stage than she was before she was 2. But every kid is different and every family’s situation is different too.

      Good luck! If you try night weaning and it’s just too difficult, let it go and try again in a couple of months. Kids grow and change so much from month to month in that stage that sometimes that can make all the difference!

      Michelle

  • Elizabeth April 11, 2014, 11:30 am

    Hello Michelle, I just wanted to say thank you for your openness and encouragement! I am the mother of seven children and I am thankful to have had the opportunity to breast-fed them all until they were each at least 12 months old. I have 3 boys and 4 girls, and I have to say that the boys have all seemed to wean a lot easier and earlier than my girls. Out of all my kids, my last daughter (she’s 19 months old now), has been the most challenging. My husband and I sleep in separate beds because she is a co-sleeper and accidentally kicks, elbows, and whacks me in the face in her sleep. She is my first child to still not sleep through the night, she won’t take a pacifier, and she wakes me up to nurse throughout the night 4 – 8 times each night.
    This is the first time that we have had separate beds, and it’s been that way since right after she was born. She is just so loud and so physical that my husband doesn’t want to sleep with her. There have been several times when (if she wasn’t sick or teething) I could nurse her to sleep and then she sleeps in my recliner out in the living room. If she wakes up, she usually comes to my bed (making her “I want milk” sound). She also knows the sign language sign for “milk”, and she will smile at me and sign that she wants milk (day or night). She is absolutely precious and adorable, unless I try to just snuggle her back to sleep or offer her water instead, at which point she has a screaming meltdown. We live in an apartment, so I can’t just let her “cry it out” because not only would it affect our family, but our neighbors as well.
    I really feel like most of the time we are both not getting the sleep we need, so I am going to start trying some of the things you have suggested. It’s kinda funny how even though I consider myself to have quite a bit of experience with children, they are all completely different and grow/change at their own pace.

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