Kristin Marshall’s goal was to breastfeed her son Jesse until he was ready to wean. But she hadn’t expected a two-year-old who was still waking to nurse many times during the night.
“I was so exhausted from waking every hour or so all night long — about the longest he would sleep was about an hour and a half, and sometimes he’d nurse every 20 minutes,” she recalls.
Sure, there are babies who sleep all night at an early age, but for the mother of a nursing toddler who is “on call” all night long, life can be exhausting. Those nightly nursing marathons can be complicated by other factors, such as pregnancy.
Marshall opted to try night weaning — breastfeeding during the day, but not at night. Marshall jokes that she ended up night weaning Jesse three different times before it “took.” Jesse was just past two when she tried the first time, and three when he finally stopped. If you think night weaning might be the solution for you, read on for some tips for success.
• Consider that hunger may be an important factor in night nursing, especially if your toddler is closer to one than two or three. Some one-year-olds are getting a significant amount of their nutrition during nightly feedings, so you will need to plan to either nurse more often during the day (if possible) or increase your child’s intake of other foods and drinks.
• Talk up your plans with your toddler first. Let him or her know that the “nursies” will be sleeping at night and not available. “I made the mistake of not telling Jesse in advance the first time,” says Marshall. “When he woke up, I told him he couldn’t nurse — and he went hysterical. He was so upset that I gave up. When I tried again a few months later, I talked to him about it first.”
• Plan other strategies with your toddler. “I told Brendan that the nanas would be sleeping at night now, but I could give him a sippy cup of water, rub his back, cuddle him and let him pick which of those he wanted,” says Christina McCarthy, who night-weaned her son around 18 months.
• Give a little more during the day. “I made a point of offering to nurse Jesse more frequently during the day, so he wouldn’t feel deprived,” says Marshall. Rhondda Smiley, who night-weaned daughter, India, just after her second birthday, felt it helped to make sure she and India had some long, relaxed nursing sessions in the evening after work. “And I’d remind her then that we wouldn’t be nursing during the night.”
• Enlist any help you can get. “Dad was a great support during the first few nights of this process,” says Smiley. “Lots of songs, stories, back rubs and cuddles, and empathy for her tears of frustration.”
• Watch your child’s reaction. Smiley says that when she first tried to night- wean India (at 16 months), “I soon realized it was going to be more work and trouble than continuing to nurse. She just wasn’t ready, and I guess I didn’t feel strongly enough about it to force the situation.”
• Remember that your feelings matter too. You can believe in the value of breastfeeding, yet still feel exhausted and frustrated by night-nursing marathons. “I felt I needed to listen to my body, and it was saying ‘get some sleep’ and ‘nursing is not comfortable,’” says McCarthy.
• Be prepared for setbacks. “A few weeks after I got Jesse night-weaned, he came down with a terrible case of stomach flu,” says Marshall. “Because he was so ill, I went back to nursing him around the clock, and of course even after he was feeling better, he wanted to continue nursing at night. So we went through the process again, but this time it was easier.”
Marshall adds that just because your toddler stops nursing at night doesn’t mean he’ll sleep longer. “Jesse would still wake up and want a drink of water or a cuddle.”
Night weaning may not be magic, but it’s one option (see Night Moves for more) that can help tired moms get through a potentially challenging stage.
Other alternatives for mothers of night-nursing toddlers:
1. If night nursing doesn’t bother you too much, don’t worry about it. Your child will eventually stop nursing during the night.
2. Bring her into your bed, or at least into your room, if she’s not already there. It will help you get more sleep — which is the most important point.
3. Check on other factors that might be causing the wakefulness. Kristin Marshall says that in her son’s case, allergy turned out to be a factor — once that was diagnosed and treated, he slept much better. Teething, bladder infections and daytime stresses can be other causes.