Help! How do I gently night wean my co-sleeping toddler

Help! How do I gently night wean my co-sleeping toddler

Posted by Katie James, IBCLC & Midwife on Jun 28, 2019

Question: I am pregnant with my second child and at my wits end. My toddler co sleeps at present and wakes all night wanting to breastfeed. I am wanting to wean before the baby comes along.

Answer by Katie James, IBCLC & midwife

This can be a very tricky time, especially when pregnant again. The years between 12-24 months can allow most babies to sleep longer periods. At this stage co sleeping still feels absolutely wonderful for your toddler but it can also encourage them to want to breastfeed all night!

Some mothers feel this is the perfect time for them to reduce the breastfeeds and to catch up on some more sleep, especially if you are pregnant again or returning to work. Toddlers will often feed as much as they can during the night because it feels so lovely to them and it is a wonderful aid for getting them back to sleep. When mum is becoming exhausted this may be the time when she starts thinking about what is best for the whole family and decides to stop night feeds. Some toddlers will put up quite a protest initially and it can become stressful for everyone involved and sometimes leave parents questioning whether they are doing the right thing.

Here are some of the things to think about and tips to try. This is but a short blog on suggestions as there are some great resources out there which may give you other ideas too.

Think about if there are any reasons other than comfort and enjoyment of breastfeeding which may be causing your toddlers wakefulness; new stresses in the family home, like a parent returning to work, too much sleep in the daytime, allergies or intolerances to certain foods.

It is normal for some toddlers to experience separation anxiety or fearfulness at night and this can make them want to be near you and/or breastfed. This is OK, as long as everyone is coping. When someone in this relationship is not coping then it is the right time for you to make some changes. Ensure your toddler is not watching anything which may frighten them inadvertently. Talk to your toddler when he wakes and ask him why he has woken, sometimes this may become apparent.

If the only reason you think your toddler is waking up is for a cuddle and a feed and you feel ready to change this then try these tips:

  • Longer and more frequent breastfeeds in the day time, try to ensure he has 10 mins or longer at the breast (same goes for at night whilst he is still feeding). Try feeding in a relaxing, non-distracting environment during the day.
  • Spend lots of time with him in the day with non-breastfeeding activities.
  • Try filling him up before bed time, (cereal has no use despite what you may be told) dairy based foods work better by releasing Tryptophan which aid sleep. Don’t use anything sugary or junk food either as this will induce wakefulness!
  • Try a later afternoon sleep so that he has his longest portion of sleep from a later time, i.e. instead of trying to have bedtime at 7/8pm let him nap later in the day, around 3/4pm and try putting him to bed when he is sleepier around 9/10pm. This may give you both more restful sleep in the first part of the night and push the waking up cycle out later until 3/4am, instead of from 12am.
  • Try lying on the floor/mattress with him to feed instead of the bed, and putting him back in his cot/bed after feeds, therefore creating some separation but still close enough for him to feel safe and calm.
  • Try giving him water and cuddles instead of a feed during the night.
  • Try giving him a new cuddly toy for his night time snuggles.
  • Start introducing a code phrase for sleep that you say each time he drifts off or when you want him to drift off to sleep, i.e. Shhhh, go to sleep little one, shhhh. Don’t use this phrase with crying initially until he has learned to associate the phrase with sleep. Only when you think he relates to this can you use it effectively to help calm him to sleep when he is crying.
  • Talk to your toddler about the rules for breastfeeding. “We breastfeed at bedtime, then we don’t breastfeed until the sun comes up” or “We don’t wake until Daddy/Mummy gets up and gets out of bed”. When he wakes at night you can remind him of the rules and offer him a glass of water and comfort him, but don’t feed him. He will likely be upset and you will have a few rough nights but most children will learn to wake up less and go back to sleep without a feed.
  • Ensure you have a fairly regular bedtime routine each night, i.e food, bath, story book.
  • Use children’s books from the library to talk about sleep or create your own from pictures in magazines, so you can start to teach your toddler about the differences between day and night and what happens when everyone goes to bed.

These are only a few examples of what you may try. They have been taken with guidance from William Sears MD ‘Nighttime Parenting’ and Elizabeth Pantley ‘No Cry Sleep Solution’. These books are both gentle and reassuring, with lots of tips to help you further. I would advise anyone to go and get them from your local library.

If sleep is really getting you down and you feel at your wits end then please talk to your Maternal Child Health Nurse or GP and have a look at these very good websites

Mum's Say

As discussed in my  night weaning experience post, it can be extremely useful to warm your toddler up to the idea of not breastfeeding at night using a short book. Below is a modified version of the book that we created for our toddler to help him to understand why we weren't breastfeeding at night any more. I hope you find it useful!

Helping Your Toddler Night Wean and Sleep All Night Long from Corryn Barakat

Wanting to chat with like minded Mums? Join our Milk and Love Mums group over on Facebook and join the conversation. We'd love to have you! 

About the author Katie James, IBCLC

Katie James, IBCLC has helped thousands of women through their breastfeeding challenges during those early newborn days. Katie's extensive knowledge and experience, coupled with her down to earth, practical approach is reassuring and empowering for new mums.  Find out more about Katie here. 

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