Night weaning is a major milestone on the journey through infant-hood. And as it is with most milestones, babies reach them and excel at them at different times and rates. There are guidelines for the ‘average’ ages for when babies should slowly decrease the amount of feedings each night, but each baby is different and each method isn’t for everybody. Always keep that in mind when researching time frames and different ways to go about things. You should do what is right for you and your baby and consult with your pediatrician along the way to make sure you’re on a healthy path.
Night weaning is not about restricting feedings; it’s about transitioning so that feedings are more concentrated during the day. Making sure your baby is satisfied during the day is key. The idea is to gently help your baby adjust how much he’s eating during the day so that he eats less at night.
During the transition, use your baby’s daytime actions as a measurement of progress. If you find she becomes more whiny, clingy, or distant during the day, take this as a clue to slow down your rate of night weaning or possibly try again in a few weeks. Some babies will wean themselves, some will need a little encouragement from their parents. Either way, your baby has to be ready to continue on to the next phase of food and sleep. The real goal is to make sure everyone is getting the sleep that they need while also respecting the needs of the youngest family member.
Keep in mind that frequent night waking is developmentally appropriate for young babies. It allows the baby to wake up when she is in a situation where she is having problems breathing and/or is not getting enough oxygen. Sleeping undisturbed at this age for prolonged periods of time is not healthy. A ‘good sleeper’ is a baby who wakes frequently but is able to get himself back to sleep. It is not a baby who sleeps through the night without waking. On the other hand, if your baby refuses to sleep, there are other methods to try such as establishing a strict bedtime routine.
The time frame is different for each baby, but somewhere between 4 and 6 months is when most babies get enough calories during the day to sustain them for five or six hours at night. That being said, it’s not odd for older babies to continue waking up to eat or for younger babies to sleep for much longer. On top of that, your baby has other important needs such as the reassurance of being held and fed in a parent’s arm. Make sure you are still making plenty of time for reconnecting with your baby. She still needs a tremendous amount of comfort, closeness, and reassurance from you.
Babies should eventually quit nursing at night on their own and the amount of urging you intend to use is based on your own health. If you ou enjoy nursing at night, there’s no reason to stop. However, it’s hard to maintain a healthy lifestyle if you’re chronically sleep deprived. So if you find yourself consistently feeling grumpy and exhausted, and if your baby is physically ready, maybe it’s time to make the change.
The Baby Sleep Site recommends the following general guidelines for the amount of night feedings that seem to work most babies:
- Newborns to 3 months old: Feedings every 2-3 hours, on demand
- 3-4 months: 2-3 feedings per night or every 3-6 hours, on demand
- 5-6 months: 1-2 night feedings
- 7-9 months: 1, maybe 2, night feedings
- 10-12 months: Sometimes 1 night feeding
- 12+ months: generally no night feedings.
Habit versus Hunger
When it comes to your baby waking up at night, there’s a difference between waking up to nurse and waking up out of habit. Getting your baby on a feeding ‘schedule’ can mean that your baby will wake up around the same time for many nights to come. If it is habit, it can take more time to alter this schedule. That being said, it can be very difficult to differentiate between habit versus need so consult with your pediatrician before jumping to any conclusions.
The Two Sides
As with any argument, there are two sides on the topic of night weaning. Some experts say that a baby who eats several times throughout the night for ‘unnecessary’ feedings may be the recipient of more sleep issues. A wet diaper or an upset tummy could cause him to wake up again later and then want to feed more. This creates a vicious cycle.
On the other hand, some experts say that night feeding can strengthen the bond between parent and child and that night weaning shouldn’t be rushed as long as long as the feedings aren’t too disruptive to the family.
If you believe that long-term lack of sleep due to nighttime feedings is one of the sacrifices you make when you become a mom, and that the only person who can cut off night feedings is your baby, that is perfectly fine. But this doesn’t work for everyone out there. The decision to wean or not to wean is a personal choice and every mom is entitled to make the decision for herself.
In the end though, you should do what’s best for your baby and for you. Night weaning should never be rushed, and the amount of urging by the parent(s) should depend completely on their individual’s situation.
Night Weaning Basics
If you do decide to night wean, make sure your child is physically ready. Perhaps consult with your pediatrician to make sure the time is right. Plus, follow these top tips:
- Make sure your baby gets plenty to eat during the day. This is key. Making sure your infant is satisfied during the day will decrease the need for feedings at night. Some moms recommend increasing evening feedings so that your infant has a full tummy right before bedtime.
- Gradually eliminate feedings one at a time. Start off by either decreasing the amount per feeding, or scooting two feedings closer and closer until they become one. Continue this process with time and don’t move too quickly.
- Gently but firmly explain that it’s time to sleep, not eat, and pat her tummy. Sooth her but don’t feed her or pick her up. If your baby cries inconsolably for more than 2-3 nights in a row, return to your normal routine and try weaning again in a couple weeks. Your baby should cry only a little for a night or two before adapting to the new system.
- Increase daytime contact. Unlimited nursing and cuddling during the day can offset the decrease in attention during the nighttime. It’s important to still have that one-on-one closeness with your baby.
- Have your partner comfort your baby instead of you. Your presence and the smell of your breast milk can make your baby want to feed. Your partner can comfort baby in other ways such as lying next to her and holding her. If you’re sleep sharing, move her bed to your partner’s side.
- Eliminate teething discomfort. If you suspect your infant may be teething at all, consult with your doctor for suggestions. Your baby may be nursing more often to try and alleviate gum pain.
- Avoid night weaning during times of transition or stressful events. See below for a list of examples. Both you and your baby need to be at your best when approaching this transition.
- Start the process slowly and gradually. As with any milestone in your infant’s life, night weaning takes patience. Pay attention to your baby and her needs and re-evaluate in a couple weeks if she isn’t ready quite yet.
- If you are concerned about losing your supply, simply pump an extra time in the morning.
- If it feels right for you and your baby, don’t stop. Eventually your baby will quit on her own without the push of a parent. Soon enough your baby won’t be nursing at all, so enjoy the experience while you can.
- Solid food. If you recently introduced solid food, your baby could be waking more often due to problems digesting the food. This happens particularly in babies under 6 months. Consider decreasing solid foods in the evening or eliminating solid foods until his digestive system matures more.
When to Not Wean
Most of the time, the decision to wean is based on both the needs of the infant and the mother, as well as any practical situations related to the family. However, in some situations, it may be best for those involved to delay weaning until the conditions are better. Examples include:
- Illness. You may want to delay your first attempts at night weaning if you or your child are feeling a little under the weather. This especially includes if your child is teething, has a cold, or is just not in tip top shape overall. It’s best to meet this milestone when both parties are at their best.
- Food allergies. If either parents has experienced food allergies, talk to your pediatrician about delaying weaning until after your child’s first birthday.
- Changes at home. “Changes” can mean a variety of things: a move to a new home, a pregnancy or a new baby (always breastfeed the newborn first), your return to work, a marital disruption, a new child care situation, and any other potentially stressful situations. These are not the best times to initiate another major change such as weaning.
The exception to this is if the child initiates the weaning themselves instead of being led by the parents. You want weaning to be as unstressful as possible.
Signs Your Baby is Ready
With such a wide range of ages for night weaning, how will you know when your baby is ready for the transition? Look out for the following signs, which, when seen in multiples, are indications that your baby may be ready to start dropping night feedings:
- Your baby is not eating as much at night or even treats nighttime feeds as play time. If your baby wakes up and you go to nurse her, but you find that she nurses only a little, then is wide awake and wanting to play, this may be due to habit instead of hunger. She is waking up based on a schedule and not a need for food, showing that these nighttime feedings might not be necessary anymore.
- Your baby has successfully started solid foods. If your baby has started eating solid food, it’s only a matter of time before he’s ready to wean from nighttime feedings. He still may need a nighttime feeding or two, but this should be unnecessary after a couple months. This also means that you’ll need to make sure you can maintain a good milk supply once you drop nighttime nursing. Consult with your pediatrician or a lactation consultant.
- Age. If your baby is older than 4 months, it is normally safe to assume that your baby is developed enough to cut back (but not discontinue entirely) on feedings during the nighttime.
- It’s important to not put your baby to bed with a bottle – it increases their risk of bottle caries and ear infections. Instead, use a nursing pillow to cradle and support your child when bottle feeding or nursing.
- Especially during night feedings, use a bottle warmer to make sure that each bottle is perfectly warmed and the temperature will satisfy your little one’s needs.
Remember the Goal
Night weaning is not a battle to be won – it’s an effort to meet the needs of both parent and child. Night waking is temporary and young children will grow out of it eventually. But getting enough sleep can be essential for your day to day life and health. It is extremely important to respect the needs of your infant while also making sure you are taken care of as well. The goal is to maximize sleep for everyone. And if you’ve accomplished that, congrats! If it’s not working, you can always change it up and do things differently. Remember that this is all temporary and sleep is just another thing that changes as your child grows.
Night weaning is a very open-ended milestone in the sense that it is accomplished during a wide range of ages and with a variety of different methods. The most important factor is making sure that both mom and baby are ready to move forward with this important milestone. Stay in tune with your baby’s needs and things will work out. Approach the process gradually and gently, and if you are unsure of how to proceed, talk to your baby’s pediatrician. They can help you sort through any issues and help you make the right decision.
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- Morgan JB, Lucas A, Fewtrell MSDoes weaning influence growth and health up to 18 months. Archives of Disease in Childhood 2004;89:728-733.