By Elise Lenssen
While breastfeeding kicked off with a rocky start, eventually my baby and I settled into a wonderful rhythm of breastfeeding on demand, day or night, anywhere, and in fact everywhere! When he needed mama’s milk, it was available for him. It sometimes sounds idyllic when you put it into a paragraph like that, but golly, breastfeeding through the night for over 2 and a half years is not always a picnic. But despite the interrupted sleep, the payoff of breastfeeding on demand won out. When my baby became a toddler and started picking up coughs and colds from daycare, breastfeeding soothed sinus congestion, ear ache, toothache, headache, and when he had a temperature and didn’t want to eat or drink, mamas milk provided him with hydration and nutrition through those long nights and days. But, recently I came to a point where I just couldn’t continue the overnight feeds anymore. To sleep for 3 hours without interruption was a rarity. To get 6 hours in a row was a once a month occurrence. And while the interruptions never lasted long, maybe 15 minutes, it was always enough to drag me from slumber and interrupt my sleep. So a month ago I decided it was time to night wean - as in stop offering breastfeeds for bedtime and during the night.
I had, until this point, generally been limiting my toddlers time during a breastfeed, mostly because of nipple tenderness due to my second pregnancy, but also because I felt that the time was coming nearer when I would need to night wean him. And thought perhaps a gradual approach of limiting time at the breast would encourage less night time feeds. Well that was an ineffective strategy to say the least! So when I finally decided to commit to night weaning, I chose a time when he was well, was eating well, and when life was in a settled place (apart from the concurrent toilet training!).
I talked about it a lot with him, explaining that there was no more mama’s milk before bed, or once the sun was down. But I reassured him, he could have it in the morning when the sun was up and often as he wanted during the day. And then we started.
Day 1: Bedtime approached and he began asking for mama’s milk to go to sleep. We went through the dialogue, and I reassured him that I loved him and would cuddle him and stay with him. The tears started, the protests started, the clawing at my shirt started, and eventually abated into a sad acceptance of the state of things, and finally sleep. My heart was breaking as I refused the one thing he wanted, and had enjoyed his entire life, but I am quite pleased to say, I managed to remain calm and resolute in the plan, and offered him cows milk in a bottle as an alternative (he wasn't that impressed!). He woke once that night, and re-settled without mamas milk. Boy was he stoked when the sun was up and we both enjoyed a relaxing morning breastfeeding session.
Day 2: Bedtime approached and followed the same pattern as the previous night. It took an hour or 2 to get him to sleep without breastfeeding. But this time when he woke overnight he wouldn’t be settled without mamas milk, so I made the call to offer him a short breastfeed, we negotiated 1 minute each side, and he fell asleep after a short feed and slept until morning.
Day 3: The worst night. This was such an emotional night for him. He didn’t ask for mamas milk this night, but sat in my arms crying tears of grief. When I asked him why he was sad he said “because I can’t have mamas milk until the sun comes up, why can’t I have mama’s milk?”, and I realised that setting an arbitrary boundary without explaining why was really difficult for him! So I explained that mama was tired, and didn’t like waking up often at night, and that if he could learn to sleep without mama’s milk, then mama could get more sleep, and be in a better mood (a win for everyone right?!). Then we sang songs and he lay in my arms repeating the word “no”, until eventually he fell asleep (honestly, what is UP with toddlers and the word no?!). In the morning, when I said, “sun’s up bubba”, he literally laughed with joy before enjoying a long drink.
Day 4: This night he didn’t ask for mama’s milk, and he didn’t cry. He talked about waiting for the sun to come up, and with cuddles and stories and songs, we achieved sleep. This felt like the greatest achievement in my parenting career!
Day 5/6/7: These nights progressed just as day 4 had until finally, he no longer asked for milk at bedtime or during the night. I always offered water and he often seems incredibly thirsty, so I realise now that breastfeeding overnight wasn’t just about comfort and sleep props (does anyone else detest that term?), but was often satisfying his thirst!
What I will say about night weaning is, if you want to do it, prepare yourself for full weaning to follow quite quickly. For me, overnight feeding was essential for my milk supply (and for many mothers these night feeds are very important for milk supply, which is why night feeding is normal and good), and I’m grateful I accepted night feeds as normal, because it allowed our breastfeeding relationship to continue for over 2 and a half years. Since night weaning, he’s slowly stopped asking for any feeds, and when he has tried a little drink, he’s been unsatisfied as there is so little milk there. People would often ask me during feeding a toddler “do you even have any milk?” Well this is your answer – I did. He doesn’t want a bar of it now the milk has dried up. Babies don’t suckle at empty boobs! So if you are feeding a toddler, be assured they are enjoying liquid gold every time.
I’m a little surprised that he’s nearly weaned completely now and I will miss having that amazing tool at hand for illness, sadness, or to just enjoy a quiet moment with him. But I’m also so very excited about sleeping for 6 hours straight! I could never have got through those first 3 nights without being completely committed to it. So I would recommend, if you have even an ounce of hesitation about night weaning, don’t even go there. It’s a tough process for your babe, and for mama, so make sure you are so focused on the end goal that you are willing to go through the trial. Employ so much love, so much patience, and above all, be incredibly consistent.