It seems like sleeping through the night is something you used to do in a past life. Days and nights flow into each other in a foggy haze, and all you know is that when you hear your infant cry out in the night, that’s your cue to make a bottle or breastfeed.
As your child gets older, you’ve probably started to wonder how much longer this will continue. When can you be done with night feedings and begin night weaning?
Just like many developmental milestones, when babies sleep through the night and are ready to night wean can vary quite a bit. Many babies will be able to sleep for 6 to 8 hours straight when they reach 3 months old, but then hit a growth spurt at approximately 3 1/2 to 4 months of age.
This typically results in babies starting to wake up again frequently during the night. Hold onto hope though, because this is typically just a short phase!
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Babies need to take in calories in order to grow and develop appropriately. Particularly in the first months when their stomach is very small, your baby will need to wake every 2 to 4 hours for food, because they can’t intake very much and their stomach is emptying quickly. It’s not appropriate to restrict food from children in these cases.
Once they reach 4 to 6 months, the introduction of longer and larger feeds during the day (and frequently the addition of solids!) can be a sign that your child’s stomach is able to consume the calories they need without nighttime feeding sessions.
Ultimately only you can decide what is the right time to night wean for you and your baby.
There are many different ways to night wean. From very gradual methods to going cold turkey, only you can determine what is right for your situation.
In most situations, child care providers and parents suggest using a gentle, gradual method of night weaning (and weaning in general!). If you choose to night wean gradually:
- Increase feedings during the day if needed to ensure that your little one isn’t losing out on important calories.
- Feed your baby right before you go to bed. If you’re nursing, this means your breasts will be empty when you fall asleep and your baby will have a full stomach to help them sleep.
- Drop only one feeding at a time. Wait at least 3 to 4 days before dropping another feeding.
- Consider shortening a feed and decreasing the amount fed at a feeding before dropping a feeding session, so it’s not cold turkey.
- Ask your partner or another adult to attend to night wakings and consider not responding immediately to stirrings to see if your little one will self-soothe and fall back asleep without a feeding session.
- Provide other forms of comfort, like a pacifier, which can offer the opportunity to suck and help self-soothe. (Bonus: In children under 1 year of age, offering a pacifier can help to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
If for some reason you need to extinguish your night feeds cold turkey, consider these tips:
- If you’re breastfeeding, make sure your bra does not put pressure on your breasts or cut into them. (This can lead to clogged ducts and mastitis, especially when breasts are fuller than normal from not being emptied as frequently.)
- Talk to your doctor about whether using Sudafed, birth control, or herbs to reduce milk production makes sense.
- If your milk supply becomes too painful and you need to remove some, try to hand express or use a hand pump only until you feel more comfortable. Remember if at all possible not to fully empty your breasts. You don’t want to trigger an increase in the supply!
If you have an older toddler you’d like to night wean:
- Talk to your child and explain what’s happening. (If old enough, you can use an awake/asleep clock to show when it’s OK to nurse or ask for bottles.)
- Offer other forms of nighttime comfort (blankets, stuffed animals, night-lights, etc.).
- Increase the amount of daytime cuddles and physical attention. This will help ensure that your child’s need for touch and attention is being met during daytime hours and doesn’t need to be met at night.
Night weaning is not appropriate in all situations. It’s probably best to wait a bit before considering night weaning if your little one is:
- adjusting to a new caregiver
- not gaining weight
- experiencing a major developmental milestone (or growth spurt)
There are times when nighttime feedings are essential to healthy development and shouldn’t be skipped. Some babies just aren’t ready to sleep long stretches without waking for food — even if you’re hearing that their peers have started sleeping through the night.
If this is the case for your child, you can relax knowing this is perfectly normal. This won’t last forever, and you (and your baby!) are not alone.
If you feel that you’re getting sufficient sleep and are only considering night weaning because of social pressures, remember that the decision to wean is a preference. There is no requirement to do so. If the current relationship is working for you and your baby, and you’d prefer to keep feeding during the night, that’s AOK.
Whenever the timing is right for night weaning, remember to be gentle on yourself and your baby. Give yourself the time to do it gradually if at all possible, try to eat well and exercise as you can, and surround yourself with loving, positive people.
Keep an eye out for any signs of depression or anxiety. Weaning can bring on a lot of postpartum hormonal and emotional changes. Make sure to seek help from a support group, therapist, or other medical professional if needed.
Before you know it, you’ll be sleeping continuously through the night again, and your days and nights won’t be blending together. (Just in time for you to start losing sleep over the next big milestone!)