Carrie Ford-Jones is now a mom to eight kids (including 10-month-old triplets!). But when she had her very first child, Dylan, she was determined to do everything by the book—literally. When her baby books said it was time for him to start sleeping through the night, she dutifully started to cut out his nighttime feeds. She worked hard to keep him on a schedule, too.
“I felt like I was always trying to make sure we could check off the next milestone,” she says. “He was about five months when I decided to sleep train and not feed at night, because the paediatrician said I didn’t need to anymore. But I made myself crazy trying to track the number of feeds and worrying that he should be learning to sleep through the night.”
Newborns need to be fed around the clock for the first few months, but will eventually be able to go for longer stretches without food. Of course, many sleep-deprived new parents would like those stretches to happen overnight. Getting a baby to stop breastfeeding, chestfeeding or bottle feeding overnight is what is meant by the term “night weaning.” (It has nothing to do with starting solids, or weaning from the breast entirely. It just means not nursing or bottle-feeding between the hours of, say, 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.)
Why do some parents want to night wean?
Azura Goodman, a Hamilton, Ont.-area registered nurse and lactation consultant, has supported parents through the night-weaning process. Goodman says there are many reasons a body-feeding or bottle-feeding parent decides to night wean.
“People are returning to work, or they notice their mood is impacted by their lack of sleep because when you’re sleep deprived, your fuse is shorter. Some parents might be managing a perinatal mood disorder like depression, anxiety or OCD. And then sometimes parents simply know they’re just not getting the amount of sleep that they need.”
Keep in mind that “sleeping through the night” doesn’t necessarily have to be a solid eight-hour stretch. Infants between between four and six months old, for example, shouldn’t be expected to sleep longer than four to six hours in a row (though of course some “unicorn sleeper” babies do, even without sleep training).
Babies are on individual trajectories, with some able to sleep longer stretches at an earlier age than others, regardless of how they’re fed or put to sleep for the night.
When are babies ready to night wean?
Amanda Jewson, a sleep consultant in Stratford, Ont., sees this over and over again with the families she works with. She tells her clients not to compare their babies to others because there are many reasons why an infant may still need to wake to feed. In fact, she doesn’t recommend night weaning at all until a baby is at least four months old. “At that point, between four and six months, we would still be looking at one or two night feedings halfway through the night,” says Jewson. “Once a baby is six months-plus, as long as the baby is gaining on their own growth curve, we could start looking, ideally, for a 10- to 12-hour stretch overnight.”
Both Goodman and Jewson stress that parents of infants should check in with their baby’s doctor before deciding to cut out any overnight feeds. “A baby’s typically ready to night wean if they’re having great feeds during the day and their feeds at night seem to consist of non-nutritive, shallow sucking, which is a pacifying type of behaviour without a lot of milk transfer,” Goodman explains. The baby should be gaining weight appropriately and have no feeding issues. It’s true that weight gain, development and feeding patterns are highly variable from infant to infant, but four months should be considered the absolute minimum age to begin to consider night weaning.
The ideal approach to night weaning should be a gradual one. Cutting out one night feed at a time, over the course of several weeks, is easier for both the breast-or chestfeeding parent, and the baby.
“If you have the luxury of weaning gradually, please do so,” says Goodman, “because this helps prevent engorgement, which can lead to plugged ducts and even mastitis. Whereas if you give your body the time to accommodate those longer stretches, it’s easier.”
Of course, we don’t always live in an ideal world. Sometimes a baby needs to learn to go without feeding at night rather suddenly. “If you’re going through something challenging, like loss or divorce, or mental illness or physical illness, then there are ways of night weaning all at once and making sure your baby is fed enough during the day,” says Goodman.
Parents should also keep in mind that night weaning doesn’t always follow a linear progression. Goodman stresses that a sick or congested baby will need to feed overnight for extra fluid. And if your baby has their routine disrupted by travel, holidays or teething, expect some temporary night waking as they work through that.
Sometimes, the real question is whether the parents are truly ready to night wean. Personally, I enjoyed partially co-sleeping with my first baby, Colum, for more than a year. But by the time he was 15 months old, he was waking up more often than ever during the night, and would only settle back down at the breast. I was over it.
“Is he going to outgrow this?” I asked our family doctor.
“He won’t want to sleep with you by the time he’s a teenager,” she told me. “But if you want night weaning to happen sooner, you need to do something about it.”
How do I night wean?
For many babies, sleep is closely linked to feeding because it’s how they’ve always fallen asleep. We all have bedtime routines that set the stage for a good night’s sleep and help us drift off, explains Jewson.
“When babies or children are waking frequently throughout the night, there’s probably something behaviorally happening on the onset of their sleep—whether that’s feeding, rocking, patting, hushing or something else,” she says. If your baby always falls asleep with a nipple in their mouth, then whenever they stir at night, they’ll want that nipple again.
After reading up on baby sleep, I realized that Colum first needed to learn to fall asleep without breastfeeding. I’d feed him one last time before bed, but then put him down before he was fully asleep. It was horrible at first. He was too young to understand what was going on, but definitely old enough to be mad about it.
I ultimately wound up staying in the room to help him settle back down to sleep by rubbing his back, reassuring him with a sing-song voice, or even picking him up and pacing if he was very worked up. It was hard, and it took several weeks, but he did gradually start to fall asleep more easily and wake less frequently. By the time he was 18 months old, I could read him a story, kiss him goodnight and walk out of the room while he was still awake. My fellow mom friends could hardly believe it.
If you’re hoping to cut down on nighttime feeds for a younger baby, Goodman suggests unrestricted access to feeds during the day. You can offer the breast hourly, and do what’s called a “dream feed,” in which you offer a sleeping baby the breast just before you go to sleep yourself.
Bottle feeding parents can take a similar approach, except they’re able to measure the amount of pumped milk or formula to make sure the baby is taking in enough during the day. The idea is to offer enough food during the day, without overfeeding or forcing feeds.
In many cases, a breastfeeding parent may be returning to work and needs to start getting solid sleep overnight. In that case, says Goodman, you can “pump through the day and have their care provider use that pumped and stored milk to give one extra feed. Or instead of timing out the feeds, offer a bottle whenever the baby might be hungry.” That way, if the baby is still waking at night and wanting to feed, you can at least be sure they have gotten the nutrition they need during the day before figuring out another way to help them back to sleep.
Is night weaning the same thing as sleep training?
The short answer is no—they’re not necessarily the same thing. But they often go hand-in-hand because so many babies are used to the “wake, suck, doze” routine. That means in order to sleep train, and get more sleep for yourself, you’ll also need to night wean.
The truth is that no matter how you cut it, night weaning (and its counterpart, sleep training) are not fun.
“Parents want an easy way to do this where the baby doesn’t cry or isn’t upset, and that’s very unlikely to happen,” says Jewson. Instead, she helps parents come up with a plan during the day so they are prepared to deal with a crying baby at night. Jewson encourages staying in the room and reassuring your baby while they try to settle down. She tells parents to use their intuition and not be afraid to try different things like a quick cuddle, rubbing their back, talking or singing. Some families find it easier to send in the non-nursing parent at night when they’re night weaning, but it’s really about trial and error.
Jewson does warn that if you end up consistently replacing feeding with another behaviour, like rocking or singing to get your baby back to sleep, you’ll just have to do that in the middle of the night instead, which might actually be more taxing than nursing.
If the prospect of a good night’s sleep isn’t worth the stress of night weaning and sleep training for you, that’s OK, too. Jewson agrees that many families don’t mind co-sleeping or getting up to feed a baby at night. If night feeds and interrupted sleep is working for you, you don’t have to night wean at all.
“I think as long as a parent is coping, has a great relationship with their child, is not feeling resentful, and everyone feels rested, then it doesn’t matter. Independent sleep will happen eventually. Or maybe it won’t—but there’s always the opportunity to make a change.”
By the time Ford-Jones’s third child was born, she had given up on parenting by the book. As a more experienced, confident mom, she trusted her own instincts and gradually decreased the frequency of night feeds in a way that felt right for her. “I don’t think the night weaning and scheduling made any of my babies better or worse sleepers,” she says, in hindsight. “That was dependent on their personalities.”
With her 10-month-old triplets who still wake at night to feed, Ford-Jones says she actually cherishes these last quiet moments with them. They do tend to wake up a different times, which is exhausting, but there’s an upside: “This is my one-on-one time with those babies. I’m not at a playgroup, or in the car. I can just enjoy each baby, one at a time.”