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A Night Weaning Story

Callum and I have just recently passed our 18 month mark in nursing (as have the other half of Becoming Mamas – Holly and Gavin!).  And I feel pretty confident that we have many months still ahead as nursing is still something very important to both of us.  When I first started nursing, I had only a vague idea that I might like to nurse a year but that I’d probably wean shortly after that.  As Callum got older, a year seemed much too young to wean – and I started thinking seriously about how our toddler nursing relationship would play out.

For the last 6 months, I’ve continued to nurse on demand – day and night.  Until recently, Callum had never slept more than a 5 or maybe 6 hour stretch (and those were not frequent).  Still, I’ve never considered him a “bad” sleeper – he would wake up, nurse a bit, and go right back to sleep.  Because we co-slept these night wakings had little impact on me as well.  Even so, I’d been pondering the possibility of night weaning for some months.   Right around Callum’s first birthday, I started reading about the Jay Gordon method of night weaning; this seemed like an appealing alternative to many “sleep training” methods as it advocates still being there for your toddler (very importantly Dr. Gordon does not recommend forcing night weaning prior to one) and providing night comfort in other ways.  Also important for me is the fact that it doesn’t hold out an unreasonable expectation that your child will sleep 12 hours straight without ever needing a parent’s comfort and notes that the “time” to night wean should be a family decision, not one made because of pressures from family, friends, society, or even doctors.

Even though I felt like this was a night weaning plan that would work for us, I still waited.  At one, Callum was still quite dependent on night nursing and would “eat” quite a bit during the night.  Over the next few months, that need slowly lessened and he began to sleep longer stretches on his own (as in I didn’t particularly do anything to encourage this).  We had set backs of course – teething does a huge number on sleep!  So, I just played it by ear.  Around 14 or 15 months, I realized that I was starting to wake Callum up when I came to bed – or when I got up in the middle of the night for the bathroom or a drink of water.  So, my husband and I decided that it was probably time to move Callum to his own bed.

I could write a whole other post on why we decided to go for a futon on the floor instead of the crib or toddler bed (and maybe I will!), but long story short we wanted a solution that would allow me to still sleep with Callum if needed and that would allow him the freedom to come to us if he felt he needed us.  When we first started our new sleeping arrangement, I would sleep with Callum the second half of the night – after he’d wake to nurse somewhere between midnight and 3.  But then suddenly he started sleeping longer stretches – even sleeping all night (or at least until 5!) without needing us.  His night nursing habits had changed as well.  He wasn’t “really eating” anymore – just comfort nursing to get back to sleep.  Not that there’s anything wrong with comfort nursing at all; in fact, I think it’s an important part of a nursing relationship.  But, to me, this meant that he needed comforting back to sleep as opposed to being hungry in the night – an important difference.

Even though I honestly feel that Callum was indicating he was “ready” to night wean, I also had a selfish reason for pushing the issue.  I’m still waiting for my cycle to return and would like to try for another baby.  While night weaning is no guarantee, it does kick start things for many women (and I’m hoping to be one of them!).   This was certainly a factor in my decision.  However, I think the timing of our night weaning struck a good balance between my needs and Callum’s needs – it felt right for our family.

I had intended to follow Jay Gordon’s plan but ended up doing things a bit differently.  The first night, Callum nursed some and definitely didn’t like it when I offered cuddles instead of milk when he asked for more.  Gordon reminds night weaning parents that a baby who is used to being comforted back to sleep with nursing will be angry when the expected comfort (nursing) isn’t offered – but angry and scared are two different things.  It helped to remember that, but it was still hard to know that I was denying Callum something he really wanted and had always had in the past.   After a few minutes of being mad, Callum came over, snuggled beside me, laid his head down, and went to sleep – and we snuggled until morning when he happily nursed again.

The next night my husband gave things a go.  We’d had a brief period where he would rock Callum back to sleep when he woke the first time in the night – and that did work well for a while.  We’d agreed that he’d try the first night waking and then if Callum woke after that or if he got really upset, I’d go in.  After quite a bit of rocking and soothing, Callum did go back to sleep – daddies are pretty good at night snuggles too.  We tried this for the next few nights and each night Callum went back to sleep with less rocking needed.

Since then we’ve had some nights where he goes all night without needing us and others where he still wakes a few times.  When he does wake, one of us goes in to soothe him back to sleep.  I still sometimes sleep with him the second half of the night if he seems particularly unsettled (those darn teeth again!).  And I don’t expect him to go 12 hours without nursing.  Generally, he nurses around 7 or 8 (before bed) – if he wakes any time after around 5, we nurse (and if it’s closer to 5, he usually goes back to sleep for a bit).

Like many parenting decisions, it’s hard to know if you’ve done the right thing for your kid.  In this case, I feel like we did make the decision that worked for us at this point in time.  Some kids will be ready sooner and other later.  Some parents may choose not to “force” night weaning at all but let the child decide.   Some may night wean while still co-sleeping full time and others may do so longer after kiddo has been in his own bed.  For me the key to respond to your child’s cues and to make the transition with gentleness.

Part of me feels sad about this transition – although full weaning is still down the road, this is a reminder that it is coming.  But just as with other milestones, I find it more helpful to look ahead at the new than to regret the passing of the old.  It’s pretty darn cool when Callum comes scampering in our room in the morning to wake me up – he even hands me my glasses and climbs in to give me a kiss.   I like that I feel we have the flexibility to co-sleep when needed.  I also like that Callum knows he can still come to us for comfort in the night when needed.

We started the slow path to weaning when Callum began solids a year ago (yet another post!); this marks another step in that direction.  I’m not sure how the rest of our nursing time will go…stay tuned to find out!  I’d also love to hear your stories of night weaning or nighttime parenting – leave us a comment!

This story is cross-posted on Simple Gift, a blog for breastfeeding stories.  Read other inspiring stories and submit your own!

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Published in Breastfeeding