Over the last two weeks we’ve been slowly and gently attempting to night-wean our two-year-old. Until now, she has continued to breastfeed a few times a day and night (I talked about my experience nursing a toddler here). I thought I’d share our experience, to encourage other parents who are committed to gentle parenting — day and night — and to help them see that it does, indeed, get better.
We’ve shared our bedroom with Lydia since her birth. We absolutely loved the experience.
She started out sleeping in our bed. We adored being able to wake up to that sweet face every morning. I loved how bed-sharing helped me get plenty of rest during those tumultuous first months when she still needed a lot of attention at night. It also made breastfeeding and elimination communication a trillion times easier, which were very important to me and very enriching experiences.
Shortly after her first birthday, we started to find the family bed a little crowded as she began to roll and kick in her sleep quite a bit. So we set up a bed on the floor next to me. She still nursed to sleep, and then I laid her down on her floor bed, where she stayed until her first night-waking. She almost always ended up back in our bed by morning, but we were fine with that.
I want to take a moment to point out that it was never our goal to get her to “sleep through the night.” It just wasn’t that important to us. We were getting enough sleep, and my research indicated that it was perfectly healthy, natural and normal for infants and young children to wake up at night and need help falling back asleep. I was content to oblige. Lydia continued to wake up 2-4 times every night for her first two years, but she always went right back to sleep if I just let her nurse. I never even had to get out of bed. It was just no big deal.
Sure, there were rough nights — even rough weeks, where we felt horribly unrested. This whole last month was pretty rotten. But I knew that was a normal part of parenting. Raising babies is exhausting. Their sleep needs are different than ours. Sometimes your sleep gets screwed up, but that’s to be expected.
The real impetus for change came shortly after her second birthday when I still wasn’t pregnant with baby #2. I practice fertility awareness, so I was aware my cycles still weren’t neeeeearly on track to have another baby. My luteal phases were WAAAAAAY too short to enable a pregnancy, indicating low progesterone levels. I did some research and discovered that low progesterone/short luteal phases are very common among lactating women.
Dang it. If I wanted to have another baby, I was going to have to wean the first one.
I know that night-nursing has the greatest impact on hormone levels (especially those related to suppressing ovulation — it’s nature’s way of helping space babies), so I determined that we would have to tackle that first. Moreover, if we were ever going to have another baby, it would be nice to have the first one sleeping a little better at night so I wasn’t juggling two babies every night.
Why Not Just Let Her Cry It Out?
Many people think the best way to deal with sleep issues is to just leave a baby alone in her crib, allowing her to cry until she realizes nobody is coming to help her and she finally cries herself to exhaustion. Repeat until she understands no one is ever coming to help her and she gives up crying completely.
This was never an option for me.
I won’t go into the research that shows that crying-it-out leads to high levels of stress hormones, or that babies learn to self-soothe through example — i.e. by their parents lovingly responding to their distress and helping them through their big feelings.
I will say that the very thought of a child being left to cry alone in a room makes me feel like I’ve been punched in the gut.
But more importantly, it came down to this for me: I never want to send my daughter the message that her feelings ought to be ignored or that she’s on her own.
Instead, I want her to get the message that I will always do my best to be there for her when she calls. I may not be able to give her what she wants, but I will listen and stay near until she feels better. I will never leave her in her time of need for my own convenience’s sake. She never has to be alone.
To me, that message is more important than a few more minutes of sleep every night. There will be time for sleeping when she’s older.
(I will tell you now, though, that our night-weaning process did involve a little bit of crying, but in the loving presence of her parents.)
Step One: Learning to Fall Asleep Without Nursing
I started by taking The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers (by Elizabeth Pantley) out of the library, to look for some gentle solutions. I found plenty. I highly recommend this book, you guys. Really understanding and so helpful.
One thing I started to do was implement a consistent, hour-long bedtime routine to get her sleepy before bed. (Before that, I was quite inconsistent in our bedtime routine, and we often struggled with bedtime battles that made our evenings really stressful and tiring). I think this new routine helped pave the way for more restful nights.
At the same time, I started to implement “Pantley’s Gentle Removal Plan,” to get Lydia used to falling asleep without a breast in her mouth.
I would lay down with Lydia in her bed as I always did, and let her nurse until she was almost asleep. But then I’d gently break the suction with my finger and roll over so that she had to fall asleep without sucking. At first she wouldn’t have it. So as Pantley suggests, I’d let her nurse again some more until she was drifting off, and keep repeating until she was finally asleep without the boob in her mouth.
Within a few days, she was breaking the seal herself, rolling over and falling asleep on her own. Hooray!
When she woke at night, I would try to soothe her some other way (rubbing her back, talking to her gently, etc), but at first this was mostly fruitless and I would end up nursing her back to sleep anyway. But I took my time offering her the breast, and continued to use the gentle removal method, until she was sometimes able to fall back asleep without nursing at all. Success!
Step Two: No More Milk at Night
After a really crappy month of sleep for no discernible reason, with her often waking every hour at night for a week, I knew it was time to pull out the big guns. It was time to do this. It was time to night-wean.
One desperate night, I told her the mommy milk had to sleep. She couldn’t have any more mommy milk that night. She wailed in agony, and I rubbed her back and shushed her gently, telling her that I loved her, but the milk had to sleep. She screamed with rage. It was heartbreaking, but I was so, so tired. Finally, my husband took her in his arms and quietly carried her into the hall. She screamed and raged . . . until she fell asleep two minutes later in his arms. He laid her in bed between us and we slept. I was surprised how quick and easy it was.
She woke up once more, and screamed again when I told her the milk was still sleeping, but then promptly fell back asleep. I was shocked and a little delighted. I made a mental note to persist the next time she wailed for mommy milk. She might just fall back asleep.
The next day, I explained to her (over and over again throughout the day, and just before bed) that from now on, when it was dark, the mommy milk had to sleep. She could still have milk when it was light, but when it was dark: no milk. I took her into the bathroom to demonstrated light and dark with her so she could understand.
That night, when she woke up, I reminded her what I had told her. As she screamed and then sobbed, I rubbed her back and whispered to her softly. She fell asleep within two minutes.
We repeated this once more that night.
The next night, it happened once.
The next night, when she woke up in the middle of he night, she climbed into our bed silently and I rubbed her back and she went right back to sleep. No fuss whatsoever, and also no nursing.
And then the next night, she slept for eight hours straight without waking. At 6:30 a.m., the light in our room was on, so I let her nurse and she slept for another hour.
For four days in a row she slept from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. solid. Sometimes she would sleep an extra hour or two after that if I nursed her, but sometimes not. This is a girl who had never before, in her whole 25 months of life, slept through the night (apart from four or five random fluke nights). Before this, she almost never slept longer than 3-4 hours at a stretch.
It was beautiful. I was so much more energetic and less irritable during the day. She was still her usual, chatty, curious self (all that night-waking never seemed to bother her any), but I felt so much more centered.
And that cycle, my luteal phase was a whole two days longer than all previous cycles. We’re making progress!!
Where We’re At Now
It’s been two weeks and she’s consistently sleeping for 6-8-hour stretches, only occasionally waking but falling back to sleep quickly and quietly without nursing.
(There was one horrible night in the middle of that wherein she screamed on and off for almost two hours and I just sat with her and tried to soothe her. But it was only once.)
Now that we’ve managed to wean her at night, I plan to start slowly weaning her during the day, over the course of the next few months. I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t make me a little teary-eyed.
We’re also planning to move her into her own room soon (next to ours). We’ve been slowly preparing it; we just need to move the last of the furniture. That thought also makes me sad, but I think we’re ready.
I’m very satisfied with how everything went. I’m happy with the decisions we made.
If we ever have another baby and if we have similar sleep issues, I will probably try night-weaning a little earlier, allowing him/her to cry a little bit if necessary. (But of course, every child is different. Who knows what things will be like.)
I discovered that a little bit of crying is probably okay. But I wouldn’t try it before the child’s first birthday — I just don’t think they’re developmentally ready at that point — and I’d never let them cry for more than a few minutes, and never alone.
That’s our story. Hope it was helpful!
Any similar experiences to share?