However long you’ve been breastfeeding your little one to sleep at night, it’s likely to have become a strong association for them, and one that’s inextricably linked to sleep. This is biologically normal and natural: breastfeeding releases numerous ‘sleepy’ hormones which are released into your own and your child’s body when you nurse at night – making it easier for you both to fall back to sleep.
Breastfeeding is also about so much more than nutrition: it’s also about comfort, love and connection for your little one. So if the time comes when you want or need to transition away from breastfeeding to sleep at night, then doing so as gently and responsively as possible is kinder on you both and ensures that this stage of your breastfeeding journey is as loving and respectful as the rest has been. Claire Davis, Holistic Sleep Coach, explains how...
If you’re reading this and unsure about whether you want to night wean – I’d like to start by debunking a few myths.
You don’t have to night wean because...
1. Someone said it would improve sleep:
This is more likely to be the case with older toddlers and children (over 18 months) who have outgrown the very frequent night wakes anyway. For younger toddlers and babies – this often is not the case and just means that you will need to find a different parenting tool to settle them during the night. Which can take more time and effort!
2. You are returning to work:
Unless you have a very stressful job – returning to work can be much less tiring and intense than being at home with a baby 24hrs a day. It may even feel like a break! And you might welcome reconnecting with your little one at night after being apart. Going back to the first point – feeding back to sleep is often the quickest and most reliable way to settle breastfed babies. Taking away this parenting tool before you go back to work and trying to implement a new form of comfort is likely to get you all less sleep in the short term and may leave you more exhausted than continuing to feed at night.
3. You are pregnant:
Nursing whilst pregnant gives you another reason to sit down, do nothing (but nurse) and rest – don’t underestimate this! If you are thinking of weaning completely, remember that nursing might be an easy way of keeping your older child occupied whilst your new-born is nursing. Tandem feeding has many benefits and can also facilitate a lovely bond with new siblings.
4. Someone said that there was no nutritional value in breastmilk past 6 months:
No matter what age your child nurses until, your breastmilk is as good nutritionally as it was in the first 3 months. It also constantly changes to meet your child’s needs and provides them with immunities, antibodies, fat, protein and calcium for as long as they nurse. From around 6 months, babies need additional nutrition such as iron – but breastmilk continues to be their main source of nutrition for the first year of life. It is also a moot point because feeds are not solely about nutrition but also meeting emotional and other physical needs as well – at any age.
5. You are exhausted and don’t think you can improve your situation in any other way:
As I mentioned previously – night weaning does not guarantee an improvement your child’s sleep. This is very much dependent on lots of things such as their age, developmental readiness to sleep for longer stretches, whether everything else that can impact on sleep is optimised – naps, diet, bedtime routine, sleep environment etc. On the other hand, there are lots of ways you can guarantee yourself more rest and headspace which might improve your capacity for night feeds.
6. You are facing pressure from family members wanting to spend time with your little one:
Usually, it’s not our babies that we need a break from - it’s all of the other ‘things’ we are expected to do/achieve at the same time as caring for our children. It’s okay to thank your family for trying to help and let them know other ways they can support you – batch cooking for you, playing with your toddler so you can go for a walk/take a shower/have a nap!
7. You don't know anyone else still feeding their children and feel isolated and alone in your experience:
Natural-term breastfeeding is not common or normalised – so that in itself can put pressure on mothers to wean early – particularly if we don’t know or see anyone else feeding their children past a certain age. This puts a lot of social pressure on mothers to wean before they or their children are ready. In fact, it is really only in Western culture that nursing toddlers and pre-schoolers is unusual. Joining groups of mothers that breastfeed toddlers/children on social media or locally so that you have a community around you and to go to for support if you experience negativity can really help. Researching all of the benefits for yourself and your child of long-term breastfeeding should also give you a boost in confidence!
8. You are a shift worker:
It’s perfectly fine for your child to fall asleep feeding when you are there and in a different way when you’re apart. This won’t be confusing to them: they won’t expect to breastfeed when you’re not there. Just like starting childcare during the day – your little one will adapt to falling asleep in a different way with other carers. Yes, it might take a bit of getting used to for them at first and there might be a few tears but as long as they are being comforted and supported in the arms of another loving carer this is not the same as them being left to cry alone.
Consider the emotional impact
If you are happy to continue to nurse during the night and it’s working for your family then there’s no need to change anything!
If, however, the time is right or you have to reduce or stop nursing to sleep, gently transitioning your little one away from the emotional and physiological elements they associate with nursing and going at their pace is really important.
For that reason, it’s usually best to avoid night weaning when there’s any other major change or milestone in either yours or your child’s life.
returning to work/starting childcare
when a new baby arrives (as in, weaning right before or as soon as baby arrives)
when they are poorly or teething
during periods of separation anxiety
Weaning and your hormones
Hormonally, when you wean there will be a drop in oxytocin and prolactin in your body. Many mothers experience feelings of sadness and anxiety whilst or following weaning – even when happy with their decision. If you experience this for more than a few weeks, I would suggest seeking support from your GP.
Weaning slowly is more likely to reduce these hormones gradually and have less of an impact on your emotions than an abrupt shift in your hormone levels. Be kind to yourself and give yourself the space to feel and process any emotions that come up for you – they’re all valid and deserve the time and space to be held with kindness and compassion.
Physically, there is the issue of engorgement, blocked ducts or mastitis if you stop nursing abruptly. Hand expressing a little for comfort can help to relieve engorgement and speaking to a skilled breastfeeding supporter such as a Breastfeeding Counsellor or IBCLC if you are concerned, is a good idea.
Celebrate your achievement
Finally, don’t forget to celebrate your breastfeeding journey! Any amount of breastfeeding has huge benefits for yourself and your baby and is rarely an easy journey. You should be immensely proud of what you have achieved, and this is your invitation to celebrate!
Meet the expert
Claire Davis is an OCN Level 6 certified Holistic Sleep Coach, Breastfeeding Counsellor and has a Diploma in Child Psychology.
She is a strong advocate for supporting parents to parent responsively whilst also looking after their own mental wellbeing, and normalising biologically normal infant sleep, feeding and behaviour.
For practical, gentle strategies that support you to wean at night fully or partially – Claire's 29-page Gentle Night Weaning eBook is available now.