by Elizabeth Arora
My 2.5 year old son Pierce and I night-weaned last fall. We bed-share, and he had nursed without restriction since birth. Almost 900 days into motherhood, we were still waking at least six to eight times every night, to nurse for up to 20 minutes at a time. I was dead on my feet, and wondered if so much nursing plus so little sleep might be impeding our attempts for a second baby.
Although I undertook mother-initiated night- weaning, I believe sensitivity to a baby's needs is critical. A toddler who continues to nurse through the night may have a particular need for extra attention, affection, or even nourishment, that deserves respect. But beyond the age of two, it's also possible that night waking is actually a nighttime habit that might be a bit destructive. I've found that if I get up and get a drink or use the bathroom when I wake at night, after a couple of nights, I start waking thirsty or with a full bladder at the same time night after night. I’m pretty convinced that my son's night nursing was a habit that was disrupting his sleep, as well as mine, as opposed to a real need. Of course, any mother should carefully consider her child's individual needs, circumstances, and reaction before trying to stimulate a significant change, particularly with something as delicate and important as sleep! My husband and I debate whether we could have made this change sooner, but I think it worked so well for us because Pierce was really ready.
I want to share our “protocol”, since I have never found anything published that involved no crying and had any chance of working with my determined little boy. In fact, this did the job in just a couple of weeks, even though Pierce had previously fallen asleep without nursing only twice in two years of life.
We started out by buying the beautiful book Nursies When The Sun Shines by Katherine Havener. We made this book our nightly bedtime reading.
Next, we stopped nursing in bed, ever (except as described below). We nursed in a comfy chair in the bedroom, then moved to the bed to sleep.
Third, I began keeping a water bottle in the bed. It's a sippy-top bottle, so my son can drink lying down and not spill. It doesn't "satisfy" him in the way nursing does, but it relieves genuine thirst. Taking a sip of water has also become a little ritual he can do as part of going back to sleep -- the way some people plump their pillows. I know some parents worry that night-weaning toddlers may feel hungry, but I hesitate to recommend any sort of food at night because of the risk of tooth decay.
Fourth, before bedtime nursing, we would discuss how the "nums" (our word for my breasts!) need to sleep through the night. I told him that if he wakes up, he can cuddle his teddy, and take a drink of water, and snuggle mama, and mama will sing, but the nums are going to stay asleep until morning. He was surprisingly cooperative with this idea.
Fifth, I started playing the same sequence of songs during bedtime nursing each night. We use Elizabeth Mitchell's album You Are My Little Bird. (Pierce calls it "A little bird music!") I designated a song that would always signal the end of our breastfeeding session. I explained when we sat down to nurse, "When we get to Peace Like a River, then it's time to sleep." Every night, when we reach the penultimate song, I gently say, "Last song, then time to sleep." When that song ends, I carry him to bed, latch him off the breast, and repeat, “Time to sleep.”
And, for the final touch of fairy dust: we have a lullaby Over in the Meadow. This is a "counting" song with plenty of repetition. When Pierce had trouble falling asleep and wanted to nurse, I asked him to lie still and try to sleep until we reached a particular part (about three verses later). Then, depending on how desperate he was to nurse, I would sing the verses faster or slower. After a day or two, he would usually fall asleep almost immediately. If he was still awake at the designated nursing time, I would offer the breast and say, “Okay, we’ll nurse until [two verses later], and then it’s time to sleep.” If he didn't want to let go when the time came, I would say, "Nums go night-night", and latch him off. If he groped back on, I'd say it again, and add "time to sleep", then count slowly to five, and pop him off again. That would usually do the trick. Rarely, we’d repeat the whole process from the beginning.
We also made full use of Pierce’s imaginative developmental stage. As we were getting ready for bed, he loved to choose what animals we would pretend to be that night. When he woke in the night, I would say, "Roll over on your tummy, little [turtle/ kangaroo/ panda] and mama [turtle/ kangaroo/ panda] will cuddle you in your cosy nest so you can go back to sleep.” Pretending to be a baby animal seemed to motivate him to lie still and try to sleep... and just getting him to try to sleep was 95% of the job.
Astonishingly, within about two weeks, my son was sleeping through the night with no assistance at all. That is, sleeping more than nine hours at a stretch! This, from a kid who has NEVER gone more than two hours without waking to nurse! And, all this happened with absolutely no tears or anger. On the nights he did need comfort, he rarely asked to nurse, and almost never protested the explanation “Nums are sleeping, we’ll nurse in the morning.” We travel a lot, though, and the changes in environment, plus his natural development, have presented some additional challenges.
After about a month, Pierce realized that the earlier morning came, the earlier he could nurse! So, he began starting the day 15 minutes earlier every morning. When he started popping up at 4:45 AM, we finally purchased a "toddler clock" that can be set to light up yellow or green at a designated wake-up time. We call it the "nums clock", and it has been really effective. Pierce doesn't argue with it the way he did with me just saying, “It’s not morning yet”, or with a regular clock, “No, I WANT it to say 6!” We now set the yellow “wake-up” timer about an hour before the green “nums” light. Having breakfast before the first morning nursing reduces his motivation to get us up earlier -- if someone offered me chocolate cake every day as soon as I woke up, I’d get up at 4:30 AM too!
We had another breakthrough recently. After several major life changes, Pierce began to wake several times a night wanting cuddles and singing. One night, amidst bedtime dawdling, we finally said, “Okay, but the nums are going to sleep now. If you want to stay up, you can’t nurse before bed.” He announced, “Okay, I’ll go to bed later, with Daddy!” Stunned, we agreed -- his devoted father had never, even once, succeeded in putting him to sleep. It worked! Since then, most nights, he nurses with me, then lies down with Daddy to go to sleep while I revel in a rare few minutes of personal time.
The final blessing: we’re expecting our second son in July. My body decided it was ready for another baby just six weeks after Pierce first slept through the night.
Now I just hope some of these ideas might help some other overtired moms who are hoping to gently night-wean their determined toddlers. Sweet dreams!
Close to the Heart Vol. 13, No. 1 (Early-Year 2012)
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