Weaning off of night feeds: when and how
When is the best time to stop nursing throughout the night? The answer depends on you and your baby. Most breastfed babies will continue to wake and want to nurse for as long as you are willing, so if you leave it up to your child, they will likely keep asking to nurse until you are ready to stop. There are some babies who will stop on their own, but in my experience, they are the expectation, and not the rule.
So, in order to determine the best time to wean off night feeds you want to factor in how old your baby is, how well they are eating during the day, and how many times they are waking to feed at night. You want to be sure your baby is getting enough calories during the day and evening so you know you can reduce how much they are taking in at night.
If your baby is over 6 months, and is feeding well during the day, and is waking more than twice at night to nurse, it might be a good time to work on weaning off of night feeds. That said, there’s nothing wrong with nursing at night, as long as everyone is getting enough sleep. However, if you are exhausted from waking many times a night, and are ready to sleep for longer stretches, then it’s time to make a change.
I think it’s best to wean slowly, if you can, so your baby, and your body, can make the adjustment gradually. This usually works better in the long run. It can take between 7-14 days to make the transition.
Start by increasing the amount your baby is eating ( by eating, I mean milk, and depending on their age, solids too) during the day, and decreasing the amount they are taking in at night. You can do this by adding an extra feed to your day, or an extra ounce in a bottle, or in a sippy cup, and by taking your baby off the breast during the night as soon as they slow down. You want to reduce the amount of time they are at the breast, by paying attention to when they are no longer actively sucking. Not always easy to do when you are half asleep, I know!
The next step is to try and stretch the length of time your baby goes at night between feeds by waiting a few minutes when they wake at night, and/or by sending in the non-nursing parent (if possible).
If you are co-sleeping, it can be harder to encourage your baby to settle back to sleep without nursing, but it can be done. You can try by offering a lovey for them to hold, or you can try shushing and patting them back to sleep. Also, try wearing a shirt while sleeping so it’s not as easy to nurse right away when your baby wakes.
The point is to go slowly enough not to cause distress. You encourage your baby to try and settle in other ways, and if they get really upset, you can offer to nurse briefly to help them calm down. By being consistent in trying something else first, you are slowly getting them used to settling in other ways, but knowing you can go back to nursing if they are too upset. I know this can sound like you are giving in, but I like to think of it as taking the pressure off enough so you can all get back to sleep, while still encouraging a different way to settle first.
Eventually, you have to decide when you are ready to completely let go of nursing at night. Once you are ready, you want to let your baby know that when they wake at night, you want them to settle back to sleep in other ways. (I’m a big believer in talking to babies about what you are doing, even if they are really young.) Then you have to stick to it. Once you say you are done, you want to hold steady so your baby knows this is how it’s going to be. They may take a few nights to adjust, but you have been getting them ready over the course of a week or two, so once you get to this point, most babies will let go more easily.
This blog is about breastfeeding babies, but if you are bottle feeding, the principle is essentially the same: increase the amount a baby is eating/drinking during the day and evening, and decrease the amount you are feeding at night. Wait longer between feeds at night and offer other ways to settle. Then decide when to stop feeding at night and stick to it. And, remember, you never want to prop a bottle up for a baby to drink in their crib. It’s not safe and not good for their teeth.
Let me know if I can help you make this transition.
Disclaimer: Elizabeth Green's Early Parenting Sleep Consultations and written materials are for educational purposes only and are not meant as medical advice. All spoken and written information is to be used at each parents' discretion.