Weaning Baby From Night Feedings – Why, When, and HOW??
Every parent reaches a point where they want to cut back the night feedings with their baby. This process is daunting and there are so many opinions on how or when to do this it can be overwhelming.
Ultimately, you will have to decide what works best for you, your baby, and your family dynamics. The truth is, there isn’t one perfect way. Here you’ll find many different approaches and suggestions. As you read these ideas, I encourage you to find what rings true with you. Pay attention to what gives you an “ah-ha!” or what just feels right in your gut.
There’s no wrong way to do it, so if you’re ready to cut back on night-time breastfeedings with your little one, you’re in the right place!
If you’re happy with the schedule you’ve got going on, there’s no need to change! Baby’s can continue to eat during the night as long as it works for the family.
When we talk about “sleeping through the night” with babies, it generally means something different than it does for adults. If you sleep from 10 pm to 7 am you’ll be feeling great on your 9 hours of sleep! If you put your 6-month-old baby down for bed at 8 pm, you can likely expect them to wake sometime between 2-4 am hungry. A solid 6-8 hour stretch at that age is great! But expecting them to sleep from 8 pm-8 am or “the whole night” just isn’t realistic.
At 12 months babies can sleep a little longer and you can shoot for closer to 10 hours until they’re hungry again. Many studies have found it’s still beneficial in the long run to honor an earlier bedtime for babies rather than trying to keep them up to match your schedule.
Adjusting expectations for what “sleeping through the night” means can help you praise their progress instead of feeling frustrated they won’t sleep until you wake in the morning.
Each baby has unique health and nutrition needs so it’s never a bad idea to check with your health care provider if you have any concerns about when to wean your baby from night feedings.
Before 6 months if you’re exclusively breastfeeding, it’s best to feed them on demand which means ’round the clock. Once they start eating solid foods and are receiving more of their nutrition during the day, it’s generally accepted that nighttime feedings can be cut back.
As a general rule, babies 6 months old can go 6-8 hours at night after their bedtime feeding. After 1 year, most babies don’t “need” the extra feedings at night, but this doesn’t mean you have to stop them.
*Here’s a few resources from Pediatric Sleep Council and Stanford Children’s Health on babies age vs. the amount of sleep needed.
Just because a baby physically can sleep through the night doesn’t necessarily mean it’s time. Many babies continue to want/need night feedings until 1 year old and beyond, so consider carefully what’s best for both you and your baby. Here are a few other signs to look for that might indicate it’s safe to night-wean.
- Quick night feedings – Feedings less than 5 minutes are more likely a soothing effort rather than a need for nourishment. Pay attention to when your baby takes a full length feed vs. when they feed quickly and fall right back asleep.
- Distracted at night (wants to play) – Also a sign that baby isn’t really hungry, just having a hard time going back to sleep. They don’t really need to be fed at this time, just encouraged and taught how to go back to sleep.
Since nighttime feedings are sometimes more about sleep association than calories, night weaning is often paired with a sleep coaching method of your choice. Here’s an article on Top 5 baby sleep-training programs.
When NOT to cut night feedings:
It is not a good idea to start weaning night feedings during:
- growth spurts
- holidays or travel or
- major life events (i.e. moving, change in job, etc)
Below are several different options for decreasing and eventually eliminating nighttime feedings. Pick one or all to try based on the needs and wants of your family and individual situation.
Increase calories during the day
Your baby doesn’t suddenly need less calories just because you decide to cut out nighttime feedings, so make sure you add a few more calories during the day! Two ways to do this are:
- Cluster feed in the evenings
- Giving your baby unlimited access to the breast from around dinner time until bedtime is a great way to fill their belly and help them sleep longer in that first stretch.
- Increase table foods
- After 6 months, try adding in an extra snack or 2 throughout the day/evening to get more calories in during awake hours which hopefully translates to less calories needed during sleep hours.
Reduce feeding duration
You can do this for one night feeding at a time, or with all night-time feedings at once. Be patient and go slow. It’s easiest to start with the first feeding of the night and then give a full feeding in the morning.
Here’s an example:
- Baby usually feeds 15 minutes
- Cut feed down to 13 minutes for 2 nights
- 10 minutes for 2 nights
- 7 minutes for 2 nights
- 4-5 minutes for 2 nights
- No longer feed at this time, comfort using other comfort techniques
Extend this schedule as needed. If two nights wasn’t enough, do another. If they got the message and skipped straight to 5-minute feedings, roll with it! Don’t be afraid to adjust to your baby’s needs.
Trade roles while making the shift
Babies are smart and they know mom has “the goods” (aka the breastmilk)! If available, this would be a great time for your partner to take over settling the baby when they wake up at night. This method seems to have fast and lasting effects on babies. They know when the non-nursing parent comes in to settle them down, it’s no-nonsense time. There’s no milk so they might as well go back to sleep. Babies are smart and tend to learn to self-soothe more quickly when not distracted by mom’s milk.
TIP: Start this process Friday night or over the next long weekend of work. That way, you’ll have several nights in a row to work on a new schedule before you need to be back to YOUR regular sleep schedule.
You may also offer to let your partner sleep in on these days while you get up early with the baby. Sometimes a trade off or compromise is a great way to get a hesitant partner on board!
Drop a feeding
The first step here is to identify when your baby wakes up to eat and when they wake up looking for the breast just to soothe back to sleep. Pay attention for a few nights to see when they are going for a full feeding and then find other ways to soothe them when you know they likely aren’t hungry.
Just dropping a feeding is a “cold turkey” way of doing things, but start with the first feeding of the night and try to soothe in other ways. *Helpful tips for soothing a baby without breastfeeding later in this article*
Try in combination with other methods above such as having your partner do the soothing to help baby learn to wait until the next feeding to eat.
Once the baby is on this new schedule, select another feeding to drop. Take your time and be patient, your baby might even start to sleep longer stretches on their own and skip their own feedings!
Find their own bed
If you’re still bed-sharing at this point, it will likely make cutting back night feedings difficult. With such close proximity and easy breast access, your baby will likely get frustrated (and so will you) saying no all night long. You have a couple of options though.
- Place their own bed in your room – This can get tricky because those babies are smart! If they can see you, smell you, and know you’re there even if you’re ignoring them, it can fuel the fire. Consider using a partition or an open closet door to block their view from you. Additionally, be prepared to use your strong will as you lay so close to them listening to pleas for milk. It can be hard not to give in and difficult for you to get any rest.
- Find them a separate room to sleep – This might be a great time to transition them to their own room if that is your long term plan. Being away from you will be unpleasant at first, but continue to comfort them so they know they aren’t forgotten. Leaving them to cry until they learn to self soothe is not very realistic for babies, so guide and teach them however you feel best. If it’s not your permanent plan to have them in their own room, you may still consider this option until they are more consistently sleeping through the night. You could then move their bed back in your room if you prefer.
- Old habits die hard – If you finally get them sleeping through the night and everything is great then decide to move them back into your bed, don’t be surprised if they revert back to wanting food at night. Again, it’s just a proximity thing. If the milk is there, they want it. If you’re still breastfeeding during the day, the transition back to your bed is challenging. On the plus side though, feedings will likely be much less frequent so if that’s ok with you, no one says you can’t do this!
Here are a couple more resources of transition from bedspring if you want to make the switch along with cutting back night feedings – How to gently transition your baby or toddler from co-sleeping or Co-sleeping to crib.
Now the big question is:
How on earth do you soothe a baby that wants a breast?? Here are a few ideas.
Other ways to soothe without the breast
Add a comfort replacement into your routine –
You’ll want to start this before you start night-weaning. Use music, scents (i.e. lavender oil in a diffuser), or an age-appropriate item as a comfort tool. Have this item in-between you and baby while putting them to sleep and during the night. Soon, they will associate this sound, smell, or item as a part of their mother and it will help themselves soothe knowing a part of you is with them even when your physically not.
Here is a great article with details on using this method.
Lay them down, say a comforting word, and walk out –
This approach can be difficult for the parent, but if your baby is old enough to learn to self sooth (NOT a 2 month old…) it can be an effective way to teach them it’s not milk time. This method is a widely used technique for sleep coaching and is usually better received when done by the non-breastfeeding caregiver. Babies know mom, her smell, and that she comes with milk. So this is a great time for a helpful partner or caregiver to step in and help.
If a partner or caregiver is unavailable, there’s nothing wrong with the mother using this technique. Be strong and set up expectations from the start. If things fall apart, don’t beat yourself up for giving in to a feeding. This process can take time. Trust yourself to know what’s best for your baby.
Rock, bounce, or sway back to sleep –
Don’t be afraid to help your baby learn to fall asleep without the breast. If letting them cry for a few minutes is too much, then pick them up and comfort them without feeding. Another great way a partner can help too.
Many expert sleep coaches disagree with picking up your child to comfort them while trying to sleep coach and truthfully it does probably work more effectively if you don’t. But never forget this is YOUR baby, and you need to follow your instinct and guide them to healthy sleep habits in a way that works best for you. NEVER feel guilty for doing something “wrong”, because comforting your baby is NEVER wrong.
Consider a pacifier or use your thumb –
This isn’t for everyone and if you introduce a pacifier you’ll have to break that habit later, but it might be a good option for some. You can also offer your (clean) thumb for the baby to suck on for a moment until they are calmed again.
Trust your gut –
Mothers instinct is real. What does your gut tell you would work best for your baby? What have you tried that has worked in the past to soothe your baby? Can you think of any times when your baby has fallen asleep without the breast? YOU know YOUR baby, so try soothing techniques that you’re already doing with them during the day or when you’re out and about.
IMPORTANT: When you decide what methods work best for you and your family, it’s most important to BE CONSISTENT. Babies are smart, and once they know you’ll give in if they persist long enough they’ll continue to follow that pattern.
If things just aren’t working, stop altogether and try again a couple weeks later.
The good news?
Guess what! Most babies can learn this process rather quickly, especially older babies. Once you start the process, many babies learn the new routine in 2-6 days. You can do that!
Want more good news? There is no set rule or time frame for babies to “sleep through the night”. Give it a solid try and if it doesn’t work, try again in a few weeks. You’re not doing anything wrong or breaking any rules. If your current routine is working for you, keep it up! Don’t let opinions or judgment from others rush you into weaning nighttime feedings.
If you’ve had success night-weaning your baby, comment below and give other moms some hope! I know this can be done, it just takes patience, trial and error, and a little mother’s intuition. Every baby is different, so don’t be afraid to trust your gut! You can do this! Good Luck!
~ All things for you and your new little life ~