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Ask Dr. Sears: Night Nursing Reducing

Q  My year-old son has been nursed on demand since he was born and still nurses three to four times a night, often waking just two hours after going to sleep. How do I wean him from some of these night nursings?


A You won't be surprised to hear that night weaning tops the list of questions I get in my pediatric practice. To understand why your baby is reluctant to stop nursing at night, look at this from his perspective. Baby is cuddled next to his favorite person in the whole world, just inches away from his favorite five-star restaurant. When he wakes up, he naturally wants to lean over and latch on for a little snack before going back to sleep. This scenario sounds great for your son, but as you know all too well, it's very tiring for you.

If you resent going to bed because it's work rather than rest, take it as a clue that you need to make some changes in your nighttime feeding patterns. Here's how to teach your infant that nighttime is for sleeping rather than for nursing.

First, understand that because toddlers are so busy during the day they often forget to nurse - so they make up for it at night. Try taking two breaks during the day when you're both tired, and nurse your child to sleep. This fills both his tummy and his "emotional tank." Then, before you turn in for the night, wake up Baby for a big feeding. This late-night meal will fill your son's stomach and therefore help him sleep for a longer stretch - otherwise, he's likely to want to snack often during the night.

You can also get your child used to falling asleep with props other than the breast. If Baby is always nursed to sleep, he will expect to be breastfed back to sleep when he wakes. Try rocking, singing, and backrubs instead. Your husband can help, too: A sleep-inducing routine we used to wean our little night nursers is one I call "wearing down." After Martha nursed our son Stephen, for example, I would wear him around the house in a baby sling for 20 to 30 minutes until he was fully asleep, then ease him out of the sling into his bed. When he awakened I would "father nurse" him by rocking him. (Remember, nursing means comforting, not only breastfeeding, so fathers can definitely "nurse" at night.) It was important for Martha to occasionally get a break from night duty, so I would take my turn wearing Stephen down, or let him fall asleep on my chest while singing a lullaby. If your baby is sleeping next to you in the same bed it will take more creativity to lessen the frequency of night nursing; you'll need to gradually increase the distance between Baby and breast by putting him in a crib next to your bed.

If your son doesn't want to wean from your bed or your breast at night, and none of these techniques are working, as a last resort try a method we call "moving out," in which Mom relocates to another room for a couple of nights and Baby sleeps next to Dad instead. When the breast is not so readily available, your son is likely to accept more father nursing (and you'll probably be surprised at the sleep-inducing tricks your husband can come up with in a pinch).

Whether your baby is night nursing so often because of habit or need is a judgment call. Follow your instincts on this, remembering that a habit will be easier to break than a need. A general parenting guide to keep in mind: If it's not working, Baby is not ready.

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