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Ask Dr. Sears: Weaning Night-Nursing

Q  My wife may need to stop night nursing our 2-year-old for health reasons, but our son demands it several times during the night. Any suggestions?
A It may help to get behind the eyes of your 2-year-old to understand why he loves to night nurse. During the day, mom and child are busy; yet at night he has mom all to himself. Life is good. If he sleeps next to mom, he's inches away from his favorite cuisine, so naturally he's going to "milk" the situation for all he can get. This problem may require some creative parenting; here are some tips to help you wean your child at night.

Tank up your toddler during the day. Reserve a couple of special times during the day to snuggle up with your toddler for nap nursing. This tranquil interlude during a busy day is a luxury that won't last much longer, so enjoy it while you can. Also, wake baby for a full feeding just before you go to bed. This may satisfy your child and give you a couple extra hours of sleep.

Enjoy father nursing. Remember, nursing implies comforting, not only breastfeeding. While only mothers can breastfeed, fathers can "nurse." A custom that I have used to help Martha wean our night nursers is a fathering technique I call "wearing down." Just before bedtime, Dad can wear Baby around in a sling until he is sound asleep. This capitalizes on the concept of sleep associations. If a baby is always breastfed to sleep then he will naturally expect to breastfed back to sleep when he awakens. Once your toddler gets used to Dad putting him to sleep, he will more willingly accept Dad's comfort.

Teach your child that nighttime is meant for sleeping not for nursing. Two-year-olds are verbal enough to understand this concept. When you put him to sleep say, "nummies go night-night," or whatever term he uses for breastfeeding. If he wakes during the night say, "nummies are night-night." When night-weaning our toddlers, the last thing they would hear was, "mommy go night-night, daddy go night-night, baby go night-night, and nummies go night-night." Constantly hearing this phrase will condition your child not to expect to be nursed when he awakens.

Let Dad take over at night. Dad should realize it's very hard for his wife to say no to her night-nursing toddler. A mother is biologically programmed to respond to her child's cries. In fact it has been demonstrated that when a child cries, blood flow to a mother's breast doubles, accompanied by a biological urge to nurse. If your wife is burning out from sleep depravation and the above night-weaning techniques are not successful, sleep with your toddler in a separate room for a couple of nights so that mother and child are not in close nursing distance of one another. While this may be hard on all three of you, you'll be surprised what comforting techniques you'll come up with in a pinch. Once your child gets used to "father nursing" and realizes that nighttime is for sleeping and not for eating, you will all enjoy a full night's sleep.

Remember, nursing lasts for a relatively short time in the life with your child. So while night nursing can be exhausting, think of it as a long-term investment. The memories of nighttime love and availability are ones that will last a lifetime.

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