My one-year-old toddler wants to nurse a lot at night, and I'm extremely tired. How can I encourage him to stop nursing at night?

There can be many reasons why a one-year-old toddler wants to nurse a lot at night. For instance, he may be going through a normal developmental stage, such as when learning to walk or talk. During these times, he needs reassurance and extra touch before he can begin this gradual separation process toward greater independence. If a child is frequently waking during the night, it may be wise to rule out physical causes for the waking such as teething, earache, reflux, or other illnesses.

You may want to consider what the easiest way to meet your child's needs are and whether it is easier to cut back on nighttime nursing and nurse once in the middle of the night, sleep with the child so that he can nurse without waking you, or night wean. What is best for you may not be best for another mother. Consider what feels right to you.

If you have already tried everything possible to take care of your needs for rest, like waking later in the morning, napping with your child, or going to bed earlier, and decide that you want to proceed with nighttime weaning, know that it can be very difficult if your child isn't ready to do so on his own. It requires finding substitutes for every need breastfeeding meets for your child. You will also need to find other ways to help your baby get back to sleep.

The key to omitting night nursing is to continue to be responsive to your child's needs. We know of wonderful mothers who do not nurse at night, but they get up and respond to their baby, no matter how many times that might be. Nighttime weaning may work for some families, and not for others.

Here are some tips to begin omitting nighttime nursing sessions:

  • Consider whether a consistent bedtime routine would help. Some children prefer an earlier bedtime and others do better with a later bedtime. Some like baths and singing, while others prefer a book and rocking.
  • See how easy it might be for your baby to fall asleep without nursing. You could try not offering the breast immediately, and try walking with him, rocking, and rubbing or patting his back to help your baby fall asleep.
  • See if you can get the baby to "let go" of the breast before falling asleep. Some babies may be willing to let go and fall asleep near the mother, or in her arms without nursing. Consider that some babies will not like this, and may become very upset when you try to detach.
  • Be sure you nurse enough during the day. Many times active toddlers nurse throughout the night to make up for their lack of daytime nursing.
  • Try offering substitutes during the night when he first wakes. For instance, you could offer him a "sippy cup" with water in case he wants to nurse because he is thirsty. He may also be hungry and would be satisfied with a light snack.
  • You can try sleeping on your stomach or wear a gown that makes your breasts less accessible to your child at night.
  • If possible, involve your partner with the bedtime routine. Work on helping him to get your child to sleep. Some children are ready for this sooner than others; the key is to be responsive to your child's needs.
  • Let your partner try to handle getting your child back to sleep in the middle of the night. He may have an easier time of it than you, since your child knows that you could be nursing him.

 

Tips for a verbal child:

  • Help him learn how to wait a few minutes during the day when he wants to nurse. If he can do this during the day, then you can try to transfer the wait to the nighttime. When children wake at night and can wait a few minutes, they often will fall back to sleep on their own.
  • Encourage him to wait until morning by telling him that he can nurse when it is light outside. Make it fun by saying something like "when Mr. Sun goes to sleep, milk goes night-night too" and use the same for waking.
  • Talk to him about the fact that he will not always need to nurse to go to sleep or when he wakes during the night. Talk about this with him during a quiet, happy time during the day. Present it in a positive, matter-of-fact way as something that will naturally occur as he gets older. Do this daily before you begin night weaning so that you give him plenty of time to prepare for the transition.

 

These methods require time and effort and some loss of sleep on your part and may result in some unhappiness on your baby's part if you are not responsive to his needs. Take a month or two to accomplish this, if you can wait that long. After all, this is a big milestone for your child, and it is clearly best if done gradually. Thus, use the tips on cutting back the nighttime nursing, to begin with, and gradually help your child to sleep without nursing. While it may seem difficult, mothers have accomplished this without their child ever shedding a tear; however, a lot of patience is required!

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