13 Feb Night weaning: when and how?
Many professionals claim that a baby is physiologically “ready” to sleep through the night without feeds from six months of age. Professionally, I find that this largely depends on the child; their current health, weight, developmental stage, whether they are breast or formula-fed, if they were born premature, if solids have been well-established and if they are consuming adequate milk and solids in their waking hours to accommodate for night weaning. It also very much depends on you – the parent. There are no hard and fast rules with when or how to wean; if it’s not a problem for you, it’s not a problem!
Whilst it is extremely natural and developmentally “normal” for a child of six months and beyond to still have one or more feeds overnight, and can be an extremely bonding and nurturing experience between parent and baby, habitual night waking to feed for comfort can take its toll on the whole family. Sleep deprivation can lead to deterioration of physical and mental health, relationship break-downs and depression. It’s usually under these circumstances where I recommend accessing your options for reducing night feeds, or to potentially night wean – especially no one in the family is getting the sleep that they need to function. Although feed-related sleep difficulties are more prevalent in breastfed babies, it also commonly affects bottle and formula-fed babies.
Average number of night feeds by age:
Birth to three months: Feed every two to three hours, on demand
Three to four months: Two to three feeds per night or every three to six hours, on demand
Five to six months: One to two night feeds.
Seven to nine months: One, maybe two night feeds.
10 to 12 months: Sometimes one feed overnight.
12 months and over: Generally no feeds.
The above is only an average. Irrespective of age, some children may require additional feeds during times of illness, teething or developmental milestones – where daytime feeds are inadequate from loss of appetite and/or discomfort. Premature babies may also have additional feeding needs up to 12 months and beyond.
How do I know when my child may be ready to night-wean?
- Your child is at least six months or older and solids have been well-established.
- Your child was not premature/is not underweight.
- Night feeds are habitual or for comfort rather than nutritive – i.e. your child feeds for less than five minutes and falls straight back asleep.
- There is no pattern to overnight feeds – i.e. number of waking and times vary from one night to the next.
- Your child is feeding more overnight than during the day.
- Regular night feedings are draining of energy and the overall enjoyment of feeding and/or parenthood.
- Your child has previously been capable of sleeping through without feeds and/or has slept through with only a dream feed for a period of three or more days in a row – and this is not related to illness or teething.
- Your child is feeding once overnight e.g. between 3:00am to 4:00am, and consistently refuses his/her morning feed.
At six months of age, you can expect a growth spurt, developmental leaps and changes in overnight sleep patterns. Whilst we can make every attempt to night wean our child from this age, the outcome may be dependent on factors outside of your control! I recommend waiting until closer to nine to 10 months before making this transition – this also accommodates for any regression at the mercy of the nine month growth spurt!
Preparing to night wean
- You as the parent must be ready and committed to the change to avoid confusing your child. Choose a time that feels right for you both to begin the process. Attempting to do so during times of illness, milestones, teething, or life transitions such as beginning childcare, introducing a new sibling, or toilet training is not ideal!
- Ensure you have a regular day and bedtime routine in place. Children thrive on predictability, and feel safe in knowing what they can expect from day to day. Incorporate positive and consistent sleep associations such as: dark room, sleeping bag, white noise, reading a book, singing a song, a kiss and cuddle good night and encourage self settling from four months. It also helps if you can avoid over-tiredness, as this is counterproductive to a child’s ability to accept change gracefully! An age-appropriate awake time together with regular scheduled meals and milk feeds during the day is paramount.
- When you are ready, ensure you communicate this change with your child in advance to encourage their cooperation (or as much as possible). Irrespective of age, children understand more than we give them credit for!
- Weaning can bring up big feelings for both parent and child. At the core of most difficulties surrounding sleep for children (or changes in sleep routine such as weaning) is feelings of fear (often disguised as insecurity, overwhelm, aggression and separation anxiety). Connection is the cornerstone for success, and establishing trust and security is the most powerful antidote for fear. My tips and strategies for how you can start incorporating some connection tools by day to encourage safety and security here.
- For many children for which feeding has become a control pattern, habit, or sleep-need – as a parent, it helps to become aware of when your child is demanding a feed during the day – i.e. are they hungry? or is this a diversion for boredom, or when they are hurt, tired, frustrated or upset? Where possible, focus on feeding only when your child is hungry. Working on this before night weaning can help make this transition much easier for everyone involved. Listening is the perfect tool to use when you suspect your child is not hungry and is relying on the breast or bottle to repress painful or uncomfortable emotions.
- Understand that crying is a healthy and normal way for your child to express their feelings around any change in their life – especially when weaning them from something to which they have become so attached. If you have met you child’s basic needs – i.e. hunger, stimulation, physical touch – and they are not in pain or discomfort – then children will cry to recover from feelings such as hurt, grief, sadness, fear and disappointment as well as to heal from birth trauma (which affects over 90% of babies). Crying and night weaning are synonymous. If you have the bandwidth to support (listen to) your child to offload these feelings regularly by day (i.e tears, frustrations and tantrums), and overnight (i.e. when you are withholding the breast or bottle in between scheduled feed times) – this usually ensures a more effective and sustainable solution. Listening involves holding your child close and validating their emotional experience – e.g. “I know this is hard for you sweetheart. I am right here for you, I love you, you are safe” – or “I know you’re not hungry. There’s no milk now sweetheart, but you have me, I am here with you and we will get through this together”. Listening communicates to your child that they are loved, safe, and that we truly accept everything that they are and are feeling in that moment – no shame, no judgement, no anger and no frustration or wishing for things to be otherwise.
- Ensure you (as the parent) have the support of a spouse, friend or family to listen to you, or to confide in if the night weaning process evokes any uncomfortable or painful memories from your own upbringing – often disguised as feelings of helplessness anxiety, frustration, anger or upset during the “listening” process.
- Ensure that your child is receiving adequate solids and milk feeds during the day according to their age. From three months of age, babies should be feeding more by day than overnight. If your child is feeding more overnight than during the day, then slowly increase the quantity of milk given during the day and decrease this same amount at night e.g. by 20ml to 30ml for bottle-fed babies, and by one to two minutes for breastfed babies. This will help to reverse their body clocks, and ensure that they are still receiving the same quantity in a 24-hour period.
- It is best for all when the weaning process is a respectful and gradual one. Clearing your calendar, ensuring you have “back-up” support if you encounter some rather sleepless nights, and planning in advance will ensure your success….
Tips and (gentle) solutions for night weaning
- My rule of thumb: from four months of age, babies will be capable of stretching an additional hour overnight between feeds that what they are capable of doing during the day e.g. if you are feeding your child four-hourly by day, then try for four to five-hourly feeds overnight. At any age, your child should be feeding more during the day than at night.
- Be mindful about how quickly you attend to your child overnight. All babies cycle through light and deep stages of sleep which may explain why you may wake to movement, grizzling, or crying out periodically overnight. Before you intervene to feed or resettle, ensure that they are actually awake and crying for you, rather than crying or making noises in their sleep – otherwise, you may interfere with their ability to self-settle. You may be able to reduce wakes by up to 50 percent just by allowing your child the space overnight before rushing in!
- If you are feeding regularly overnight, try to feed every second time your child wakes by offering an alternative source of comfort – such as a cuddle, gentle rocking, holding, or patting as a replacement for milk.
- Schedule overnight feeds a minimum of three to four-hourly and listen to your child lovingly if, and when they wake outside of scheduled feeding times. Babies who have been accustomed to being fed every time they wake overnight (sometimes as often as every one to two hours) will no doubt have some hard feelings about this change. They will thrash, cry and scream to let you know they are not happy and/or are feeling uncomfortable with this. Know that this reaction is normal, and in fact essential for long-term progress. The more you can support your child to release this stress and tension (and subsequent feelings of frustration, grief, sadness and confusion surrounding the change to their routine), the more effective and efficient this process will be. It is useful to note that most newborns feed every three to four hours around the clock, so starting on this overnight feeding schedule is kind, gentle and gradual – and won’t be expecting too much from your little one to begin this transition.
- If your baby is formula-fed, reduce the amount of milk given in their bottle at each overnight feed every one to two nights e.g. by 20ml to 30ml. If your baby is drinking less than 60ml at any one overnight feed, then you can consider eliminating this feed altogether and resettling instead. I recommend keeping a log over three to seven days detailing the number of wakes, times of waking, and how long your child is feeding each time. This can help discern the comfort or habitual feeds from the nutritive feeds.
- If you are breastfeeding, the general rule of thumb assumes: if your child is only feeding for five minutes or less, it is considered a comfort feed, i.e. more likely to be comfort/habit than nutritive. In this case, you can attempt to resettle your child at these feeds instead of offering the breast. If your child is feeding for longer than five minutes, then gradually reduce the time you are feeding by one to two minutes every night (depending on how long they are feeding for). I recommend keeping a log over three to seven days detailing the number of wakes, times of waking, and how long your child is feeding each time. This can help discern the comfort or habitual feeds from the nutritive feeds.
- Introduce a dream feed three to four hours after bedtime to eliminate hunger as a reason for waking. This will be most beneficial if your child is only waking for one or two feeds overnight, and not every two to three hours (and most effective for babies eight months and under). Try to schedule any subsequent night feeds at least three to four hours after the dream feed. Ideal feed times are: 10:30pm /11:00pm and 2:30am/3:00am.
- If you are feeding your child every time they wake overnight, try fading out feeds gradually over a week e.g. night one: introduce a dream feed three to four hours after bedtime and avoid feeding your child if they wake before the dream feed. Feed your child each time they wake after the dream feed. Night two: resettle the first time your child wakes after the dream feed. Feed upon any consecutive waking/s. Night three: resettle at the first two wakes, then feed for any consecutive waking/s. Night four: resettle for the initial three wakes, feed on any consecutive waking/s, and so on. The intention is to slowly schedule overnight feeds later and later, until the last feed you are doing is at 5:00am. Once your child is capable of sleeping through consistently for one week, you can wean them from the dream feed (either by feeding them less at the dream feed time over a few nights, or bringing the time of the dream feed earlier by 30 minutes over three nights).
- Gradually replace feeds with alternative comfort such as rocking, holding, patting – or listening. For example, night one: resettle your child the first time they wake e.g. 10:00pm, and feed every other time thereafter. Night two: hopefully they will wake a little later e.g. 12:00am – so continue to resettle for the first wake and feed upon every other waking thereafter, and so on.
- Increase the intervals between night feeds over a period of three weeks: week one: three-hour intervals, week two: four-hour intervals, week three: five-hour intervals. These intervals refer to the time elapsed since the beginning of the previous feed. Resettle if your baby awakens during these intervals by offering an alternative method of comfort such as holding, gentle rocking – or listening.
- Use the “core night method” – once your child is capable of sleeping for a certain length of time through the night e.g. 10:30pm to 3:00am, and does so for three to seven nights consecutively, you no longer need to feed him/her during this span of time. Ideally this method should be considered when your child is still waking in the night looking for a feed but only feeding for a short time and/or refuses their milk feed upon waking for the day.
- If your child is habitually waking at the same time/s overnight i.e. for three days or more, re-set their body clock by gently rousing them from their sleep one hour before their usual waking time (an alarm clock is required!). Be careful not to wake them completely, you only want them to stir. when they do, gently pat, or rub their back, belly or bottom to encourage them to transition into the next sleep cycle without waking completely. You will need to be consistent with this method for three to seven days, and it is most effective if you tackle one night waking at a time.
Tips for co-sleeping families
- If you are breastfeeding, change your sleeping arrangements temporarily, for example, sleep on a mattress, create a distance between your baby and yourself in the bed or place a comforter between you.
- Shorten the nighttime feeds (either by reducing formula amount, the length of breastfeeding time and/or removing the milk before they fall back to sleep).
- Stop feeding a sleeping baby ‒ don’t breastfeed or offer the bottle every time your baby stirs overnight. It is natural for babies to cry out in their sleep multiple times a night, so wait until they are actually awake and requiring your intervention before feeding.
Something to consider before night weaning
- There are many benefits to feeding overnight. Breastmilk varies in its composition during the day when compared to at night. In addition to melatonin, evening and nighttime breastmilk is rich with other sleep-inducing and brain-boosting amino acids.
- Overnight feeds also promote milk supply and may encourage the development of your baby’s circadian rhythm in the first three months of life.
- Before weaning, consult a lactation consultant or healthcare professional to discuss the best way for you and your family to approach this transition – this will be dependent on the age of your child and frequency of overnight feeds. You will want to avoid such health problems as mastitis and painful full breasts as a result of cutting out too many feeds, or too quickly!