Night Weaning: The When and How

If you are wondering when you can stop feeding your baby at night time, this post is for you! I get asked this question a ton - after all, if you want your kiddo to sleep through the night, this is BIG part of it! I have the long and the short answer as well as the how for you.


The Short Answer


If your child is about six months or older, gaining weight as expected, and your doctor says you’re okay to end nighttime feeds, then go ahead and give it a shot! Sounds easy, right? Check, check, check!

But…. For so many babies that doesn’t seem to be the case. You might be wondering, “But my 9 month old wakes two or three times for a feed – why hasn’t she stopped waking for those feeds?”


The Long Answer


Metabolically, if your child is healthy and at least 13 lbs/5.8 kg, they can drop the feed. This usually is around the 6 month age but can come earlier or later (using weight is the more appropriate measure here).


The reason they haven’t stopped waking is usually a vicious cycle: baby wakes and can’t put himself back to sleep being fed, so parents do what they think is helpful and feed the baby. And this feed to sleep association happens every few hours after baby comes out of a sleep cycle and doesn’t know how to go back to sleep by himself - See the cycle here?


Feeding and/or nursing to sleep is just about the biggest sleep prop I see as a sleep consultant. People don’t usually think of it as a “sleep prop” because of how natural and necessary it is. They tend to associate the term with pacifiers, mobiles, and crib aquariums. But a sleep prop is really anything external that your baby relies on in order to get to sleep.


So if you’re still feeding your baby to sleep at bedtime, chances are, they are waking multiple times a night looking for that feed (regardless of hunger level). And it’s here that you need to make some changes.

“But I’m not!” I can hear you saying. “I put him to bed while he’s still awake, and he falls asleep independently! No props, no nothing! But he still wakes up three times a night looking to eat!”

Although it’s a less common scenario, I do see this fairly often. Mom is doing everything right at bedtime, but is still feeding baby to sleep when they wake up in the night.


Some babies are just habitual nighttime eaters. It’s not that they’re hungry, or in need of calories. They’ve just managed to disassociate bedtime sleep with waking in the night, and if Mom’s still willing to give up some breast milk in the night, well then, so much the better!

The bad news is that you’re going to have to break this association by giving up night feeds. That’s going to mean some protesting, which won’t be fun for anyone.


But the good news is that, since your baby’s learned to sleep without props at bedtime, that means he’s already got some strong sleep skills, and the protesting should be over within a couple of nights (not there yet and need help with this? Click here to get started).


Night Weaning Strategies


So what’s the strategy for this? There are two ways to go about it, no way is wrong and frankly it is based on your level of comfort. I will say that I do have a preference.


Option 1: Cold turkey. Stop tonight and don’t start again. This is definitely the easier route if your baby is only waking once, maybe twice) each night for a feed.


When they wake looking for that feed, you would treat it like a regular night waking and rely on your sleep training method until they fall back asleep. It makes for rougher nights, but it is fast, usually done in about two or three nights.


Option 2: Ladder wean down. This is my preferred method, especially if your baby is waking more than three times a night for the (unnecessary, but habitual) feed. This takes longer, but is a bit more gentle (READ: NOT easy, but perhaps easIER). And, side note, this is the method I used with my own little one and saw it's effectiveness and know what it is like to go through it.


This takes about a week.


Nights 1-3: Allow only 2 feeds each between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 5:15 a.m. Each feed must be 3 hours apart. For example, if your baby wakes at 11:30, offer a feed, but the next feed won’t be until between 2:30 – 5:15. If your baby wakes up outside those parameters, then you will treat it like a regular night waking and use your sleep training method until your baby is back to sleep.

Nights 4-6: Allow only 1 feed, this time only between the hours of 12:30 – 5:00 a.m. So if your baby wakes at 1:00 a.m., offer a feed. All other wakings are considered regular night wakings and you would use your sleep training method to get them back to sleep.


Night 7 and beyond: You are no longer offering any feeds. Each night waking is considered a regular night waking and you would use your sleep training method to get baby back to sleep.


If your baby self weans earlier – for example, perhaps on night 2 she only wakes once for a feed, then fast forward and continue with 1 feed for 3 nights and don’t go back to allowing 2 feeds. Stick to your baby’s best! They will often lead you, simply follow their lead.


Conclusion


The sooner your little one learns independent sleep skills, the sooner he’ll be sleeping through the night. That’s great news for you and your partner, but it’s even better news for baby! More uninterrupted sleep means baby’s mind and body get more of those glorious restorative effects that take place during the night, making for a happier, healthier tomorrow!


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