Before I share my night weaning plan (check back tomorrow for that!), I will share some tips to get you started. These are the five things I needed to realize, and really understand, in order for me to get comfortable with the idea of night weaning, create a plan, and commit to doing it no matter what.
1. Be confident and have a mantra. I think the important first step you must take when night weaning is realizing that you not only have a need for it (on a personal level), but that it is the right thing for you. This is important to the success of whatever plan you choose to use, because a confident mama will be exactly the kind of guide her baby needs in order to learn this new habit. Your job is to be calm, to be a rock for that little one who has only known nursing at night her whole life. That nursing (or feeding) routine is a very comforting, natural, beloved routine for your child- one that is not going to be given up without some very real mourning. Be calm and confident for your own sake (because, yes, you are doing the right thing for you!) and to make it easier for your child to accept a new way of sleeping. If you are nervous or unsure, your child will be, too.
To facilitate all of this, it is helpful to have a mantra—a phrase, or series of phrases, that you can repeat out loud throughout the weaning process. It will comfort your child (and you!), and remind them, in their confusion, exactly what you expect of them. Emerson listened intently to everything I was telling her when we weaned, so much so that she began to repeat the phrases to herself as a way to self-soothe.
To provide an example, the phrases we chose were “num nums (our word for nursing) are sleeping, night night baby, I’m right here, I love you, you’re okay.” Simple, but very effective.
2. Remember that kids can surprise you. Yes, even your child who you are so sure will act one way can just as easily surprise you. I’m saying this as a mother who truly believed her child could not be weaned. It seemed impossible to believe that my child could give up nursing for up to twelve hours at night when she had been waking every one to two hours for twenty-two months.
Emerson has been a very serious nurser from the beginning, and even now, after night weaning, is still very enthusiastic about her num nums. But, she surprised me! Not only did she in fact night wean, she learned very quickly and with barely any tears! I was absolutely shocked! I thought for sure…for sure she would cry for hours and hours. She would definitely be that baby who stayed up the entire night in protest and just not sleep, because she had never relented to anything…EVER…in the past. I thought for sure she would kick and hit and pull on my shirt and act like she was being tortured. She did none of those things. None.
I will say that it was very important to listen to my gut on when was the right time to consider weaning. I don’t know that I would have been as successful if I had pushed Emerson to wean when neither of us was ready for it emotionally.
3. Be prepared. It is much easier to handle the anxious moments of am-I-doing-the-right-thing or omg-she’s-freaking-out-should-I-stop when you have a plan. I mean plan every little detail of this that you can think of so you know what to do when the time comes. Pick a date in advance- preferably one when you are not working and know you will have the help of your spouse or another trusted family member at night, and during the day for a few days, because you will most likely be exhausted. Then come up with a plan that feels right to you, exact phrases you and/or your spouse are going to use at night (because a lot of talking and explaining and freaking out in the middle of the night is not going to be very effective), decide whether or not you want to work in shifts with your spouse, have a plan for getting enough rest during the day, have some pre-made, frozen meals (or takeout) at the ready so you don’t have to cook (again, you will be tired), have all the groceries, diapers, household items you will need for a few days, etc etc.
Beyond the planning as a way to make it easier aspect, I say “pick a specific date ahead of time” because personally I have been through countless difficult phases with my child, as most parents have, from the time she was born, during which I reacted in the moment with “I can’t do this anymore! I don’t want to nurse you at night! I’m going to lose my mind! That is it!” only to later calm down and know that I did not truly feel that way. I think it’s important to chose a time to night wean that has been thought out and decided upon in a calm manner rather than as a reaction to a bad phase (teething, biting, sickness, developmental milestones, growth spurts, etc).
4. Don’t let bad phases scare you. To further what I just said above, you can do this regardless of the seemingly never-ending phases your child is going through. Once I realized that I needed to night wean (for my own well-being, and therefore my chid’s), I felt a bit hopeless about it. I knew it needed to happen, yet I couldn’t see how I was going to get there when Emerson was always going through something. I had chosen a specific date during my husband’s spring break, which was the only time for many months that I would have his help. And in the weeks leading up to the big day Emerson started to cut two molars and then had two back-to-back colds! It felt like the worst possible time for her to handle such a huge change, and to take away her only comforting mechanism.
Then I did a ton of research on night weaning while teething. I found this really long, extremely useful discussion amongst mothers with similar concerns. This was helpful because the mothers discussed their experience with teething while night weaning, and had consulted with Dr. Jay Gordon himself on the topic (an expert who has a night weaning plan that I used as the foundation of my own plan). What I came away with from all this research is this very obvious, but true fact: it is nearly impossible to find a 10-day window during which your child will not be teething, sick, or going through a growth spurt/developmental milestone. I was waiting for a time that didn’t exist (at least not until Emerson turns three)!
So, with the encouraging words of other mothers and an actual expert himself, I went ahead with my plan. I did wait a few days until the peak of Emerson’s cold and teething had passed (which was recommended), but she was still feeling the effects of both and it wasn’t an obstacle at all.
5. Don’t be afraid to take your time. We live in a culture of instant gratification. We expect quick fixes. But, this isn’t easy. It’s work, and it’s hard. Personally, it was my feeling that if I was patient and was as gentle as possible, the results would be more lasting and gratifying. And that is exactly what happened. In all honesty, I feel closer to my child now after going through a process that I was afraid would have the opposite effect, and all because I took my time.
I did teach my child to stop nursing and sleep through the night in just seven days, but that was after a lot of prep work. Yes, prep work. That is what I mean by “take your time.” Here’s what that looked like for me…
I had been nursing Emerson to sleep (and then throughout the night any time she woke) for 20+ months. So, my first step was to teach her to go to sleep without nursing. Now this isn’t necessary, and some people choose to continue to nurse to sleep during and after night weaning, but I was resenting this being the only way for her to go to sleep so I felt it needed to change. I also felt it would be a small step in teaching her not to associate falling asleep with nursing, which is obviously pretty important in order to night wean.
So, we altered our bedtime routine to my husband reading Emerson stories while I nursed her. When the stories were over and we turned out the light, the num nums went to sleep. She still got to nurse close to bedtime, just not actually at bedtime. This is another important lesson necessary for the night weaning you plan to do: your needs will be met almost all the time, little one. Your child’s fear of never being nursed again can make things pretty loud and challenging while night weaning, and rightly so, but if they have already learned the word “almost” it is much easier.
Emerson first learned that she would not be nursed to sleep at bedtime, but the rest of the night I was still there for her to nurse. She really got that. I took my time by spending a week or two letting her have a little extra nursing while trying to fall asleep on the nights she was really upset about not being nursed to sleep, and then cut her off completely during the third week. There were a few tears, and only one really difficult night, but she quickly adapted and accepted hugs and lullabies instead of nursing, which let her know I was still there for her.
The next prep work step for me was teaching Emerson to fall asleep without me touching her. Emerson was very addicted to physical touch. She was nursed while being worn in a sling while being patted on the back and bounced on an exercise ball. Every night. No exceptions. That was just what she really needed for the first eighteen months of her life. From eighteen months to twenty-two months she still needed nursing and back patting. But, once I taught her to fall asleep without nursing, it was honestly an easy segue into falling asleep without touch. I would simply lie next to her in bed and let her flop around, talk to herself, climb on me, whatever it took for her to fall asleep. This did mean getting used to lying in the dark with her for at least an hour, but she learned the lesson beautifully and self-soothing is a very important part of night weaning, and even more so sleeping through the night.
Beyond those prep work lessons, I also prepped Emerson by talking to her about what was going to happen in the days leading up to night weaning. She listened very intently, and was visibly nervous, but it really did prepare her. Instead of being surprised, she knew it was coming and felt respected and trusted me.
I hope these tips have helped! Come back tomorrow for my night weaning plan!