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Toddler Tips

Setting Limits on Nighttime Nursing

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 21 No. 3, May-June 2004, pp. 106-9

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.


My husband and I have a big, comfortable bed for cosleeping with our 15-month-old. The problem is, I am getting burned out with frequent night nursing. On a typical night, I nurse and rock our daughter to sleep at 8 pm. She wakes up at 10:30 or 11 pm, and I lie down with her, nurse, and we both fall asleep. Then she wakes every hour or two until dawn, when she gets up ready to start the day. Interrupted sleep is getting to me. I'm always tired. Will my child outgrow this or do I need to limit her nursing? Does extended nighttime nursing really have long-term benefits?


This sounds similar to my family's situation two years ago. My first child (now three years old) slept in her crib as a side-car to our bed until she was nearly two years old and slept in a full-size bed in our bedroom until she was three. Have heart, your daughter will outgrow this! There may be many factors contributing to her wakefulness at night, including teething, separation anxiety, and practicing her latest developmental feat. I found that the most difficult time to cosleep was when my child was around 15 months old. She was learning to walk and talk, her molars were coming in, and she was generally having a tough time. I believed that meeting her nighttime needs was important for helping her through this difficult time. But I also knew that if I didn't do something to alleviate some of my sleep deprivation, I was going to continue to have a hard time coping during the day!

After days of feeling as if I were a zombie, I left her with my husband one evening to scour the local bookstore for something that might give me inspiration. I discovered Elizabeth Pantley's No-Cry Sleep Solution and began a journey of loving, gentle sleep change. One of the best things this book told me was that I didn't have to wean her or stop cosleeping. Instead, I made small simple changes to our routine, our schedule, and my own attitude. Sleep got a little better right away, but after sticking to my plan for several weeks, there was a dramatic difference. She wasn't sleeping for 12 hours, but she wasn't waking every one or two hours anymore, either. I could live with two or three wakings per night, especially if she went right back to sleep. My husband and I were able to reclaim our evenings with an earlier bedtime and things got a lot easier for all of us. I also found that just doing something proactive and concrete helped me feel less helpless in the face of frequent night wakings.

When my daughter was about 21 months old, we bought a full size mattress and put it on the floor of her room. I started nursing her to sleep there and putting her down to sleep alone. I'd go to bed in our room and go to her when she first awoke. Sometimes, I'd return to my bed and sometimes I'd stay with her—following her cues as I'd always done. Gradually, she started sleeping longer stretches, although there were always times (illnesses, trips, or other changes) when she would wake more. Soon after her second birthday we also night-weaned by offering water, snuggles, and songs instead of nursing through the night.

We continue to go to her at night if she wakes, though that is becoming more and more infrequent. My husband has taken over this role since the arrival of our second child—he misses it when she doesn't call for him in the wee hours of the night. We also continue to snuggle at nap and bedtime and one of us stays with her until she's asleep. I'm sure the time will come all too quickly when she won't want or need us to stay with her even for that. Rest assured that meeting your daughter's nighttime needs with nursing and other methods will allow her to develop her own emotional readiness to sleep alone.

Christine Fairfield
Columbus OH USA


In our case, I don't think our son would have outgrown the night nursing until he was much older. But, I had outgrown it. It wasn't working for me anymore. I was tired all the time and got really frustrated having to nurse him back to sleep two hours after his initial bedtime. This was the only time my husband and I had alone each day, and it was hard to have our time together repeatedly interrupted.

When my son was 22 months old and began to clearly communicate and understand situations better, we decided to night wean him. Our plan was to nurse him to sleep and then no more nursing until morning. It was one of the most emotionally challenging things I've ever experienced. I felt guilty, mean, and sad that I was denying my son the experience of nursing. But, it was only that first night that was hard. For about the first two weeks he still asked for "na-na" but really knew deep down that "na-na was asleep" and he'd have to wait until morning to get it.

Then a miracle occurred—he began sleeping through the night. I had to re-learn how to sleep through the night, too. After three months of no night nursing other than nursing to sleep at bedtime, I am well rested and confident in our decision.

Caryn Diamond
Dayton OH USA


I went through this scenario with my son, Cameron. I believed in nursing on demand and thought he would mature right out of this routine that was robbing me and my family of my full functionality. The thought of sleep training was nonsense to me. After over six months of sleep deprivation, I began to take some suggestions from other mothers who had guided their children toward different sleep patterns. I read several excerpts from the books in my Group Library and took some advice from a friend whose child was similar to mine.

My husband and I decided it would be necessary to wean Cameron, who was 19 months at the time, from nursing at night. This was a new concept to me since baby-led weaning was my first choice.

It was a lot easier than I thought it could possibly be, which is why I will make the following suggestion to you: plan to change your sleeping arrangements temporarily so that your husband can be the caregiver through the night.

Keep in mind that your baby's sleep cycles are naturally short, and she is surfacing to nurse only to go back to sleep again. My son would do this every hour and often nurse for only 10 seconds before sleeping another one-hour period, and so on through the night. I dreaded that he would cry and have trouble going back to sleep if I wasn't there to nurse him back to sleep, but our plan was for my husband to comfort him through the night and for me to sleep in another room. We would do this for a week to solidify the change.

The first night I closed the doors to both rooms (we usually leave bedroom doors open) just so that I wouldn't hear him cry. To my surprise, he hardly fussed, and he let his father cuddle him back to sleep. As planned, we used this arrangement for about a week. When I started sleeping in our bed again, Cameron was definitely "through the woods." He would still wake sometimes and need to cuddle back to sleep. There was the occasional nursing, but only a couple of times since we began this change. I was happy to realize that when he did need to nurse in the middle of the night, it was not a sign of backsliding.

At almost three years old, he has been sleeping for longer periods of time for over a year now—and so have I! In addition to this, Cameron easily gave up his bedtime nursing for cuddling to sleep, and in more recent months, I have been able to get him to go to bed while still awake with prayers and a kiss. The family bed is something I value. Children like to sleep next to their mothers. But we're all getting more uninterrupted sleep now while still meeting our son's needs at night.

Kathy Campbell
Marco Island FL USA


We cosleep with our 19-month-old and, after experiencing wakefulness similar to what you've described, have learned a few methods that have helped all of us sleep more soundly. Our son used to wake up six to eight times to nurse. Now, he only wakes one or two times during 11 hours of sleep. We discovered, quite by accident, that feeding him plain yogurt or cow's milk just before bed helped reduce the number of night awakenings. Also, since production of melatonin (the deep sleep hormone) is interrupted by any light coming into the bedroom, hanging dark curtains and removing night lights from the bedroom has helped all of us experience deeper sleep, too.

Are you and your daughter able to nap at all during the day? It is during these naps that my exhaustion of the past two years seems to be replenished, and I know our son sleeps more soundly when he's had a good, solid nap earlier in the day.

Jocelyn Bailey Esch
Richmond IN USA


When my daughter was 15 months old, she was sleeping just as your daughter is. That is when we decided to wean her from nighttime nursing.

Every child is different, as is every mother. I think some children "outgrow" the need or desire to nurse at night, and some don't. I think some mothers can do it indefinitely and some can't. It's so very important to honor and embrace your own limits. I had reached mine and realized that too often I woke up tired, angry, and resentful if I was nursing my toddler every hour or so throughout the night. I simply couldn't mother my daughter the way I wanted to when running on empty. I believe that extended nursing is full of long-term benefits, but that extended nighttime nursing can come at a high price. If you think it's time to curb night nursing, your daughter can continue to benefit from nursing during the day and you both can get good sleep.

We have a family bed, too, so when our daughter would wake up wanting to nurse, I was always right beside her. I would comfort her with my voice, offer water, and explain that we were not going to nurse at night any more and that we would wait until morning. I was sure to talk to her about it each night before we went to sleep, and I would try to use "daylight" as our indicator of when we could nurse.

Consistency was extremely important. It was much easier for my daughter if I didn't let her have one nurse somewhere in the middle of the night or if I didn't "give in" one night and not the next. It was really hard for the first few nights, but it did get easier and we all slept better.

Lorelei Voelker
Saugerties NY USA


Our family also cosleeps, and my daughter nursed every one to two hours through the night until she was two-and-a-half, at which time I could no longer tolerate the sleep deprivation. I was very apprehensive about night-weaning. My daughter had been a colicky, seemingly sleepless infant. When she finally began to nurse to sleep, I saw night-nursing as a wonderful gift. Nights interrupted by nursing were much more bearable than nights spent walking the floors. After two-and-a-half years of interrupted sleep, however, my husband and I were ready to rock the boat.

Despite all of our worries, weaning from nightttime nursing turned out to be quite easy. There were many tears during the first night and one crying spell the second night, but beautiful, blissful sleep on the third night. We continued to cosleep, and I nursed our daughter as often as she wished during the day. There was no noticeable increase in daytime nursing. There were no behavioral changes that I could link to night-weaning and our bond was as strong as ever. At age four, my daughter sleeps in her own room for most of the night and still nurses twice a day. Looking back, I wish I had night-weaned sooner. My guess is that, even at 15 months, the process might have gone smoothly for us. Good luck!

Amy Slaven Crown
Tucson AZ USA

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