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Toddler Tips

Excessive Nighttime Nursing

From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 15 No. 6, November-December 1998, pp. 180-83

We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time.

"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.

Situation

The excessive nighttime nursing demands of my 27-month-old daughter have led me to the decision to stop nighttime nursing. She wakes as often as every hour demanding to nurse. I am exhausted and resentful. My attempt to set limits has led to fighting and screaming on her part. She is not a "discipline problem" by day but at night she won't give up. I have read everything I can and have explored the possible causes of her frequent night waking: medical reasons, allergies, sleeping arrangements, diet, exercise, and our family routine. Nothing seems to make a difference. The constant demands at night and the resulting struggles have left me feeling negative about my child. Has anyone else dealt with a toddler like mine?

Response

I have a 27-month-old son who nurses a lot at night, anywhere from every four hours to every hour. Like you, I also have looked into the possible causes, and nothing seemed to make a difference. Finally, a couple of months ago, I came to terms with it. I realized that this is how my son is. He has never "slept through the night."

What helps me through these difficult nights are napping when my son naps and talking to my LLL Leader. She has reassured me often that some toddlers have greater nighttime needs. On the most challenging nights, when I sense I'm feeling resentful, I get up with my son, get comfortable on the sofa, and nurse him while I watch late night television, a favorite movie, or read a good book. Sometimes I have a good cry. Through it all I keep reminding myself that "this too shall pass." (Sometimes I have to remind myself every five minutes.)

Know that on those difficult nights I am there too! You are not alone. Remember, you are giving your daughter the very best.

Patricia Roiger
Flushing NY USA

Response

You are describing exactly my situation with my son from his fifteenth to thirtieth months. It's a long time to be sleep-deprived and I'm not sure how I survived it. Nevertheless, I did. A small percentage of children have very fast sleep cycles. Whenever they come up to light sleep (as adults do when they turn over or pull up the covers), children usually wake up. They are not just in the habit of waking to eat, but rather they need the comfort of sucking to relax enough to go back to sleep. That is why nothing else seems to make any difference. Here are some ideas I tried to help me get through:

  1. Find a way to rest. If your child is ready, have him spend some time with a trusted relative or friend.
  2. Give yourself treats such as a massage, a new haircut, or eating out for lunch. You deserve nurturing, too.
  3. Tell someone about your struggles. Talk to someone who can sympathize without trying to "solve your problem." Don't discuss it with people who are negative about the situation.
  4. Tell yourself it's not your fault. It's not. (I had trouble with this one.)
  5. Have a plan.
  6. Abandon any plan that doesn't seem to be working within three days. If it feels wrong, it probably is.
  7. Try another plan two to three weeks later.
  8. Know it is only temporary.
  9. Try to focus on the positive. Travel was easy for us, since he never slept any worse when we went somewhere or after we got back.
  10. Remember that each child has different needs and what works for your friend's child may not work for yours.

Julie Hart
St Paul, MN USA

Response

I remember reading in The Baby Book, by William and Martha Sears, about a situation like yours. A little boy suddenly wanted to nurse a lot at night, and the authors recommended that this be a time for dad to take over. They agreed that dad would rock, sing to, and comfort the boy to sleep in a sling. Dad was to tell the boy, whose name was Nathan, "Mommy go night-night, Daddy go night-night, numnums go night-night, and Nathan go night-night." The parents kept this up despite the child's initial resistance. By the second week he accepted dad as the nighttime soother. Patience was important; dad had to be the one parenting. Sometimes it's hard to let go and let dads step in, but it can work.

Claudia Cleary
St Charles MO USA

Response

Although it's been many years since my sons' toddler days I still remember those seemingly endless nights of nursing. Today those nights are just a memory. The child I thought would never stop nursing sleeps soundly through the night. When I was in the thick of it, I, too, felt at my wit's end at times and considered drastic measures. When I was feeling particularly sleep-deprived, these measures seemed very attractive; yet I knew in my heart that they were not the answers. The close relationship established between my son and me would have suffered. For many young children, nursing fulfills a special need within that is difficult for them to express yet is quite real and present. Nursing provides comfort and solace at night when things look and feel different from the day.

Although I can't offer you any easy-fix solutions, there were a few coping mechanisms I learned along the way. The family bed was a lifesaver for us. It was much easier to just shift my position to nurse than to get out of bed and go into another room. Also, as time went on, my son wouldn't always fully rouse and would doze off if he was just near me. During the day it was important for me to pace myself and keep outside commitments to a minimum. I took an afternoon nap with my first son every day. It was far more important for me to get the extra rest than to push myself to do housework. When my second son was born, I could catch up on sleep on weekends when my husband was home. Focusing on how tired I was and how little sleep I'd had the night before was not helpful. It was also counterproductive to worry about how much longer this would go on. I took it one day at a time and avoided advice from others that was not constructive and went against my feelings.

Rather than trying to change a child when he is not ready, mothers can change their own attitude and view circumstances from a different perspective. Instead of seeing our children as demanding and difficult we can see them as expressing a need. Sometimes we have to put ourselves in our child's shoes, try to imagine how he might feel and treat him as we would wish to be treated. Personally, prayer has given me much strength to make the choices I have in raising my sons. That I could change, that I could accept my sons at the stages they were in and develop the ability to go with the flow were all important lessons I learned during this time.

Creativity on our part to conserve energy during the day can go a long way. Both of my sons eventually started nursing less and sleeping more at night. As with every developmental milestone from starting solids to toilet training to weaning and beyond, they accomplished these quite easily when they were ready.

Lois Sheptuck
Edison NJ USA

Response

Last summer when my son was 27 months old and waking every 1/2 hour to two hours at night, I had the same feelings as you. Feeling sleep-deprived, frustrated, and resentful, I decided to wean from night nursing. It helped me to be clear about my reasons. A sleepy, grumpy, resentful mom is not the kind of mother I wanted to be. Knowing this gave me the resolve I needed. I began to prepare my son. I told him three nights before the actual night of weaning that in three more nights I wasn't going to give him "num-nums" when he woke up if it was still dark. It is important to give a concrete time frame. I explained "num-nums" needed to rest to make enough milk. For three nights I repeated this until the big night when I told him the time had come. I presented him with his very own Mickey Mouse water bottle to keep by our bed in case he was thirsty when he woke in the middle of the night. I told him he could nurse again when it was light out. Since it was summer and the nights were shorter, this allowed for more gradual weaning. You may want to give another concrete reference, such as when Dad gets up for work or when the dog barks at the newspaper carrier.

The first night was very difficult. My husband stayed beside us in our family bed and I held our little one, rocked him, sympathized with him, and loved him. But I didn't nurse him. By the third night he had the idea. He still woke up once or twice a night, but without tears. He did learn to go back to sleep without nursing. He was never left to cry alone and the concrete time frames and extra love he received at night and during the day helped him take this big step. Since he made the adjustment in just a few days, I feel that he was developmentally and emotionally ready.

Lynn Mazza
Milton VT USA

Response

I heard my own voice in your words. A "good" night with my 25-month-old son means waking to nurse every two hours. Other nights, it can be as often as every 20 minutes, especially as morning approaches. I, too, spent much energy searching for a cause or cure. I also had moments of resentment.

Deciding to surrender has enabled me to continue to meet the needs of this demanding child. I realized that all of that time and energy spent looking for answers could be mine, once I let go of the need to change my son. Now I know that this is just who he is. While I have always followed his cue to nurse, his daytime needs have jlmindled to once or twice a day. At night, however, he seems to need that connection more. He is talking now and gently says "nurse" to wake me enough to meet his needs through the night. Deciding to keep this commitment to him really freed me. Now I no longer doubt myself. Knowing I can comfort him, especially during times of illness or teething is very satisfying. I feel that I am better able to do this as I am always attentive to his needs and have not tried to set any arbitrary limits. I am confident that this is the best solution for us. Perhaps our story will give you an option to consider.

Jennifer Cunningham Cohen
Ann Arbor MI USA

Response

I can sympathize with your situation. My now 29-month-old daughter went through the same experience just two months ago. She has yet to sleep through the night, but at 27 months went from waking two to three times each night to waking at least hourly, demanding to nurse. She would not accept playing, rocking, or any other substitute. Any refusal on my part led to kicking and screaming. Since we share a family bed with my husband and four-year-old daughter, any significant fussing would disrupt everyone's sleep.

I finally decided that even though I couldn't find a reason for this increased frequency it was clearly too powerful a need to override. Yes, it was exhausting, but in the end it was better to wake to nurse than wake to fight. What helped me through this time was to maximize my sleep whenever possible, going to bed with the girls, sleeping in late, and napping when my husband was home. I also kept my obligations outside the home to a minimum.

In retrospect, I can see my daughter did undergo some changes during this time. She had a modest growth spurt and a tremendous explosion in her language skills. At a recent LLL meeting, my local Leader confirmed that often when a child experiences an increase in night nursing it is due to some need within the child. The reason for this need is not always readily apparent.

The intense time has passed; my daughter is now back to nursing only one to three times a night. Please be gentle with yourself. It is normal to feel negative and resentful when you are so exhausted.

Lissa Bliesath
Statesboro GA USA

Last updated Tuesday, October 17, 2006 by njb.
Page last edited .


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