Several readers out there are considering night-weaning, with the potential that this may make it easier to sleep-train their babies. I want to emphasize that night-weaning is NOT necessary for sleep-training, but your child may get the sleep lesson faster if he isn't SOMETIMES fed and SOMETIMES not. I wouldn't recommend night-weaning until your baby is eating solids during the day. So, probably not before 4 months and I'm more inclined to suggest 6 months or so. This is mainly because most babies' tummies before 4-6 months are still quite small and they need the round-the-clock feeding to continue to thrive. OK, let's talk about some strategies that might help.
The first consideration is if the mother is breast- or bottle-feeding at night. If you are bottle-feeding (either expressed breastmilk or formula) during the night, then there's a handy little trick that works for a lot of us. Oh… and if you're NOT bottle-feeding and you're dying a slow and painful death from sleep deprivation, you might want to consider handing your partner the bottle and showing him/her the way to the baby's room at 3 am — pump or mix up some formula and away he/she goes (and 3 or more hours of uninterrupted sleep could be yours). Ahem… I digress. If you ARE bottle-feeding at night or you COULD be (in other words, if your baby DOES take a bottle and you CAN pump or are OK with formula), try this "graduated weaning process":
1. Plan on about 10 days for this process to work.
2. On the first night, prepare the bottle with one less ounce of milk than usual, and replace this ounce with water. This way, your baby is getting the same amount of liquid, but one less ounce of milk. (For example, if your baby usually gets 6 ounces of milk, put 5 ounces of milk and one ounce of water in the bottle instead).
3. Feed baby this amount every time she wakes up in the night, for the next 2 or so nights. Guaranteed, the child will not notice this first stage. Soothe baby back to sleep
4. On the third day, take out another ounce of milk and replace with another ounce of water (so now you have 2 ounces of water and the rest milk). Soothe baby back to sleep.
5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until the baby starts with the HATE. In other words, continue to replace more and more milk with water. At some point in this gradual process, most babies start noticing and protest. Some protest A LOT. Others, remarkably, very little. Most kids will take a few sips of the now water-with-a-tiny-drop-of-milk and give up, but many will finish the water. Soothe back to sleep.
6. Usually, by the time the baby does start to notice (around the 10-day mark), you will be giving her almost NO milk and you will have been doing this for several days. That means, the child hasn't been getting much nutrition at all from these night feedings for days now.
7. Continue to give the baby water every time she wakes up. Or at this point you can substitute with a soother/pacifier if she takes one and if you're into that sort of thing.
8. At the same time you're doing this gradual weaning, you should be trying to up the baby's caloric intake during the day. This can be through nursing, formula-feeding or solids.
9. That's it. At the point that your baby is waking up and only getting water from the bottle, your baby is night-weaned. If he's going back to sleep with your help after the water, then he is no longer getting hungry. The whole point of this process is to get to a place — GRADUALLY — where you know that the baby no longer NEEDS the nutrition that he usually got at night. He will compensate during the day.
This is a slow, gentle process by which the baby's body becomes gradually accustomed to getting fed only during the day. At night, the same hunger pangs need not arise anymore. For me, this process was critical to go through before I started sleep-training so that I could ensure that when my boys did wake up at night during the sleep-training phase, they weren't hungry (and I wasn't filled with doubts/guilt as to whether they really needed the food or not).
Night-weaning is quite a different ball game if you're exclusively nursing during the night. In this case, transitioning usually requires a whole lot of support from your partner, if you have one (and if you don't, I would enlist the help of family or a close friend; otherwise, this can be a very painful process for one person alone… not impossible, but HARD).
Your partner needs to start doing more night soothing during times when the child is used to being nursed. Also, because it's very, VERY hard to just offer the breast for a couple of sucks and then take it away, it's harder to GRADUALLY decrease the amount of milk the child receives. So, sometimes, this is a more hard and fast weaning process. Many mothers report that cutting off the night feedings entirely was much easier than trying to cut them down to just one or two. Mostly because the baby doesn't get the idea that sometimes you're allowed to nurse at night and sometimes you're not. So, when the baby does wake up, the partner starts to soothe. As usual, it always depends on your child, but the partner's soothing could involve back- rubbing or cuddling in bed (especially if you co-sleep) or in the crib or, more likely, the process will involve being out of the bed, rocking and/or bouncing the child. The first few days are going to be the hardest. Sometimes, mom needs to be out of the room every time the baby wakes up and wants to be nursed. If the child is old enough to understand words and some more complex ideas, saying things like this might help: "boobie is empty now and needs to make more milk and will be ready in the morning", "you can have it when you see the sun", or "boob is sleeping". In the morning, you'll need to be prepared to nurse for a long time. The soother is a big help here, again, if your baby takes one and you're into giving her one. Singing also has helped many women. Instead of nursing to sleep, some kids quickly switch to being sung to sleep, some favourite songs help, but introducing some new lullabies can be helpful too. Some kids adopt new soothing behaviours like belly-rubbing (the baby's or yours), playing with mommy's hair, sucking their thumb, and so on. You can also try to introduce new items to soothe with like lovies, stuffed animals, blankies, etc. Lots of love, affection, cuddling and discussion of what is going on (even if it's a wee lie) can help the older ones especially. Also, keep in mind that SOME kids are not big cuddlers and don't NEED the tight shmushing to compensate — we as mothers often try to pull our kids physically closer during these times when they might feel best with a little space of their own. So, keep an eye out for these signals and try not to take it personally (HA!) when your child pushes you away a bit and starts to self-soothe instead.
This is a tough transition. For both the baby and the mother. Be kind to yourself. Cut yourself some slack. Try to ease the guilt you might feel with lots of playtime and cuddling during the day.
Anyone been through night-weaning and have some extra pointers? Words of encouragement? Horror stories? Anyone want some support while thinking about starting this transition?