No more nighttime nursing!
January 6, 2007 7:32 AM   Subscribe

How do I stop my 17-month-old daughter from feeling entitled to nurse when she wakes up in the middle of the night?

From about 3 months to 9 months, my daughter slept through the night. Then we did some travelling, and she got used to nursing when she'd wake up at 3:30 AM (or whenever). Then she stopped waking up for a while, but in September (at 13 months), she started daycare and was sick all the time, so when she woke up at night, we were back to nursing in the middle of the night (since I was worried about fluids and besides, she was just so sad...).

Now we have reached the following situation (17 months). Most nights, she wakes up sometime between midnight and 4 AM. If I don't go in to calm her, she escalates. If I go in to try to calm her down, she points at the chair where we nurse and gets furious if I don't accede. If I just leave her, she cries and cries and works herself into hysterics. If my husband goes in, same thing.

(Part of the issue here is that I can go back to sleep very easily, while my husband can't, so I usually go in to calm her down, but then the boobs are in the room.)

In addition to just being bored with always having to get up and nurse in the middle of the night (and tinking it's probably not very healthy), I'm trying to start slowly weaning. Any suggestions would be appreciated.
posted by leahwrenn to Human Relations (15 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Express, bottlefeed, Ferberize.
posted by flabdablet at 7:51 AM on January 6, 2007

Ugh. I feel your pain. I have a 17 month old son who is cosleeping and nursing throughout the night. I also have a 4 year old son who I night weaned at 2 years old, so I have a little experience with this. I apologize in advance for this LONG response, and also if I tell you things you already know.

Part of this response is my philosophy, and part of it is based on behaviorism. First, my philosophy. I believe an infant (0-1) should be allowed to nurse on demand (even at night, although I know that every family is different and has different needs, so be it), so my advice doesn't apply to that age group. I also believe that infant cries should be attended to, not ignored as "bad" or "manipulative" behavior, and I never ever ever let my infants "cry it out". (Cry what out exactly? Their primal need for their mothers?) Toddlers are a different story because they are at a more advanced level of development and their cries take on new, more complex meanings rather than always being a sign of immediate need.

I work outside the home, so I nurse throughout the night in an attempt to compensate somewhat for my absence during the day. I do realize that I will never know how much I'm doing this for my own needs (guilt-relief) and how much is for my toddler's needs. The time is drawing very near that I will be night weaning my own toddler, because like you, I'm growing weary of it. With my older son, I basically told him, "It's night-night time - mommy is going night-night, is going night-night, and nursies are going night-night too." I'd hold him and pat him and just let him protest as much as he needed to. It took a few days, but as I was right there nurturing him with pats and soothing talk, I feel like he did not suffer emotionally.

Now - how to deal with the inevitable protest if you're a parent who can't stand to hear your baby cry. A reframe is in order:

When you first night wean her, she will fuss louder and longer than she usually does. Behaviorists call this an "extinction burst". When you remove a reward (nursing) from a behavior (fussing), you will get a temporary increase in the behavior (fussing).

This happens in animals as well as humans. If you have a pigeon who gets food every time a lever is pressed, and then you take away the lever, the pigeon will press the lever like crazy for a while until it sinks in that the reward is no longer there and he will gradually stop pressing the lever entirely. Of course your baby isn't a pigeon, and her feelings are hurt when you refuse to nurse, so you'll want to reassure her with a soothing voice, pats, etc. Just keep reminding her, "Mommy loves you, nursies went night night" and all that.

Now, here's the kicker. If she gets sick or you're really sleep deprived one night, you'll probably be tempted to nurse her when she fusses during the night. I have done this with both of my children after attempting to night wean them and suffered the consequences. If you give in, you have put your daughter on what they call a "variable ratio reinforcement schedule". Now the fussing is going to get bad, because she has a slot machine situation now.

What happens when we put a quarter into a slot machine? We may get something, we may not. We never know, so we keep plunking quarters into them knowing that at any time, we could hit the jackpot. It works, too, just visit any casino and watch the masses compulsively dropping those quarters. Variable ratio reinforcement results in a very high level of response that is very resistant to extinction. So once you night wean her, if you give in one time, the fussing will resume nightly until you can get the behavior extinguished again.

I would love to parent my children with no tears at all, but I know it's just not possible. Crying is a basic expression for children, and I have to remind myself of that as much as I value mother-child attachment.

BTW, I'm nursing as I type this. Good luck to you!

posted by forensicphd at 8:04 AM on January 6, 2007 [8 favorites]

Err, isn't that exactly what 17 month olds are supposed to do? "Entitled"?
posted by xmutex at 8:22 AM on January 6, 2007

I wanted to chime in on your "it's not very healthy comment". Children all over the world nurse at night at this age and they grow up just fine. I stopped nursing at night around her second birthday and found it much easier at that age. She could actually understand the "no boobies during the night, we'll nurse again in the morning" by then. They change so much when they are so young!

I know many mothers who find the book "mothering your nursing toddler" useful. The Jay Gordon method is a method that is kinder than Ferber and works for many babies and parents.
posted by davar at 8:36 AM on January 6, 2007

Being a behaviorist by profession, I think forensicphd described the situation well. One thing you could try is just cutting yourself out of the equation altogether and having your husband be the only one to go in and take care of your daughter. That way, the boobs will never be in the room and therefore the possibility of breast feeding is eliminated altogether. There will still be an extinction burst (this time because mom isn't coming in). Then your husband can gradually decrease the amount of time he spends in the room with your daughter (as described by Ferber and Gordon). Your husband will probably miss his sleep but the sooner this is taken care of the sooner your daughter will start sleeping through the night again.

You could also go with the straight extinction which would consist of not going in to see her at all, which in turn would end her tantrums, but I personally wouldn't do it.
posted by puritycontrol at 8:44 AM on January 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I can completely relate to this problem and it eventually became either him (my son) getting what he wants or me (the nursing mom) going insane from lack of sleep (another working mom here). The only thing that worked was to have my husband go in to calm him down when he woke up. This meant that my husband was sleepless for a while (I don't remember exactly how long this took but it was a while, I am thinking a month). But I could not take the lack of sleep anymore. You have my sympathy and I wish you good luck!
posted by bluesky43 at 9:24 AM on January 6, 2007

When my son was over a year old, I sent my husband in to calm him every time he woke at night. It sometimes took a long time to get our son settled, but, after a week or two, my son realized that Daddy was the one who would come see him at night, not Mommy. His dad told him that "num-nums" are sleeping and that "num-nums" are for the daytime. My son seemed to understand this concept. At 15 months, I started dropping a few day time feedings (ie. not nursing on demand all the time - he wasn't on a schedule). I would just tell my son that the num-nums were sleeping. Now that he's about 2, he understands that num-nums are for morningtime and that they are sleeping the rest of the time.

FWIW, my son now prefers his dad to come in when he (occasionally) wakes up at night.
posted by acoutu at 10:07 AM on January 6, 2007

I would like to provide a contrasting perspective. The behaviourists above are entitled (of course) to their perspective, but it is just that, a perspective. There are many people who view the Ferber method as abusive (and others who think it's appropriate).

Other perspectives are grounded in the ideas not of focusing on nursing as a 'behaviour', but of your child as a human being who is socially and emotionally connected to you, and that this is a good thing.

The challenge then is, how do you meet your needs as a mother and independent human being, while still respecting and nurturing the social and emotional connections that are experienced through breastfeeding.

In this context, here is one approach. Place a clock in the room visible from where you nurse. At first just time how long you nurse in the night right now (eg. 5 minutes each side, or whatever). You still respond to their requests. The point is that you are telling your child that you will still come to your child and that her/his needs are valid. Then if you were doing 5 minutes (or whatever) each side, then for several days (or a week) you will reduce the time to 4.5 minutes, and then give a 1 minute cuddle (no boobs) and then bed. Keep the pattern constant. Continue to reduce the breastfeeding time, but maintain the 1 minute cuddle. Eventually, you'll have eg. 10 seconds BF and 1 minute cuddle. At some point, switch to you do the breast feeding and then have your partner come in and do the 1 minute cuddle. Eventually reduce to a breast cuddle (no feed) and a 1 minute daddy cuddle, and to bed. if this is a problem you can add an additional step of a drink of water (after BF), then continue the water, then a just a daddy cuddle (no BF) and then bed, then the kid independently drinks water, and goes to bed.

These are probably more steps than you will need, but the point is to gradually reduce in ways that still provide your child the sense of your responding to her/him, and at the same time teaching them that this feeling of security can be maintained with less and less (or different) input from mom/dad. It may take a while, but other than the lack of sleep (which you are already somewhat used to), it is not stressful for you or your child.
posted by kch at 10:53 AM on January 6, 2007

My daughter is a bit younger, but I'm also wistfully trying to get her to sleep a bit better at night, ideally without three meals between 10pm and 7am.

I've been working with the book No Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley, and having some success (I think). Pantley has some smart, creative methods for getting babies and toddlers to sleep through the night. She does not advocate any crying-it-out, and openly admits that her methods work more slowly than CIO (like Ferber) methods. It's basically a method for disassociating falling asleep with nursing. The above methods suggested are pretty similar to what she advocates.

Oh, she also has a book just about toddlers; I'd assume it's pretty similar but perhaps better suited to your daugther's age/development.
Good luck!
posted by jessicak at 11:53 AM on January 6, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! Any suggestions for how to deal with the crying-herself-sick that will result (at least for a couple of nights) when she doesn't get her way vis-a-vis the boobs?
posted by leahwrenn at 1:32 PM on January 6, 2007

A friend's baby would cry and eventually throw up (!!!) when they tried the Ferber method of letting the baby cry it out, so unfortunately for them, they'd do night feedings until their child was about 2.

For my own (20 months) daughter, we've had much the same experiences you have had. Six months ago she learned how to sleep through the night and was great at it for a while, then we traveled, then she got sick, then wake ups were frequent and problematic (my wife works as a professor and has to teach all day, so waking up more than once a night affected her day greatly).

So for our daughter, she gets to nurse before bed and now probably twice a week she'll have a 4am wakeup of some sort, but my wife stopped nursing her in the middle of the night about three months ago and our daughter seems to understand, as she no longer asks for it anymore (she learned how to say "nurse?" since that's how we describe it).

I would definitely say cutting out the routine of it all is the way to get her back sleeping through the night. Once my daughter figured out that she didn't get to nurse in the middle of the night (we'll rock her and if she's really awake, read a book to her while rocking) she started getting better at sleeping through it.

The last few weeks have been really good with her sleeping. We typically wait about a minute after we hear the first cries and she usually gets herself back to sleep, but these days it's just rocking and soothing until she falls back asleep if she does get up completely.
posted by mathowie at 2:20 PM on January 6, 2007

Family bed.

I had no problems like this because my daughter was right with me, and rolling over and letting her nurse at this age was negligible effort on my part (I am an extremely lazy person). There was never any crying in the night unless she was sick and throwing up or something.

I'm really glad I avoided all the problems mentioned here. I considered her baby/toddlerhood precious and enjoyed having her right beside me. I knew she would grow up very quickly and no longer need me in that very tender way.

I remember that after over a year of nursing, it felt kind of annoying to have my breasts have to be available to someone else a lot of the time. On one level it was wearying. But I tell you, she's 7 now, and I really miss those times. I'm glad I stuck with it as long as I could.

(My daughter was weaned at around 23 months when I lost custody of her due to a psychotic episode and psychiatric hospitalization, so that likely colors some of my feelings here).
posted by beth at 7:14 PM on January 6, 2007

My son just turned two, and my big accomplishment has been getting him to go to bed at night without nursing. (He used to cry until almost vomiting not too long ago. I started stroking his eyelids and counting to help him to sleep.) However, that said, he still gets up at night and comes into my bed and wants to nurse. (I would like to wean totally, but I am a stay at home mom, and I cave in when that cute little face asks for "ding-ding." We are down to about 4 times a day. ) I have found (now that he has graduated to a toddler bed) that if he gets up too soon (before 4 am) that I can nurse him some in his bed, and he will go back to sleep. When we started this around 20 months, it usually took a while for him to go back to sleep. Now it usually only takes a few sucks for him to go back to sleep.

I think that it really is a matter of development and they will sleep through the night when they are ready. Even if you are successful at weaning at night (try a bottle of water if you are worried about tooth decay, that worked with my older two) chances are your child just is not ready to sleep through the night. My first two didn't sleep through the night until after age two. Both of them weaned earlier, but would come climb into my bed at night. I have to laugh every time I go to the doctor's because she has a development chart that says babies should sleep through the night by 4 months. I don't know any other children that actually slept through the night at that age. Most were between the ages of your child and mine. Sleep will come, just give it time. (And then will come the teen years when they want to be out all night!)

wife of 445supermag
posted by 445supermag at 7:32 PM on January 6, 2007

I should note that I didn't mean I let my son cry it out with his dad. His dad had always been the one who picked him up and brought him to me to nurse (we moved him to his own room at 9 months, but he was right beside me or in the bed with us before that). So he wasn't upset when his dad went in to get him. He just took a while to go back to sleep.
posted by acoutu at 8:54 PM on January 6, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! We did the sending in the husband only thing for about a week. Then I started going in some of the time and when my daughter got agitated explaining that we weren't going to nurse and that she should put her head down (on my shoulder) and we stood there until she got bored and wanted to go back to bed (maybe 5 mins). After a few days of this, she's mostly not waking in the middle of the night anymore. Yay!
posted by leahwrenn at 5:04 PM on January 22, 2007

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