How to Night Wean Baby
“Don’t worry, honey. It will get easier.” It’s something new moms hear all the time from well-meaning relatives. We can’t say it’s true for all things baby, but when it comes to finally getting more sleep, you can bet that there’s light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. That’s because at some point, baby’s cries will be less likely to jolt you awake just as you’re settling into a dream. She’ll sleep for hours—yes, that’s hours with an “s”!—on end, and you’ll be able to, once again, indulge in six, seven, maybe even eight hours of sleep, and feel human again.
This is how night weaning happens in the best of scenarios: Baby no longer wakes up, because she’s no longer hungry, and you follow her lead. But, of course, it’s not always this easy. Baby may need more time than you have patience for, or she may be a little tricky, crying for your bosom, not for food but comfort. For whatever reason, you may have to urge baby along the night weaning process. And, of course, as with most changes in routine, the transition process can be fraught with doubt: Is she ready? Is she hungry? Is she getting enough to eat? But don’t worry. We’ve got the expert advice you need on night weaning so that both you and baby can feel good about it in the morning.
The short answer is at 4 months. Younger babies, whether breast- or bottle-fed, need to interrupt their (and your) sleep because they’re hungry; they need the additional calories. But “by 4 months, most can sleep through the night,” says T.J. Gold, MD, a pediatrician at Tribeca Pediatrics in Brooklyn, New York. This is when their liver has completely matured and makes glucose overnight, which keeps them from feeling hungry. They’re also able to eat enough during the day to keep up with their calorie needs. Explains Russell Horton, DO, a pediatrician at Banner Health Center in Queen Creek, Arizona: By now, babies can take in 28 to 32 ounces of formula or breast milk a day. As a result, they can also sleep at least five hours at a stretch and, by age one (when they’re already eating real food), for around 10.
If your friend’s baby stopped night feeding at exactly 3 months, that doesn’t necessarily mean your baby will do the same. All babies are different; yours might need a few more weeks and that’s totally fine. When babies are ready for night weaning, they will show some of the same signals. Here’s what you should look out for:
• She sucks a little then falls asleep. This suggests she’s not actually eating for the nutrition but for your warm, snuggly bosom. Yes, you like that cuddly feeling too, but remember, you also like (and need) sleep—are we right? If so, then both of you are ready to learn how to night wean.
• She eats solid foods during the day. These foods offer more sustenance than milk alone—which means you shouldn’t have to worry about whether she’s getting enough calories. It’s time to consider night weaning.
• She sleeps for longer stretches or even through the night. Her belly feels satiated, so you probably don’t need to wake her up to get in the extra calories. Proceed to start night weaning!
Some strategies for how to night wean are similar to how to stop breastfeeding in general: In both cases, it helps to have a plan. And, in general, gentle weaning is the best approach. Says Horton: Suddenly changing a child’s behavior can be stressful, and it can be a trying time as it is. For a smooth transition, try the following:
• Check in with your pediatrician before you start night weaning. If your baby is showing the signs explained above, then chances are she’s ready. But it’s always nice to be reassured by her doctor that she’s ready for night weaning from a nutritional standpoint.
• Shorten your night feedings by a few minutes each night. “Continue to do so until baby isn’t waking for feedings anymore,” Horton says. This can typically take anywhere from one to two weeks.
• Offer breast feedings more frequently during the afternoon and early evening. Try feeding every two to three hours between 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. This should help baby feel full by the time she’s ready for bed.
• Feed baby more nutrient-rich foods during the day. This makes up for the calories she otherwise would have consumed during the night. As Betty, a mother of three, can attest, “After my oldest started eating baby food, she stopped needing the night feedings.” If your child weighs 13 or more pounds, she may be ready for more substantial foods such as rice cereal and other grains made for babies. (This typically occurs at about 4 months old—which happens to be around the time most babies can sleep through the night.) Once baby has mastered cereals, she can move on to fruits, vegetables and even pureed proteins.
For babies who feed not for calories but for comfort (see sign No. 1, above), the key is to separate eating from falling asleep. “If your baby thinks she needs to eat or suckle to fall back asleep, she’ll demand that,” says Ari Brown, MD, FAAP, founder of 411 Pediatrics in Austin, Texas. In this case, night weaning cold turkey may actually be an effective strategy. To make it easier on you and baby:
• Empty your breast before bed. Your milk production should eventually begin to wind down in response to the new routine. As Lisa, a mother of four who is currently nursing 5-month-old twins says, “I’ve sort of trained my body. I pump once at midnight and then in the morning around 8 or 9.” Until your breast is down with the program, any overnight leakage could be pumped or squeezed out a little, but not completely. (Otherwise, your breast will continue to “think” it needs to make milk at night.)
• Have your partner soothe baby. Now it’s his or her turn to do their share of the night weaning process! When baby learns that there’s no milk to be had, she’ll find new ways to soothe herself. For extra tips on sleep training, check out our article here.
Updated September 2017