I think most parents of infants/toddlers have some form of sleep deprivation. Whether the mom night nurses, uses the cry-it-out method, bottle feeds, co-sleeps, or crib-sleeps—each choice brings its own sleep challenges. Although breastfeeding can be wonderfully comforting and aid in getting children back to sleep quickly, it can also be the reason that an older child wakes up frequently overnight out of habit. Many people will tell you to keep night nursing on demand no matter what or that you should allow your child to self-wean, but ultimately you have to decide if you can handle it. If the answer is no, you are not a wuss, you are just realistic about your limitations.
Women often compare themselves to each other, judge ourselves against some super mom standard and don’t acknowledge that we all have different circumstances, tools and abilities. Factors like your physical and mental health, personal history, sleep requirements, parenting skills, marriage/partner relationships, health, finances, and family and social support can impact parenting coping strategies. We all have our own personal set of abilities and challenges and if we start with that premise, we will be less judgmental of ourselves and others.
There were many factors that kept me night nursing my daughter for 23 months. I actually had no intention of night nursing into her toddler years; it just happened. She was my first baby, so I was just along for the ride and didn’t have any particular mothering agenda besides being the best mom I could be. Of course my professional training as a mental health therapist influenced my perspective in terms of wanting to meet ALL of my daughters emotional needs, including nursing. I didn’t want her to experience any losses in her young life. I had seen so many children suffer in my social work career, so I wanted her to feel as happy as possible. Also, I didn’t have any outside pressure to stop night nursing.
My husband and I decided to have just one child and with no immediate plans to return to work, it was just easy to keep going. Furthermore, I didn’t have to get out of bed when she cried because we were co-sleeping, and she went right back to sleep after nursing. As she got older, night nursing became more of a habit than any sort of nutritional/hunger based necessity, but I was okay with it because we were bonding. We were both in the routine of regularly disrupted sleep—a sleep deprived partnership if you will. Truthfully, it was also scary for me think of changing our system. What if we got even less sleep from the disruption of night weaning?
The longer that I night nursed the more I started to really feel exhausted. She was growing and changing, beginning to walk and talk, and I had to keep up with her. Going to bed at night began to become dreadful and stressful because I never knew what to expect. My husband and I would part ways after a long day of work–he to a cozy silent room, my daughter and I to a flattened futon mattress on the floor. I never knew what was going to happen from night to night. Would she be teething? Would she want to play at 3am? Would she nurse every half-hour?
Another factor that added to my exhaustion was that my daughter did not want to take naps unless she was latched on. If I moved her to the bed, she would wake up and cry. So I resorted to driving her around for her naps. I probably could have taken naps with her, but psychologically, I just couldn’t bring myself to sleep on that futon during the day as well. I needed some personal time and driving for nap time became “my space”. Gas was expensive, but I eventually figured it in to my budget. In addition, I got in two minor accidents, which were probably in part due to my exhaustion. My limits were being tested, and I wasn’t listening to my body. I think I really wanted to be the “super breastfeeding therapist mom”, but I just wasn’t wired to be up every night with no end in sight.
I began to seriously consider night weaning when she was around 23 months old. I asked myself several questions in preparation for this daunting task. How long could I realistically continue to night nurse while keeping my physical and mental health intact? Was night nursing Ava more important than me being a fully present, emotionally sound mom? Finally, I decided that having a healthy mommy was more important that night nursing. I wanted her to feel validated in her feelings about night weaning and to have a general understanding as to why we needed to transition. We had been in this breastfeeding-night nursing relationship since she was born, and I didn’t want it to end cold turkey. With my training in cognitive behavioral therapy, I figured a children’s story would help her understand why night nursing needed to end. It was ending because we both needed more sleep and it was beneficial because we would have more energy to play in the day.
In my search for tips on night weaning, I found a book by Elizabeth Pantley called “The No Cry Sleep Solution”. In her book, she suggested that a mom could write and illustrate a story about night weaning and read it to her child to inspire change. For me, creating an illustrated story for my daughter was the perfect solution. It was immediately successful! My daughter asked for “the sally book” regularly and we read it about three times per day. I was able to use the character in the story, Sally, to gently remind her that another child was also struggling with night weaning and having to make changes. The sleep that I was finally able to get made a huge difference in my daytime functioning. It felt good to make changes that were ultimately best for the whole family.
Most moms want to end their breastfeeding relationship in a positive, relatively trauma-free manner. With night weaning, there will likely be some tears because there is a loss. Changes are hard for everyone, adults and babies alike. My older sister once told me that children are flexible, we just have to guide and support them through difficult situations.
Adults, on the other hand, are way more stuck in our ways than children anyway. Just try shutting down all the Starbucks worldwide for a day and see what happens! We just need to gently guide them, explain what is going on, validate and comfort them. My daughter cried, she was upset, but she moved through the process in about four days. I think the most important lesson that I learned is that it is good to listen to your body and honor what you can handle. In many ways, when your children see you set limits for yourself, they will learn how to set limits for themselves. Each of us intuitively knows our limits, and it is okay to follow that inner voice and get help if needed or shift the way things are done.
Lesli’s book, “Sally Weans From Night Nursing” is available here!