Newborn night waking didn't surprise you -- you knew it came with the territory. But after a year or two of interrupted sleep, you're more than ready for an eight-hour night. You're pretty sure your toddler doesn't need to nurse in the middle of the night, but waking up has become a habit you don't know how to break. Fortunately, you don't have to lock your toddler in his room to stop him from snacking on Mom's diner all night. Here are some gentle ways to wean your toddler from his favorite midnight snack.
If your toddler is only nursing once or twice during the night, then cold turkey night weaning can still be a gentle approach. Don't try this if he's nursing frequently throughout the night -- you'll get engorged. But if he's only waking once and nursing a little before dropping off to sleep, then chances are he'll barely miss the boob if you're not around. Recruit your partner or another trusted caregiver to take over night duty for a few days. Then make yourself -- and your milk -- scarce. Your toddler might find he's perfectly able to go back to sleep with a back rub, some rocking or a soft lullaby. And after a few nights of not nursing in the middle of the night, he may even be able to roll over and go back to sleep on his own.
One Session at a Time
If your toddler is still nursing frequently at night, then it will be easier on both of you to night wean by dropping one session at a time. The first time he wakes, soothe him back to sleep without nursing, but for the rest of the night, nurse as normal. As he adjusts to not nursing at that time, he'll probably stop waking then as well. Then you can do the same thing with the next waking. Over the course of a few weeks, you should be able to ease him into not nursing -- and sleeping -- all night long.
Gradually Reducing All Sessions
If you're not sure your toddler will go back to sleep without nursing at all, even for his first wake-up of the night, you could try gradually reducing all his feeding sessions. This will slowly shift his sleep associations. The first night, nurse him when he wakes, but keep the session brief, and put him back in bed while he's still awake. Continue that pattern throughout the night, every time he wakes. After he's used to ending a breastfeeding session while he's still awake, (usually after a few days), transition to just soothing him without nursing him at all.
For a toddler who's really stuck on sucking all night, you might have better luck with night weaning if you replace it with something similar. Pacifiers aren't recommended for toddlers, and a bottle of milk or juice can cause tooth decay, but a sippy cup of plain water is fine for your toddler to sip on all night. A soft lovey toy or blanket that he loves to snuggle with can also help him drop the nursing habit.