Monday, 16 March 2015

Sleeping Through: Gentle Night Weaning

I've mentioned that we recently got the babe sleeping through; it either took 16 months, or 4 days, depending on how you look at it. She's gone from waking several times a night, in our bed, to sleeping all night in her own (most nights), and we DID NOT let her cry it out.  Here's what we did:

First, I'm afraid, I had to want it. Not sort-of want it, not want-it-to-resolve-itself. Want it. I don't think I really got serious about it for a long time, and the reason is that I was genuinely happy to continue breastfeeding frequently at night. F. was bottle-fed exclusively for the first three weeks of her life (mostly with hard-earned pumped milk), then mixed bottle and breast, then exclusively breast from about 4 months (it was suggested to me that keeping the bottle before bed can help them sleep through, but when you've pumped as much as I have, you're just not going to do it anymore unless you have to). She slept about 7 hours straight from pretty early on (although I was still up twice a night to pump. Oof.), until about 4 months, when she began waking every 2 hours or so. OK, there's the so-called '4-month sleep regression', and we were travelling in California so she had jet-lag, but it coincided, to the week, with ditching the last bottle feed. I personally don't think that's a random coincidence. When we were having so many problems, I remember silently vowing to feed her as much as she wanted, if this ever worked. If it was ever not painful, if it was ever easy, I was going to let her have pretty much unlimited access. So I did, and it was lovely. It was easy. She was happy and secure and fed. But she didn't sleep through. Sometimes, if she was teething or unwell, she'd be feeding hourly. I'm not even sure how much, because I was doing it in my sleep - I woke up once actually surprised to find she was latched on. No idea for how long. Around her first birthday, I started the (very) gradual process of weaning, and soon the daytime feeds were all but forgotten. Nighttime was still a free-for-all.
We checked out The No-Cry Sleep Solution from the library, and I can't recommend it highly enough. It was a while before we put everything into practice, but it has so many good ideas and most importantly perhaps, it gave me hope. We could do this; it was going to work. We were all going to get some sleep, and soon. The book encourages you to make a plan tailored to your specific problems, and write it down. Here is ours:

We did all of these things, and they all helped to a degree. Some of them helped put my mind at ease, some just seemed to help her set a good routine. Her first sleep (which was always in her own bed) got longer and longer, while the co-sleeping stretch remained broken. A couple of colds and and some travel though, and we were still up more than we liked.
Co-sleeping in Cape Town

The last suggestion, the one we'd both been avoiding, was of course the one that really worked - get Dad to deal with the wake-ups. No boobs available. Boobies have gone night-night. The reason we didn't try it earlier, of course, is that we knew it would be hard. He was having a particularly busy period at work, and we were both just too tired to even contemplate making things worse in the short-term. I was also afraid to wean in case it didn't work - what then? What if she keeps waking up, and I've lost my best tool? We waited until everyone was well, and prepared ourselves.
The week before we night weaned, my husband slept in the spare room for two reasons - to bank some rest, and also so I had more room in the bed to move away from her while co-sleeping. I spent that week trying to coyote away from her, and further reduce the number and duration of night feeds. Was probably down to two or three a night. We got the heating serviced. We also started our routine of having 'hot tea' before bed - a warm soy milk to fill up that tummy before we brush her teeth. Then on a Friday night, I put her down in the usual way, and I went to sleep in the spare room. I promised not to come upstairs, and he promised not to leave her to cry.
It was only 4 bad nights, but I have to admit that they were very bad indeed. She was initially horrified to get Dad when she wanted Mom, and she has the vocabulary to make that clear. I couldn't sleep, obviously, hearing 'NO NO NO MAMA MAMA MAMA', but I had promised. I stayed downstairs. He would re-set, and read books for hours on end if she couldn't sleep, then they would cuddle to sleep together our bed. She had water to drink, if she wanted it, and unlimited comfort from him. He was patient and gentle with her, which is not always easy when you're exhausted (and I won't forget it). Was there crying involved? YES. But that is not 'crying-it-out'.

A typically comforting passage from the NCSS

She soon worked out how to fall back to sleep without breastfeeding, and I was able to creep back upstairs to sleep with them in the wee hours. On the fifth night she slept through, in her own bed, as she has done almost every night since. If she wakes up these days, it's only once and she falls back to sleep easily in our bed. I'm still breastfeeding her to sleep, and I'm happy to continue doing so if things are working (if it ain't broke...), but I actually don't think that will last much longer. Ironically, since mostly-weaning I'm actually enjoying the one feed we have left, because it isn't drudgery - it's nice and relaxing for both of us.
My conclusions:
1. Read The No-Cry Sleep Solution. Seriously, it will make you feel like someone else understands, if nothing else.
2. Do what you need to do to convince yourself that their needs are being met - that they aren't cold, or hungry, or whatever.
3. Set a date to night-wean, and lead up to it, preferably when daytime commitments are a little easier.
4. Get Dad to help, if at all possible.
5. Remember that breastfeeding is not an all-or-nothing proposition. You can night-wean while continuing in the day. You can feed in the morning, but not to sleep. You can feed at home, but not out. The babies and (amazingly) the milk supply will adjust to whatever arrangement works for your family. Don't forget it. Next time we're going to do this sooner, as I now know that it doesn't necessarily mean weaning completely.
6. Keep the faith! It's going to work! They want to sleep too, really.  
Now that I've written this, obviously it will all go crazy again. But a few people have asked, and that's what we did!

I completely forgot to add that we also encouraged her to become attached to a 'lovey', which was another suggestion from the book. Sleepy Monkey, pictured here, is widely commercially available, in case we need an emergency replacement - I'm thinking of getting a spare just in case. I just put him between us for nursing sessions for a while, and now she cuddles him before bed and during the night. I think he really helps!!


  1. Thanks. Encouraging words. But how much did she cry? Was it tantrums for hours or upset but easily calmed by their favourite book? Its hard not to give in when you know what she wants...

    1. Hi Tom!! It certainly wasn't hours, but it felt like it! I'd say the longest was probably half an hour or so? 45 minutes? That was the first night. After that it was much shorter.

  2. I have to go away on a business trip when my son is about 13 months. This is the only reason I want to wean at night. I am afraid he will be devastated when I’m gone, especially because he sleeps with me and eats throughout the night.