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Night-Weaning Breastfeeding Baby
Posted by Dr. Ben Kim on Aug 23, 2012
Originally published in late 2006
Before my wife gave birth to our first son, both of us were determined to raise him in a way that would help him feel physically and emotionally safe from the very first second that he arrived.
A part of our plan to help him feel loved and protected as much as possible was to sleep together as a family on a large mattress. The last thing we wanted to do was to put him in a crib to "cry it out."
In case you aren't familiar with the "cry it out" method, it refers to leaving a baby in a crib during sleep time, even if the baby is fully awake or crying for hours on end. The hope is that after a few days, the baby will learn to stop crying and just go to sleep when he or she is put in the crib during sleep time.
During our baby's first couple of weeks, I estimate that we woke up every two hours or so to change his diaper and/or have Margaret nurse him. As my schedule started to get busier with our clinic, there were nights when I had to sleep in a separate room, as getting up every two hours made it very difficult to take proper care of our guests and patients. Through it all, Margaret continued to change our son's diaper, nurse him, and sleep right beside him every night.
When he reached six months of age, I was able to alter my work schedule in a way that allowed all of us to sleep together in the same room again. We laid a queen size mattress alongside a twin size mattress on the ground of a small bedroom, and lined the walls with additional twin size mattresses to create what amounted to a padded room. It was a lot of fun and actually a dream come true for me - I had always wanted to have a slumber-party-like feel with our children, and our son had and still has a lot of fun bouncing off all the mattresses.
We continued to wake up every two hours to feed him and change his diaper, until at month sixteen, we realized that Margaret was so tired that we would risk ruining her health if we kept at it. I was also tired, but my body wasn't constantly producing and being drained of breast milk like hers was. And as any woman who has nursed for that long will tell you, the process can be exhausting.
I should point out that we were using cloth diapers 90 percent of the time, which necessitated more frequent changes than disposable diapers would have, as cloth diapers are not nearly as absorbent as disposable varieties.
Once we decided that Margaret just had to get more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep at a time, we were conflicted about how to proceed. He had grown so accustomed to nursing for comfort throughout the night that we knew that he would be sad and upset to have this end. The big question was: how could we teach him to sleep without breast milk in a way that wouldn't force him go through the "cry it out" process?
My feeling was that crying it out at sixteen months would have been more traumatic for him than crying it out at three to six months, since he was so much more aware of his surroundings and his relationship to me and Margaret at month sixteen than he was when he was just born. At sixteen months, I was sure that he would feel a real sense of confusion and abandonment if we left him to cry it out in a crib, no different than any of us would feel if we suddenly found ourselves all alone in a room that we couldn't get out of.
Ultimately, we decided to have Margaret sleep in a different room, while I stayed with our son. The plan was to have me hold him and try my best to comfort him while he learned that he wasn't going to get breast milk anymore at night.
I have to admit, when we went to sleep that first night, just the two of us in our padded room with Margaret nowhere in sight, I was nervous about how it would go. I dreaded the possibility that our son would cry and be sad for several hours straight for a few days or more.
About two hours into our sleep, in predictable fashion, our son started making his little noises to signal for some breast milk. When a nipple didn't brush up against his tiny lips, he opened his eyes just a peep and took a look around the moonlit room. It took him about two seconds to realize that it was just him and me.
I laid still and watched him walk over to the edge of the mattress, step down to the ground, and stare at the door. I knew that he had only one thought on his mind: where is my mom and my breast milk? It was heart breaking to watch him stand there all on his own and stare at the door. I remember thinking, what if I wasn't in the room? What if he was there all by himself? At that moment, I felt good about our decision to have me stay in the room while he went through this process.
After approximately a minute or two of staring at the door, he turned back to take a look at me. I waved my hand, encouraging him to come and sleep with his appa (Korean, for father). He stepped up onto the mattress, reluctantly waddled his way over to my side, and in one swift motion, he swung his left leg over my abdomen to sit on me.
By this point, my eyes had adjusted to the dark, and with plenty of moonlight filling the room, I clearly saw him scrunch up his face as he looked up at the ceiling and emitted a frustrated howl. To me, it looked just like he was saying "this sucks!"
He then resignedly slumped forward to rest against my chest. About twenty minutes later, he was sleeping soundly.
To my and my wife's amazement, he ended up sleeping for about six hours straight that night. After about forty minutes of playing together with lego, I managed to get him to sleep for another two hours after that, totaling eight hours of nighttime sleep.
Also to our amazement, when our son woke up for the first time the following night, he seemed to know right away that there would be no breast milk. He proceeded to sleep another six hours straight.
It's been over two weeks now since my wife starting sleeping in a separate room, and our son consistently sleeps about six hours straight, followed by a short break for some water and maybe some play time with me, followed by another two to three hours of sleep.
Margaret and I are extremely grateful that the worst part of his night-weaning experience amounted to him feeling frustrated - the moment that I felt he was saying "this sucks!" We feel that there is a world of a difference between what he went through and what he would have gone through had we put him in a room or crib to cry it out on his own.
Raising our son the way we have thus far has made us realize that if parents are going to cry it out with their babies, it makes a lot of sense to do so within the first few months. None of us can be absolutely sure how much babies know at different months of their development, but I think that any parent can testify that by the time most babies reach about four to six months of age, it definitely looks like they can feel sadness associated with feelings of abandonment. Actually, it may be far earlier than this.
I can definitely understand the reasons why some parents choose to cry it out early on. Getting up every couple of hours for many months or years can reduce a parent's capacity to provide constant loving care for his or her baby. Sleep deprivation can also create serious safety and work issues for parents throughout the day.
Something that I was amazed to discover during our night-weaning experience is that our son has complete awareness of who is sleeping with him. When we all slept together, he got up every couple of hours because he wanted the comfort of snuggling with Margaret and getting breast milk. When Margaret was in a different room, he seemed to know almost right away that there was no reason to get up so often. It's almost as though he could smell Margaret and/or her breast milk. So in a way, having Margaret sleep in a different room has been good for him; it has allowed him to sleep for longer stretches at a time, leading to better overall quality of rest for him and us.
I hope that our experience with attachment parenting, night nursing, and night-weaning is helpful to some parents and their babies out there.
If you have any thoughts on this topic that stem from your own personal experiences, please consider posting them in the comments section below. Parents who are currently struggling with these issues may find gold in your experiences.
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