Weaning off of night feedings can feel intimidating! Feeding is such a soothing and natural tool to use in the middle of the night. So, many parents choose to keep offering night feeds beyond the point that it’s strictly necessary.
Some babies will naturally wean themselves off of night feeds as they are ready, making it pretty easy for parents to decide when it’s the right time! Other babies will prefer to hold onto these feedings, even if they can technically sleep longer without needing to feed.
Each family is unique. You will know when it’s time to make changes to your overnight routine. I wholeheartedly trust in your decision (and I hope you do too)! If you’re looking for general guidance, here are some ways to assess if you are ready to drop overnight feeds.
How to Assess for Readiness
There are three areas I want you to consider when deciding if you want to make a change in your night feeding routines. If you are already feeling confident that it’s time to drop a night feed, skip down to the “Prep Work” section of this blog!
1. Your baby’s age and weight gain
It likely goes without saying that we would never expect a newborn to make it through the night without feedings. The first step is to always talk to your pediatrician, especially if:
· Your child is under 12 months old,
· They have a history of weight gain concerns, or
· They have a chronic health condition.
There are ages in which night weaning is considered more appropriate than others. The earliest babies may be ready to fully or partially night wean is four months. This doesn’t mean that every baby will be ready at this age, but this is the earliest I will consider attempting a night weaning plan, with pediatrician approval.
Bear in mind that if your baby was born prior to 37 weeks gestation, you will want to use their adjusted age instead. For example, if they were born four weeks early then you’ll hold off on weaning until they are five months old.
This graphic shows a realistic timeline of what night weaning might look like for different ages:
I want to emphasize that these are my general guidelines when we are approaching night weaning. If I am setting goals for a family, then these are the goals I will start with. From there, we can assess to see if a baby needs more (or even fewer) feeds overnight.
2. Your Breastfeeding Goals
Just like every baby is different, every mother’s breastfeeding supply and goals are different! Some mothers will wean off of night feeds and their supply will remain the same, while others may notice a dip in their supply. If your goal is to exclusively breastfeed, then this doesn’t mean that you cannot night wean, but you may wish to add pumping sessions into your night routine to help keep your supply established. I highly recommend meeting with a lactation consultant. My favorite consultant is Andrea @thecatchinghouse!
3. Your preparedness
Whenever we are making big changes to your child’s habits I recommend going into it with a plan! Just winging it rarely works well in situations like these. Much of this blog will walk you through a plan on how to night wean, and you should sit down with your significant other to ensure you are both on the same page!
It’s also a good idea to truly consider if you are ready to take these steps. As with any change in sleep habits, it may initially feel like you are getting LESS sleep than you did before. When you go into a plan like this, I encourage you to take some time to decide if you feel ready to be consistent with a plan.
The Prep Work
Before night weaning there are a few steps you will want to take.
First, ensure that your night feedings are spaced at least three hours apart. That is, three hours from the START of one feeding to the START of the next feeding.
Second, if your baby tends to pacify on the breast or bottle after feeding, then I want you to actively work on unlatching your baby once they have finished feeding. We need to know how long they are feeding each night, which is hard to measure accurately if they are using the breast or bottle as a pacifier.
The last step I want you to have a plan on how you will respond to night wakings if they continue to happen. You have two options here:
1. Hands on support to sleep: If your child continues to wake then you have the option of supporting them back to sleep by whatever means necessary. This may include rocking, singing, shushing, patting, etc.
2. If you are working towards independent sleep this this is a good time to research and find a sleep training method that you are comfortable with using during the night weaning process. You will not need to use this method right away, but as you get closer to weaning off of the feed, you will need to be ready with a strategy to encourage your baby to go back to sleep, especially if they tended to fall asleep at the breast or bottle before night weaning.
If you are unsure what type of sleep training method may be best for your family, check out this post:
Record your Baseline Data:
The next step is to keep a feeding log fr three nights and record how much or how long your baby feeds at nighttime! You can do this through an app like Baby Tracker or with a good ol’ pencil and paper!
The reason we track more than one night’s worth of data is because you’ll notice your numbers may vary from night to night. I prefer to base my night weaning plans on the largest number that I have seen on the records to ensure we truly are giving Baby a chance to wean at a rate that will be gradual for them.
Choose a Feed to Night Wean:
You can start with any feed when night weaning; but, in my experience, it does go more smoothly if we wean in this order:
1. Earliest: If there is a feeding that falls within the first 3 hours of sleep, whether it is a dream feed or if your baby wakes to feed, then wean this feeding first. This one is likely disrupting your baby’s deep sleep cycles at the beginning of the night. It’s usually the easiest one to wean!
2. Latest: If you have two feedings left in the second half of the night, then wean the feeding that is closest to their wake-up time! Weaning this feed will help ensure that they are able to take in a big, full feed at breakfast. Eliminating a feed in the early hours of the morning can also help your baby sleep later in the morning. A feed can be exciting and stimulating, so some babies will have trouble falling back asleep when their sleep pressure is already so low!
3. Middle: The last feeding to drop is your middle of the night feed. This feed usually lands anywhere from 4-6 hours after bedtime.
No matter if you are partially or fully weaning, it is important that you only eliminate one feed at a time. Weaning all feedings at once can be too drastic of a change for many babies.
Once you’ve picked the feeding you want Baby to wean off of, you’re going to gradually reduce the amount of milk that your baby is consuming by ½ oz (if bottle feeding) or two minutes (if breastfeeding), every night. You will continue to do so until you are down to 0 oz or 0 minutes for that one feed. If your baby does not fall back asleep after a feed, or if they continue to wake after you have weaned then you will use your sleep training method until they fall back asleep.
An example of what this might look like is as follows:
Night 1: 3 oz
Night 2: 2.5 oz
Night 3: 2 oz
Night 4: 1.5 oz
Night 5: 1 oz
Night 6: .5 oz
Night 7: 0 oz/Sleep train
Cap the other feeds
While you are weaning off of one feed, you will want to make sure that your baby is not replacing those calories during their other night feeds. Therefore, you will want to limit the amount of time that your baby is eating for those feeds. For example, if the most your baby took in during your baseline logs was 15 minutes of breastfeeding, then you will unlatch your baby at 15 minutes.
Do not go backward!
There are two areas in which you want to ensure you are not backtracking:
1. Do not go backward in amount: If your baby naturally consumes less milk during any of their overnight feeds, then that is your new starting point. We are never going to offer MORE milk than they have taken in on a previous night. We want to follow their lead and encourage them to replace those calories during the day. For example, let’s say you are currently weaning a feeding and you are scheduled to give your baby 3 oz of milk, however, after 2 oz they fall asleep. The next night during the feed we’re weaning, we’ll offer them ½ oz less than the night before, which would be 1.5 oz.
2. Do not go backward in time! If your baby typically takes in their first feeding 3 hours after falling asleep, but while you are night weaning they naturally push their feeding back to five hours after they fall asleep, then that is the earliest time you will offer that feeding the next night as well. I do like to approach this rule with some flexibility and say that if they wake up within 45 minutes of the timed feed then we can go ahead and offer it to them.
Did I try to wean too soon?
The main way to tell if your child is not ready to wean off of a feed is if they still have difficulty resettling after 2-3 nights of being weaned. If you are needing to use your sleep training method for up to 90 minutes after three nights of being night weaned, then your baby may not be quite ready to let go of that feeding yet. Try returning to a small feeding (3-4 oz) and then after 3-6 weeks, you can attempt to wean again.
The other way you can tell if your baby is not ready to eliminate a feed is if they start cycling in and out of sleep very quickly! If your baby is falling asleep and then waking up after only 5-10 minutes, this is NOT a typical sleeping pattern. When we see this quick of a turnover with sleep, it typically means that something needs to be addressed (such as hunger, illness, or pain with teething).
Is my baby eating enough if I drop a night feed?
Most babies will replace at least some of the nighttime calories they have weaned off of during their daytime feedings! It is important, therefore, not to limit the length of time Baby breastfeeds during the day. If you’re bottle feeding, make your daytime bottles a few ounces bigger when you are night weaning to help your baby transfer some of those calories over – or else they will continue to wake up hungry at night!
One thing I want to make sure to address here is the “mom guilt” that comes with night weaning. It can feel scary to wean a baby off of food. After all, we’re dealing with a little baby who cannot verbally tell us what they need. It leaves us feeling like we are playing a guessing game, and hoping that we are not getting it wrong!
Sleep is just as important as food. We need both to function! Many babies naturally come to a point where their sleep needs weigh more heavily than their feeding needs, so they stop waking up to feed. Because feeding and soothing are so interconnected, other babies may try to hold onto those night feeds and need a bit more encouragement to wean. Don’t underestimate the potential benefit to your mental health as a parent to eliminate a night feeding! Do your best to release the guilt. Follow your intuition. I trust you to do what is best for your family.
Night weaning can feel daunting, but it is doable. If you and your baby are ready for night weaning, then it is a worthwhile investment to make so that everyone can get more consolidated sleep! If this process feels too overwhelming for you then I would be delighted to walk you through it, let’s discuss what your goals might be during a consultation!
Edited by the kindest human, Emily Schafer.