Letting Life Lead
We were having a lively difference of opinion in one of my attachment parenting groups on Facebook about Dr. Jay Gordon’s night weaning guide, “Changing Patterns in the Family Bed.” Attachment parenting groups can get a little … ah… excitable about thing that don’t seem to exactly mesh with each individual’s interpretation of what gentle is or what it should look like. Not an unusual condition. Go on any subject group and even the Vegans can get feisty about minutia.
I like Dr. Gordon’s article, it doesn’t mean that I think all his turns of phrase prompt quite the right idea he intended, but I get that. I understand his base philosophy and I also understand his target audience (which isn’t me). I am already on the train. Some of his wordings when attempting to help his audience understand the nature of babies can seem very harsh to some attachment parents who have a specific idea of the behaviors they want to avoid. Sometimes, though, that means certain turns of phrase can turn them off especially in more general audience articles like Dr. Gordon’s even though he states several times to stop, slow down and change what you are doing the moment it doesn’t feel right.
The idea came up that someone should write, “a better blog post.” And, well, I decided that I needed to blog today!
First, let me defend the good doctor in saying that he is a gentle parenting advocate who encourages co-sleeping, breastfeeding beyond age two, and who strongly encourages continued night nursing. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t get that sometimes the pattern needs changing. He would rather do what he can to help parents avoid Ferber, controlled crying, and CIO methods, and other advice that generally goes against the parental gut and is often exceptionally harsh on both parties. His method is employed faster than I feel is wisest, however, he emphasizes more than once to slow down when it doesn’t feel right. It is worth the read in any case.
Next, let me give you a piece of advice that I give to my students (with some modifications), “There is are no magic words or techniques that I can share with you that will suddenly make parenting an enchanted meadow of easy. I can give advice, but I can’t make the choices for you or guarantee you a right answer. Sometimes you will do something and it won’t work out, so you must try something else. This doesn’t mean you failed, it only means that you haven’t found the solution.”
In order to employ night weaning techniques successfully, you first have to understand the subject. We are talking about babies over a year old. Babies do a lot of growing in the first and second year, particularly the first. With all the teething, brain development, and growth spurts, night weaning is just not something that is recommended. This guideline only addresses the toddler age. The second year is still fraught with growth and milestone landmines, but it is considerably less chaotic. Understand, though, that nursing is still a need even over a year, even though that may not always be compatible with a necessary parental need. Change will be hard, as it is for us all.
Children generally don’t settle into adult patterns of sleep until around age four or five. Before then, their sleep cycles are shorter and they spend more time in the lighter phases of sleep. Their waking is normal. Don’t let anyone tell you that sleeping like you’ve taken an Ambien is normal; it isn’t. They’ve been sleeping this way since they were in the womb; it is instinct. Waking toddlers don’t get eaten by predators. Adults wake up in the night too, even if they don’t remember doing so. Do not let anyone convince you that you created the situation, or it is your fault you are having trouble. Not true. Babies are the way they are…as they should be.
Babies are primitive creatures. Their primary concern is their own survival, not yours. That is by nature’s design and it is not manipulation. They are doing what nature designed them to do. Survive. The baby doesn’t know that there isn’t a predator lurking in the vast emptiness of the dark. All they know is that boobs mean food, boobs mean mommy, mommy means warm, warm means safe, safe means all is well. Toddlers understand more of their world to be sure, but they aren’t at a stage where they aren’t mostly ruled by their instincts. If you go against their innate desires, it is going to be challenging. Understand this, and you are halfway there and will be able to be gentle in your approach even when some days it may seem gentle isn’t working.
Don’t pay any attention to those people who have the magic babies. Magic babies are rare like white tigers. A quirk of nature, but not the mold. Magic babies also have a way of morphing into non-magic toddlers and children. The next time someone brags about their Magic Baby, just remember this: “We all pay the sleep piper.” They will just be paying theirs while you are having a good long, snooze with a Cheshire smile.
I hear you sister (and brothers) and I am going to provide for you things you can try before you got the night wean route just so that we cover all the bases and have a good foundation. You might also find that one of these changes does the trick and gets you the moments you need. Especially a working parent who breastfeeds, night is the only time the little one gets to nurse for food, comfort, and reconnection so trying to adjust on that end has its disadvantages. Not only that, sometimes one simple (or a few changes) can make a world of difference. It is not unlike when a parent says, “I need some time to myself!” It doesn’t always mean that they need a week away or an overnight, it might be as simple as being able to have a quick poo without someone banging on the door.
Night Weaning Guidelines
When it comes to actually employing night weaning, think of this guide as a recipe. There are certain ratios you probably should maintain, but you can tweak it to fit your needs. Gentleness and understanding are your tools. Be aware that night weaning won’t necessarily result in fewer wakings. I know, it isn’t the assurance people want to hear, but it is truth. If you go slowly tears will likely be absent or minimal–whining and protests may still be vocalized in short seconds. Any change done quickly will usually result in tears. It is important to adjust as you go, to always offer comfort in the least disruptive manner possible, and go slowly whenever humanly possible. If it what you are doing feels wrong, if it is causing hysterics (you’ll know), if something feels off–stop and reassess.
I will tell you what I did.
Just a few weeks prior to age two (for both my children) I began a one-feed-night wean slowly. Wait, you can do that? Why, yes you can! It is a good place to start even if you think you want a full night wean.
Before I did this though, I had been doing and practicing saying, “Yes, in a minute after I do x” as a response during the day when asked for naynays or mahmees as each child called them. This was part of teaching some nursing manners, but I discovered it also created a familiarity with patience that was advantageous at night. I had also been doing the nipple-extraction-trick from infancy so that made it easier. They were familiar with the feel of waking without a nipple, and I had the practice with finding the “magic moment” of slack face and limp limbs (but before the nipple squashing sleep chomp). I got quite good at doing the nap time roll away, too. I suggest trying those techniques out first during the day if they aren’t part of your breastfeeding skill set. Just being able to be comfortable made a huge difference.
Next phase was to identify the feed that disrupted my sleep the most. Feeds were still every two to four hours depending on the night. It varied. My choice was the foggiest feed that was late, but before the late night pee (we practiced Elimination Communication). Removing that groggy feed would give me a good solid five hours uninterrupted which is what I wanted (I hoped for six, but five was a very reasonable place to start). It went nicely with my own wake pattern of bimodal sleep.
I waited for a good mood night and when asked to nurse I’d say, “Yes, in just a minute,” in the dark without moving except maybe for a cuddle or pat. No lights. I avoided saying the word no. Some nights we’d just both fall back to sleep with little more than a whine if any. Nights that it didn’t happen we nursed (I only had one meltdown disaster with my daughter because I pushed it when she was not in the mood that night…it took forever to calm her down…you learn quickly not to push it too far and how to recognize the signs). The falling back to sleep happened more and more until I was no longer asked for that feed.
It took time and didn’t happen all at once. Slow is best and the baseline. You may, for whatever reason, not be able to take as many baby steps. Just keep in mind that rapid change will be more stressful and difficult. It is harder to get the little to cooperate and accept rapid change. They are built this way. I had to go back to work immediately after birth two to three times a week, for three and a half to four hours at a time leaving the baby with my spouse in the late evenings. There were lots of tears obviously. In arms comfort, lots of love, understanding, pumped milk, and lots of nursing when together was all we could offer. It was hard on all of us, but we were as gentle as we could be. This was not a situation where I was seeking weaning, but just to show that on the baby end and toddler end it will always be really hard and feel the same, and they don’t have the ability to understand the reasons behind your actions. Cuddle them even closer.
As for night weaning two years later, I didn’t follow a set of rules; I read the situation.
We still nursed to sleep, and for naps. I get up to pee at the same time as my son at three or four am, so I had no need to cut more nursing sessions. However, over time they were dropped naturally without me doing anything. Unfortunately, sometimes when you hit age three and beyond you may run into issues that affect your resolve, like teeth indentations and nursing aversion, so night weaning or simple nursing limits even at a later point can give you the reprieve enough to keep going.
My first born daughter was a little different. I had worked really hard my second and third trimester to keep nursing even though I had pain and then aversion. There were tears the further along I got as the pain and aversion progressed and as she approached two and a half. In addition to the partial night wean, I had to set short session limits during the day those last couple of months. Yes, we made it! The night session limit happened slowly, but the during the day limits weren’t so ideal or slow. There were tears at times…sometimes both of us. It was necessary to be firm, in order to keep going.
After the birth, I nursed her after her brother when he was an infant. Even though I had cut one night feed with her initially, then full night weaned, I put a night session back in. Yes, you can do that too. It isn’t an all or nothing.
She often fell asleep without her nurse to sleep at night waiting her turn, but some nights she got that bonus feed when she woke up or I woke her up. She did mornings and naps as she aged, and my son now at the same age does nights and naps. So there is no one pattern you need to stick too. Just find what fits. And yes, you can encourage nursing more at other times or put on back in as situations evolve.
Night weaning, in my opinion, doesn’t necessarily mean the entire night or every night — especially in the beginning. Sometimes all you need is a breather here and there. One night a week better than none, and that can expand slowly to multiple times a week. It also doesn’t mean you need to night wean in a week. It can take a month or six months. You may go back to night nursing some nights when it is needed and not others. There may be situations where no tears isn’t in the cards, it doesn’t mean you aren’t being gentle. Follow your gut.
If you feel you need to night wean, try one feeding. See how it feels and translates into everything else. Re-evaluate. You may or may not need to do more than one session removal. Ask yourself if what you are doing is working, or getting you what you need. How is your little one handling it? Decide the best course to take if they aren’t handling it. Night weaning is not a guarantee of more sleep, thus it is wise to reassess as you shift. Your goal is not to take away a tool in your parental chest, but to fine tune and shift it to a more compatible place.
Good luck parents. I’d wish for you to sleep like a baby, but that would be crazy since babies wake up a lot. How about I wish you a good solid five hours of uninterrupted slumber and no flailing baby fists in your eye?
How about you? Do you have any tips or anecdotes to share?
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