This is slightly off topic for this blog as it has little to do with English teaching, although it most certainly is a feminist issue. If feminism is about women having choice over their lives – to work or to parent or to work part time – it must also be about being able to choose to parent in the way that you want: returning to work shouldn’t rule out breastfeeding, bedsharing, general hippy parenting…should it?
Before our baby was born, my husband and I set up our cot as a co-sleeper – attached to our bed – and thought we’d have her in our room for the NHS recommended first 6 months and then see how we felt about it. Nearly 2 years later, it’s still there, although she also has a bed in her own room. Breastfeeding led naturally into bedsharing for us, and for the first 14 or 15 months of the baby’s life I was completely happy to sleep with her next to me, feeding on demand throughout the night. It was easiest, cosiest, cuddliest and we both got great sleep. My partner also loves having our daughter in our room/bed and waking up together (which is important, because obstructive partners seem to quite often encourage night weaning or putting the baby in their own room, but that really wasn’t the case with us).
But some months after returning to work part time, I started getting ill, as I mentioned in a previous post. For the second half of the academic year I suffered with constant tonsillitis /ear infections /tummy bugs, which became more and more difficult to deal with. I had to take far more time off work than I was comfortable with; I started to feel quite depressed about it; my parenting certainly suffered, as did my relationship. I had thought I was doing the best thing for both of us by continuing to breastfeed and bedshare with my daughter, but gradually I came to believe that maybe my body just couldn’t cope with the demands of breastfeeding all night, working all day. Eventually I identified night weaning as a positive change that I could make to try to get healthier. (I decided to hone in on the breastfeeds specifically because I could control them, whereas I can’t really control whether she sleeps through the night – although I realise some might say that I could control that through sleep-training. Regardless, this was the decision I took for my family).
The first thing that I have to say about our night weaning experience is that it was really, really hard. I had 7 weeks’ summer holiday from school and it took that whole time, I suffered more with sleep deprivation than I had since the very first days of motherhood, and I had many doubts about what I was doing. I don’t think I would have been able to stick to it if it hadn’t been for the illnesses giving me a really concrete reason to make a change, and if I hadn’t been really desperate, really convinced that “we can’t go on like this”. I think that we are seeing benefits and better sleep NOW, but that’s 10 weeks in. The majority of people, including my own mother, who is usually helpfully realistic about babies, say “oh once I stopped feeding them in the night, within a couple of nights they were sleeping through”. That’s not been true for us. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth doing, though. Baby sleep is really an area where you sometimes have to shut your ears and ignore some of the well-intended but unhelpful comments of friends /colleagues /strangers.
So now to practicalities! I’m a reader, and I read a huge amount of advice but ultimately went with my own method. Some ideas I followed and some I adapted. Almost all strategies suggest mum (as the breastfeeder) should move away and let dad (or I guess the non breastfeeding partner, to be less heteronormative) take over for nights so that the baby learns to settle without milk. My husband has a fantastic relationship with our baby and she really loves him, but at night she just wants me, so I ignored that advice. Similarly, many people suggest putting the baby in their own bed before night weaning, so they are further from the milk source. Bedsharing works for us and I didn’t want to make too many big changes at the same time, so we ignored that too. But how did we night wean a 20 month old bedsharing toddler?
The first thing I did was write a little book to (try to) explain things to her. Many people recommend one called “Nursies while the sun shines”. That wasn’t quite right for us because I’d already day-weaned my daughter at 12 months, so my goal was just a bedtime feed. Therefore, I wrote my own in a bit scrapbook, illustrated with photos of us. It was, at my mum said, a work of pure fiction. It told the story of how mummy was getting too tired to feed all night, and how while our little angel would be sad at first, she would soon stop waking in the night and would just be very happy to see mummy in the morning. Ha! We read this every day for weeks before starting and during night weaning. No idea if it made any difference.
I decided to aim for a feed-free window each night and then gradually extend it – so at first, no milk between bedtime and midnight, then until 2am,4am and finally 6am. In reality, because her waking times were so erratic, it never really worked like that (there were a few nights when she’d woken up multiple times and it was still only 10:30pm) but it was helpful for ME to decide those limits and stick to them. Someone on a Facebook group where I was asking for advice pointed out that “babies can’t tell the time,” which is clearly true, but the point was to gradually get her used to going 12 hours (actually she now does 23.5hours!) without milk. The Dr Jack Newman method involves first finishing the feed and unlatching the baby before they’re asleep, for the whole night, and then moving to no feeds at all, all night. That sounded too stressful to me: knowing I only had to struggle to settle her until 2am,and then we would both be able to relax and feed /sleep for the rest of the night, helped to motivate me when it was tough.
Equally, some might say that I made the process harder/slower this way, and that it’s better to go quick and abrupt. I guess there’s no right /wrong answers here. I did agonise over whether I was making things harder for my poor baby, upsetting her, confusing her, but I had the conviction that a change was necessary.
I always had water on hand to offer when I was refusing to feed, and a few times we offered warm cow’s milk. She never really took much of that, which was a relief as I really didn’t want to exchange night breastfeeds for bottles… But those were desperate moments. My husband, who was theoretically on board with the project, turned out to be way less stubborn/more tender hearted than me, and when I was rocking a screaming baby a few times he appeared saying “for goodness’ sake can you please feed her?! She’s upset. She’s starving!!!” (She wasn’t starving FYI).
The first nights where I withheld milk were difficult and involved a lot of crying. Never actually hours and hours though. Probably only 15 or 20 minutes of crying in my arms before she developed new methods for falling asleep. It helped that she already sucked her fingers. I found I had to pick her up at first, and take her to sit in the rocking chair: no chance I could pat or stroke her back to sleep in bed, either in our bed or, during the evenings, in her mattress in her room. Cuddling her with both of us sitting quite upright seemed to help.
So fairly quickly, maybe in 10 days, she learnt to fall back to sleep without feeding on wake ups. I continued feeding her to sleep at bedtime. The long crying jags stopped. Was this the end of our troubles?
NO!!! it very much wasn’t, because now we were in a situation where I had to be a lot more active on wakeups (of which we had around 4 a night on average). I was getting out of bed, lifting her up, cuddling, pacing, rocking. She wasn’t crying so much but she was staunchly un-put-downable for 30mins + at a time. I was exhausted. My husband tried to help and sometimes could get her back to sleep, but often she screamed til I took over. During this phase I was very grateful to be off work and able to sleep with her for her midday nap.
But gradually she was getting better at falling back to sleep with less intervention from me. Instead of pacing, I just had to sit up in bed with her. Some nights I was able to sleep like that myself.
But alongside this process she also began an early waking habit, where she seemed ready for the day at ludicrous hours like 3:45 and 4:18am. A couple of times, NOTHING we did could get her back to sleep. Sometimes, 30mins of concentrated rocking in a pitch dark room worked. I kept thinking she must be hungry and offering cow’s milk, toast, etc… But she was entirely indifferent. It was tough, but the wake times got later and later(&hence closer to the magic time of 6am when I could do my “morning” feed… After which we would both sleep a couple more hours until 8am catching up on missed nighttime sleep).
Swimming came in handy here. We sometimes woke up at 8:30-9and I would worry that as a result, nap time and then bedtime would creep later and later. I wanted to be consistent with a 7-8pm bedtime as part of the process. A morning swimming pool trip would tire her out enough to get back on the no-later-than-midday nap time that I needed for a normal bedtime. Plus it’s super fun and she loves it. One week we went 3 times.
And so on. We kept working at it (and it really felt like work). Slowly she learnt to fall back to sleep in bed with me just cuddling close with my arm under her head so I could go back to barely waking up. Gradually her wake ups got less frequent and we now have only 2 on a good night. I stopped needing to always nap with her in the daytime. And when I went back to work I dropped the 6am feed so she just has milk at bedtime.
It’s not been a simple, easy or straightforward process and I 100%would not have had the s conviction needed if I hadn’t truly believed I needed to do it for my health…but that is how I night weaned my now 21 month old!