Daisy, who shares my values in parenting, has asked that I document my experience of night weaning, which came at a crunch point a couple of months ago when I had had it up to here with:
- having my nipples bitten by a stapler five times a night
- being totally sleep deprived
- absolutely never sharing a bed with my husband.
I am anti ‘sleep training’. I decided anything that involved not giving baby milk when she wanted it was denying her her greatest and most fulfilling need.
That is when I stumbled across an article about a gentle approach by Dr Jay Gordon.
I realised that I was still treating my 16-month-old as if she was a newborn; as if I was incapable of understanding anything other than her immediate needs and providing an instantaneous response in order to build her trust and security and, well … keep her alive I guess.
My problem was this: my toddler was enjoying a healthy supply of what my friends have called ‘super-milk’. She has been almost exclusively breastfed, although been offered a wealth of different solids: fruits, veggies, meats, pastries, baked goods, purees, chunks, hand helds … after a taste or two, she is sated. Because she has all she needs from her milk. Unfortunately for mummy, the restaurant opens at 7pm and remains open for business every couple of hours until 8am. So mummy is working the day shift as the carer and night shift as the chef. Leaving pretty much no time for sleep.
Guess what effect this was having on me? It eventually led to a breakdown of all functions called the dreaded PND.
My sleep deprivation was one of the last things to be sorted, and by golly did it need to be. So when I came across the aforementioned article I almost wept in relief. My daughter had the cognitive ability to understand things that I told her. She understood when I would be ‘back in a minute’ or that ‘daddy is at work, he will be home for dinner’, so why not ‘it is night time, time for sleeping: milk in the morning when it is light’? This became pretty much my mantra.
Dr Gordon’s full article can be found here.
This is what I did, with MY baby, which felt right for ME and HER.
I had to prepare myself and my family for a few nights of sleeplessness with a protesting child, and chose those first nights carefully.
- I chose the time of day I was going to withhold feeding; 11pm to 6am.
- I fed her to sleep as normal around 7pm and she fell asleep on the boob and was transferred to her cot.
- At her next wake, usually around 10-11pm, I fed her again and settled her back in her cot. My cut-off time was 11pm (or as near to it as possible).
- At her next wake, I took her out of her cot, lay with her in the spare bed in her room, cuddled her and said calmly, softly but firmly “I know you want milk, but it’s night time, and sleeping time. You can have milk in the morning, so we’re going to have love and cuddles now”, and held her tight to me.
- I dealt with her protesting without getting emotional, but I did NOT give in if I had already said no.
- She eventually settled down to sleep and I at the next wake, usually 2-3 hours later, I repeated the process.
- Come 6am (or as near to it as she woke) I fed her again, and she settled for another sleep of around an hour and a half.
The consequences …
The first time I tried this she protested, very loudly and very passionately. These were not tears of fear, these were tears of frustration and anger: “WHY can’t I have milk Mama, do you not understand me?! I want milk!’ I alleviated her frustration by validating her, so that she knew her request was understood, but she had to understand my request too. ‘It’s night time; night is for sleep’.
When I said No, I had to mean it. I couldn’t back down. There was no point having a lot of tears on her part and effort on my part only to undo all that good work and let her understand if she protested long enough, she would eventually get what she wanted. At no point did I leave her alone, but I was firm with my statements. They were very understandable.
Dr Gordon states you have to be ‘willing to go “in a straight line” to the goal of seven straight hours of sleep’. This translates as: once you start this process, do not falter, hesitate, or stop in the middle of it. If you start, you must commit. I was a little flexible with the hours though (for example, if she woke at 11:02pm I would still give her that feed, but if it was midnight I wouldn’t).
I followed this regime for three solid days before I saw any real changes in her sleep pattern, but when I did, boy what a welcome relief … as was the sleep I got!
Her first ‘protest’ lasted 30 minutes. It was pretty hardcore and up and down in volume, pitch and anger, but I maintained my firm and loving response throughout. I also offered her water from a boob-shaped bottle in case it was just thirst she was suffering from. Beware of flying bottles at this first stage. She did NOT want water,;she wanted milk dammit! She climbed all over me and tried to punch me a couple of times. What a shit mother I was, not giving her what she wanted … but eventually she did lay down to sleep in my arms quite calmly.
The same night, her second waking/protest lasted about 10 minutes, and the third was less than 5 minutes. She understood what I was telling her.
On the second night, the first protest lasted 20 minutes, and two subsequent ones less than 5 minutes, and the third night the first protest was 10 minutes and there was only one wake of 5 minutes later in the night.
Soon she was sleeping a nice 8-hour stretch without needing anything: able to resettle herself if she woke and actually a lot better for it the next day: much better energy and moods.
She basically learned. Yes, she’s clever like that. What I was saying was okay by her. An amazing consequence of this little routine was that she was actually hungry in the morning and decided it was time to start eating the breakfasts I put out for her without fail every morning. Hungry monkey. Which in turn lead to her deciding she didn’t need to wake for food in the middle of the night as much, and when she did milk feed during the day, it was for longer and more efficiently.
There were times when the timing was negligible: perhaps she had slept from 6.30 and woke at 4 for her first waking. I made a decision that she was probably actually hungry and fed her, but I also knew she wouldn’t wake again until the usual waking time, and so would think ‘one wake tonight I can cope with’.
I found that I didn’t need to move onto the ‘next three/four days’ as Dr Jay suggests, as my little one was a fast learner and sorted out her sleep very quickly.
Then disaster struck: a common cold. A snot-filled nose and spluttery breathing and coughing that resulted in the poor lamb being unable to sleep for any longer than two hours. I suddenly started being ‘Bubbuh’ instead of ‘Mama’ when she woke. We tried ‘conventional’ methods of snot removal/prevention, including steam inhalations, eucalyptus oil, Karvol etc, and even breastmilk drops in her nostrils, but the only real cure for it was full-on breast milk at the breast. The sucking action took all the snot away and she went soundly back to a nice healing sleep, until two hours later…
So the good old crunchy mum that I am decided that breast is best for colds. And it did pass, but the routine did need to come back again. However, choosing the perfect day to start again, knowing I would have at least three sleepless nights ahead of me, was not easy. Firstly we travelled up to Auckland to visit family for 5 days, then hubby had intense work presentations due and needed to have as much sleep as possible. Then my daughter’s huge molars started coming through, coupled with a cough, spluttery cold and snotville … again …
My promise to myself was that I would not withhold milk from her if she truly really needed it, for food or comfort or pain relief of teething. Yes I know my boob is one big teething toy, but if that’s what stops the pain so be it. As long as I can handle the latching and staying, which at that point I could.
Two very important statements Dr Jay makes rang true with me:
“You may have decided you’re really not ready to do this. That’s OK. Stop and start over again in a few months if you like.”
“If, at any point this is feeling “wrong” to you, stop, wait some months and start over. Don’t go against your “gut instincts” which tell you that this is the wrong time to get longer sleep intervals from your baby. Your instincts are better than any sleep-modification program ever written.”
And here we are
So here I am today, a little sleep deprived again and waiting patiently for these dreaded molars to come through finally and the snot to disappear, then the routine will start again. I know for a fact she understands when I say ‘No’ now, and her emotions are not those of fear, but just frustration at not getting her way, and so I don’t take it personally or feel guilt for it. And as she grows into a toddler and child, she’s going to have these feelings of frustration all the more when I impose more limits on her, like not running into roads, and not covering the walls with the biro Daddy left out.
I also feel that I’m teaching her a valuable skill; how to get back to sleep at night: which is a really good tool to have. I know my husband and I don’t have it, but our methods of getting back to sleep are made all the more easier when I’m actually in the marital bed to begin with …