Baby-led Night Weaning
Updated: Mar 9
Many parents wonder when their baby should be sleeping through the night and how to make that happen. Having to wake up multiple times at night for months and months on end will start to wear on even the strongest mamma. So how do you know when the right time to night #wean is and what should you do?
When is the right time to night wean?
Before going any further, I want to explain that this post is NOT medical advice. As a pediatric sleep consultant, I am trained to deal with common sleep issues in babies and toddlers, not medical concerns. There are multiple factors that affect a child's readiness to sleep through the night without any feedings, such as weight gain, health concerns, and daily feeding habits. This is a choice for you and your pediatrician to make. Consulting an IBCLC is also a wonderful idea if you have any questions about a breastfed baby.
With that said, what I can tell you is that most experts say a baby (both breast and formula fed) should be able to start sleeping 8-12 hour stretches anywhere between 3-6 months of age. There is a small percentage of babies who will need to continue a night feed a little longer than this. Notice I said "a night feed"...meaning one singular night feed. If your child is past 6 months and is still waking 3 or more times a night to eat, this is more likely due to comfort or habit, not actual hunger. Seek advice from your pediatrician if you have any concerns.
How can you tell the difference between waking for hunger and waking for comfort/habit?
Many parents just assume that their baby is hungry when waking in the middle of the night. Why else would your adorable bundle of joy disturb your beautiful slumber, right? It's easy to get into the habit of feeding every time he wakes because this is what he actually needs as a #newborn. However, as he grows out of the newborn stage (0-3 months), he should be able to sleep for longer and longer periods at night. Some babies, however, get into the habit of waking for a little snack and extra snuggle from momma, and continue to do so long past when they actually need it.
Some parents think it's just easier to offer a quick feed and then everyone gets to go back to sleep...hoping that the baby will eventually stop waking up so frequently. However, if your baby isn't actually hungry, and is waking for comfort or habit, then you're just encouraging the habit by feeding him. He gets a little snack and extra snuggle, of course he'd keep waking for that! The night wakings will not stop as long as you are encouraging them. Also, if you and your baby are still waking multiple times a night, you're both only getting broken sleep. Everyone, babies and adults alike, need good, restorative sleep.
You may be thinking, "But my baby actually eats every time he wakes up, so he MUST be hungry." If you woke up in the middle of the night, and someone handed you your favorite dessert on a silver platter, wouldn't you eat some of it whether you were hungry or not? Just because a baby eats at night when it's offered doesn't mean he was actually hungry. He could be waking for habit or comfort, or simply because he depends on you to put him to sleep, so he needs you to help him go back to sleep each time he wakes up. So how do you know whether or not your baby is actually hungry when he wakes at night?
There are three questions that serve as indicators to help you decide whether or not your baby is actually hungry when waking in the middle of the night. Keep in mind, I'm talking about a baby past the newborn stage. Newborns do need to wake multiple times through the night to eat. Only use these questions if your baby is of age to sleep through the night, has no medical or weight concerns, and your pediatrician agrees that night weaning is possible for your baby.
Can he fall back asleep without a feeding? If you give him a few minutes to resettle, will he fall back asleep? Can you give him a pacifier instead of a feeding? Will a quick snuggle calm him down enough to fall back asleep? If the answer to any of these is yes, then he's not waking for hunger. A baby that is truly hungry will not go back to sleep without being fed. This one can be tricky because if your baby is waking out of habit, then he's not likely to go right back to sleep without getting what he's used to. I wanted to include it anyway, though. If you can get your baby back to sleep without a feed, then it's a clear cut sign that he wasn't actually hungry.
How much did he eat? Sure, he may "eat" every time he wakes up. As I explained above, this doesn't mean he was hungry. A baby who is really hungry will stay awake for a full feeding. If your baby just suckles for a minute or two and then falls right back asleep, that was not hunger, it was comfort. Some breastfed babies like to use their mommy as a human pacifier. Again, continuing the habit only encourages it and he will continue waking for it.
How long did he sleep before waking? If he only slept for an hour or two before waking, then he probably isn't hungry...especially if he's already demonstrated that he can sleep longer than that without eating. Most of the time, when a baby still needs a night feed, it happens in the early morning after a stretch of 5 or more hours of sleep. Then he eats and goes back to sleep until he wakes up for the day.
I suspect my baby is not hungry every time he wakes, now what?
The best solution is sleep training to teach your baby to be a more independent sleeper. Once you train a baby to be a more independent sleeper, he will stop waking for night feedings when he is ready! This takes the guesswork completely out of your hands, and you don't have to worry that you are forcing him to wean before he's ready. You've probably heard of baby-led weaning, a popular method of feeding the baby solids during the day. Well, this is baby-led night weaning. You will still feed your baby when he is truly hungry at night, and he will eventually stop waking when he isn't actually hungry...allowing you, and him, to get some much better sleep!
You can sleep train your child to wake less often while still responding to his hunger needs. A sleep-trained baby will wean himself at night when he is ready!
~Ashley Bell, pediatric sleep consultant