Nightweaning a Co-sleeping Toddler

Oh, sleep.

I’ve missed you.

Beginning with my fantasies of being able to press pause and take a nap during labor, my relationship with sleep transformed into something I desired without any real promise of attainment. I craved it. I daydreamed about it. I practically salivated over it.

Until recently.

After twenty months of co-sleeping and nursing on demand, I finally decided I’d reached my limit. I was fine continuing to share a bed as long as I could sleep without having to nurse every hour or two. While E had gone through stretches where she slept a few hours or more at a time without needing me, she was suddenly becoming more and more demanding again and my body couldn’t take it. Just as I always figured would happen eventually, I knew I was done.

Then, I hurt my shoulder and I was really done. Like there was no other option. I couldn’t lie on my side for hours upon hours. She was going to have to learn how to put herself back to sleep.

Now here’s the point in the story where I pause for a moment to tell you every baby and family is different. While we decided not to cry-it-out early on, I now have a new appreciation for the idea that maybe some moms need the separation earlier than others. Co-sleeping and night comforting was something that worked for us for a long time. I enjoyed the closeness. And, honestly, it was just easiest for me. We had shared a body, so it felt natural to share a bed. She was right there next to me, easy to put back to sleep. No need to climb out of bed in the middle of the night. You get the idea.

Even within the same family, moms report different techniques working for different kids. This worked for us. I’m not looking for approval or to suggest what we did was right. It was right for us until it wasn’t anymore. Of course, many people in our lives warned us it would be hard to get her out of our bed, but it was also hard for me to get out of our bed in those early months. To me, it has been worth the trade-off, even if it isn’t easy to transition her to her own space.

What we have done after two long months is get her to sleep for about 8 hours (on average) without needing anything from me. I still nurse her around 5 or 6AM and then she goes back to sleep for a few more hours. When you consider we were nursing hourly at some points in the last few months, this is a HUGE victory. However, it was hard-earned.

I’ve had a couple of moms recount their cry-it-out experiences as gentle fussing in the crib. This was never an option with E. For awhile she’d start her night in her own little Montessori bed on the floor, but as soon as you’d try to put her down in a crib she’d scream to the point of gagging. I’ve heard her gently fuss. This wasn’t it and we couldn’t take it for more than a few minutes. She would hyperventilate. She would freak out. It was too much for us so we didn’t push it.

Accordingly, I scoured the web for a “gentle” approach to night weaning. I knew putting her in a crib and walking away wasn’t an option for us, even if I’d tried it a couple times just to see what would happen, (and, as I described, could only take for a couple minutes!). So, I figured the first step was to get rid of nursing during the night and then worry about the bed-sharing afterward. Fortunately, my husband stumbled across this video and sent it to me:

Basically, the plan went as follows:

  1. Pick a 6-7 hour window to withhold milk as the source of sleep
  2. Nights 1-3 use any comforting you’d like to get her to sleep, nursing may be used to comfort but not put to sleep during the 6-7 hour window
  3. Nights 4-6 no milk during the 6-7 hour window, any other comforting okay
  4. Nights 7-9 no milk, no comforting

I knew it wouldn’t be easy to withhold her favorite source of nighttime comfort, but I had no other choice. It was time. And, it was terrible. She fought back, hard. She screamed, and screamed, and screamed, even though I was lying there next to her.

I tried everything. I sang songs, I ignored her. Nothing helped but time. While the plan in the video suggested 9 days, it really took us about 5 weeks with the first 2 being the most intense. Although the plan transitions to no comforting by night 7, it took us longer to get there as simply rolling over to “hold you” became her favorite trick.

Even now, I have to make sure I pack her full of as much food as possible during the day because she was clearly relying on night nursing for some of her caloric needs. Below are my journal entries from the first few nights to illustrate what a challenge it was:

Night One: Went to bed at 9, nursed but she fell asleep without nursing around 10, withheld nursing 5 or 6 times throughout the night, threw short fits then went back to sleep (still challenging), nursed once around 4 to relieve pressure, and again at daylight, slept in until 9:30+ and put herself back to sleep once after I got out of bed (heard her cry, but didn’t go to her)

Night Two: Ouch. We were off to an awesome start. I nursed her then used other methods to get her to sleep, (sing, cuddle, etc). She fell asleep after about 30 minutes without any fits around 10PM and slept soundly until 1AM when she woke up in a torrent. Nothing would get her back to sleep.

Unlike the fits the previous night, her screaming just kept escalating. A sippy cup helped calm her a little. Walking her around calmed her until my arms felt like they were going to fall off, (well, my right arm since I sprained my left shoulder and couldn’t put much weight on it).

Still, I kept refusing to nurse. I sang songs, tried to cuddle, until finally the screaming became too much. I asked her dad for help, (he was sleeping downstairs so he could face his workday). She just got angrier until the screaming became so intense that I felt like I was going to throw up.

At that point, I deferred back to the rules for the first three nights– nursing is okay to calm, just not to put to sleep. I calmed her with milk and then she went to sleep easily after I stopped nursing her. She slept without fits the rest of the night. I nursed her at 5AM since it was past the 7 hour milk-free mark (starting at 10PM). I just couldn’t handle another fit. She nursed again around 8AM and is still in bed now, (9AM).

Difficult night.

Night three: Repeat of night 2 but took 2 hours to get her back to sleep around 2, minimal additional waking, just one monstrous fit around 2 and a refusal to go back to sleep. Getting harder to want to keep going.

***

We basically repeated this for weeks. Some nights were fine and then we’d start all the way over again. It sucked, but I was determined. And, little by little, it paid off. We started to sleep through the night here and there. It was the encouragement I needed to keep going through the hard nights.

As she began to soothe herself back to sleep more consistently, it was amazing to see the shift. She’d cry for just long enough for me to question whether I should intervene and then magically put herself back to sleep. It made me appreciate the concept of self-soothing in a whole new way.

Eventually, she stopped night waking pretty much altogether. Now she’ll wake maybe once or twice, and put herself back to sleep quickly, as long as I’ve fed her adequately throughout the day. The other magical improvement is naps. She used to wake up in the middle of her nap and want to nurse. Now she generally puts herself back to sleep during her naps as well.

Parenting is such a personal journey. What works and has worked for us is definitely not for everyone. But, this is exactly the kind of blog entry I wish I’d read a couple months ago. It would’ve helped to hear that these plans don’t always work in a week or two. Sometimes they take months. Sometimes they take a lot of (comforted) tears. Our sleep plan is a work in progress. She’s a night owl. She’s still in our bed. But, one step at a time. I’m just grateful to be sleeping on my own clock again.

Welcome back, old friend.

5 thoughts on “Nightweaning a Co-sleeping Toddler

  1. I totally agree that this is one of those things that every family has to figure out what will work the best for them. But it’s one of those areas where far too many people “tsk, tsk” for the way you choose to do it. While we didn’t do the co-sleeping thing with ours, I can certainly appreciate why it would work for others. But I also remember back in those days questioning why parents did things a certain way that didn’t seem to make sense to me. I outgrew that fortunately. 😉 I finally learned somewhere over the years exactly what you write here.

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    1. I know, it’s funny how people have ideas of what parenting should look like. Even writing this is violating two very different views of parenthood. I have a number of friends who either let their babies cry it out early on or who say they would NEVER let their baby cry. I used to be more in the second camp, so having to endure so much crying wasn’t what I expected to choose. But, it ended up being what was right for our family, so I have a newfound respect for families needing to do what works. If we have another kid, who knows. Maybe I’ll be willing to do (gentle) sleep training early on… Or maybe he/she will be like some of my friends kids and just be a better sleeper. Such a crazy ride. Thanks for being open minded to the idea that parenting looks a little different around here 😉

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      1. It’s that crying-out that is why I think all parents have to choose the way that works best for them. I don’t have a right to tell somebody how they should feel and react when their baby or toddler is crying uncontrollably. That’s got to be a personal choice. I can tell you that our second was a much better sleeper than our first … so, good luck! Not just for the potential second child, but with the many challenges ahead. 😉

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  2. This was interesting to read. My son is 23 months and I’m 21 weeks pregnant and still nursing him pretty much on demand. We co-sleep and sometimes I feel I’ve had enough and really want to wean him completely but honestly I’m unable to bring myself to do all it takes to achieve that. I have a feeling I will end up tandem nursing until I’m truly ready for him to stop cos I don’t see him self-weaning anytime soon. Glad you found something that works for you and your family.

    Wish you a Happy New Year! x

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    1. I totally get it! When other moms were done earlier than I was, I knew it wasn’t the right time for us… But then my body started to hurt when she’d nurse and I just couldn’t do it anymore. Something about night nursing wasn’t working for me, even though I could still nurse in the mornings/evenings. I never thought I’d be willing to let her cry, and it was hard, but crying with me next to her, often holding her, didn’t feel the same as leaving her to cry in her crib. I still wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone else, I just couldn’t nurse her all night anymore. It’s so interesting how we think we have positions on things and then we find ourselves somewhere in the middle sometimes. It’s inspiring to hear it’s still working for you. I had dreams of self-weaning and still am hoping she’ll self-wean during the other times she nurses. Congrats on baby number two! Thanks for sharing your experience, happy new year!

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