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The End of Night-Nursing

Jan17

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Advice Smackdown ArchivesDear Amy,

Hello, it’s Milk Freak here again! Thank you, thank you for your wise words to my last question. We ended up going with Organic Cow Milk, and guess what!? My baby didn’t die!

I have another question for you. My daughter is now 16 months, and we’ve co-slept/bedshare/whatever term you’d like to use since day 1. It has worked out fabulously. Until now. My daughter still wants to nurse all night. Like, half-waking every 2 hours wanting to nurse. I guess I had hoped that by this point she would have weaned herself. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen anytime soon. I’m a little embarrassed I haven’t taken efforts to nip this in the bud sooner, but it is what it is. I know at this point she doesn’t NEED to nurse, it’s just for comfort/safety/what she’s used too. I’m at a loss for what to do now. We aren’t totally opposed to moving her out of our bed if that’s what it takes to end the all night nurse marathons. Mama just wants some sleep! Any insight would be so greatly appreciated!

THANK YOU!
Milk Freak who is now Sleep Deprived

Okay, so we co-sleep with our babies as well, at first. I did not choose co-sleeping because of any grand parental ideal or philosophy or hardcore dedication to Attachment Parenting or ANYTHING like that. I co-slept with my newborn and young baby because THAT’S HOW I GOT THE MOST SLEEP. Full-stop. Only reason.

Sure, there were side benefits that I really liked — the closeness, the knowing for sure that my baby was safe and secure in my arms and mmmmm, the smell of that teensy little bundle — but really, it was all about the sleep. The not having to get up or out of bed or even move and exert my post-c-section self in order to lift the baby out of a bassinet or crib. Roll over an inch or two, stick boob in baby’s mouth, done, back to drifting half-sleep for Mama. Glorious.

But sooner or later, I wanted more sleep. I needed more sleep. Even the half semi-waking of co-sleeping and nursing becomes too much, especially once you know your baby doesn’t NEED those calories in the middle of the night — once you know he’s just waking up because you and your boobs are THERE and CONVENIENT. So honestly, the instant I sensed that the night wakings were happening BECAUSE we were co-sleeping (and for us this happened sometime between four and five months old), that was the end of co-sleeping and the beginning of “sleeping in your own bed and learning to self-soothe and sleep through the night on your own.”

I know other co-sleeping parents are much more dedicated to the practice as A Thing, and don’t want to even consider moving their babies to their own beds until two years old or so, and I remember looking up methods for stopping the night nursing online and finding dozens and dozens of parents trying to convince themselves that the every-two-hour thing was NOT the fault of co-sleeping but was…molars or another growth spurt or SOMETHING ELSE, and maybe it was, for some of them. For us, it was all about the location. And since the mere THOUGHT of still being woken up four or five times a night for another solid year made me want to burst into exhausted tears, we opted to go with the most obvious-looking solution to night-weaning: Change of venue, to one without the boobs being *RIGHTTHERE.*

Ezra was my more hardcore night-nurser, but once we sacked up and got the bedtime routine going (bath, book, nursing in a chair and not the bed) and made it through the first few nights of regular trips down the hall for mostly milk-less comforting (Jason and I took turns, the further the idea that the Boobs Were Not Always Imminent), he has slept through the night beautifully ever since. I mean, you would DIE if you knew what a good sleeper that kid is now. It really ended up not being that big of a deal at all (like so many other things we parents get ourselves needlessly worked up about) and wasn’t the least bit traumatizing to anyone involved. The middle-of-the-night wakings stopped, and we’d bring him back to our bed for that early-morning first breakfast and then some more dozing, and that was that. It was also SO WORTH IT, because sleep! Glorious sleep. For both Mama AND baby.

Of course, moving a four-and-a-half month old to a crib is nothing like moving a toddler to a crib — particularly one who is old enough to understand that things are changing and vocal/mobile enough to truly protest the change. So…you can either do it like a band-aid — peruse the many, many sleep-training books at the store until you find one that advocates whatever level of crying you personally think you can live with and throw yourself into it — or try a few initial baby steps first and see if they have any effect. Baby steps could include having Dad put the baby to bed instead of you, or have her sleep next to him, AWAY from your body, for a few nights. Or move her out of your bed but continue to roomshare with a small toddler bed or Pack-n-Play. Some parents recommend trying a cup of water or a pacifier instead of the boob (though know that you’re then possibly setting yourself up for a Pacifier Battle down the road), and some simply refuse to offer the boob despite co-sleeping, reasoning that their presence and closeness is enough comfort to soothe the baby through the inevitable crying protest.

My problem with the baby step approach, honestly, is that it can often lead to a LOT of inconsistent behavior…from mom and dad. That kind of…”okay, let’s try this, oh, I don’t think it’s working and she’s crying and I’m tired, oh, let’s just go back to the way we were doing things before and try again tomorrow night maybe” trial-and-error approach. Which can sometimes lead to teaching your baby the exact opposite lesson of what you’re really going for, and one that’s not even sleep-specific: If you cry and pitch enough of a fit, Mom and Dad will cave and give you what you want, if it’s easier. I mean, we’ve all been there, in the middle of the night, when we’re exhausted and our parental reserves are shot. OKAY FINE WHATEVER JUST SLEEP GAAAAAH.

I hope I’m not sounding too harsh and unsentimental here, or like I’m in favor of making bedtime some regimented, military-like activity all because your baby dares to want to nurse at night, like omg, the unheard-of horror. Again, I LOVED co-sleeping, and we have no plans to do anything but with baby #3…for awhile. To a point. My other children are old enough now, though, for me to fully appreciate just how big of a gift a good night’s sleep is FOR THEM — learning to sleep through the night is IMPORTANT. It really IS. Being “a good sleeper” sure is nice for Mom and Dad and all, but it’s also so, so good for the child, so don’t let anyone make YOU feel guilty for deciding that enough is truly enough on the round-the-clock waking. Toddlers have a lot more energy than we do, but they also need MORE sleep than we do. A lifetime of healthy sleep habits is a good thing, even if it sucks for awhile. If you’re worried that the co-sleeping is the reason your child isn’t sleeping through the night, well, it sucks, but it’s time to react and do something about it.

__________________________________________________________________
If there is a question you would like answered by Amalah on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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19 Responses to “The End of Night-Nursing”

  1. Maggie Jan 17 at 12:23 pm Reply Reply

    Just wanted to say you’re not alone… my 18 month old is the exact same, and I know it’s simply because I’m right there. The kid can’t be hungry every 2 hours on the hour! But my need to sleep is bigger than my resolve, so I end up nursing him just to make him shut up and go back to sleep. I think the big thing is moving him OUT of my bed, we finally ordered a toddler bed for him this weekend. I’m hoping it goes as smoothly as Amy says… maybe he won’t think it’s as big a deal as I fear. :) Anyway, good luck, be strong, and here’s hoping we both get some uninteruppted sleep soon.

  2. Olivia Jan 17 at 1:15 pm Reply Reply

    I’m thisclose to taking the steps to move my 22 month old into her own bed, but so far haven’t found the resolve. She nurses at least 2 times every night, and I nurse her to sleep. Every time she has a particularly restless night I think I’m ready, but she is soooo attached to the boobie. Like, if I just roll over with my back to her she senses it and starts rooting and asking for it. *sigh* We will probably just have to go cold turkey, and I dread that.

  3. Brooke Jan 17 at 2:05 pm Reply Reply

    Heh, well I am just now laying down the law with my 27-month-old about the night nursing. It didn’t really bother me much until recently since I could still sleep through it. Plus we moved and traveled a bunch, so my first attempts were kind of half-hearted. About a month ago, I just could NOT sleep while he was nursing, so something had to be done. I still nurse him down in his bed, and he still crawls into our bed at some point in the night, but there is no nursing between bedtime and morning.

    Some things that have really helped:
    1) Talking to him about it. I was very clear that nursing overnight was no longer an option. I mentioned it a day or so before I started it (ie in two days, there will be no more nursing overnight), and I still tell him every night that there is no more nursing until bedtime.
    2) Wearing a lot of clothes at night, so he can’t help himself. It’s very sexy, let me tell you. (A nursing bra, a nightgown tucked into pajama pants, and a long sleeve shirt)
    3) I’ve heard good things about red nightlights on timers. I’m going to try to find one this week. The idea is that the light comes on at whatever point you decide is morning. That way both you and the babe know if it’s time or not, so there are fewer struggles about whether or not you can nurse now. Apparently red light interferes less with sleep cycles, so it’s a better choice.
    4)Having your partner deal with the night-wakings for the first week or so. If the milk is not an option, it will probably be easier.

    I can’t imagine that night-weaning AND changing where she sleeps at the same time is going to be easy. I think you will have better luck picking one or the other to deal with first. I picked night weaning since it bothered me and co-sleeping does not. Good luck!

  4. Samantha Jan 17 at 2:34 pm Reply Reply

    Well, I can say this – that in my experience having them in their own bed doesn’t necessarily end night waking. My 29 month old still wakes once during the night almost every night to nurse. I nurse her before bed, she sleeps on her own the first part of the night, and then at some point (and it’s a different time every night) she wakes up and wants to nurse. She goes back to sleep in her own bed and sleeps until morning. Could I break her of this? Probably, but I have no inclination to do so. The point being, I don’t think a different location made her not want to night nurse. On the every two hours thing, it really is something they’ll grow out of on their own, so if you are wanting to end it all together now I think it will take more than just moving to a new bed. I would suggest though, that nursing provides more than calories. It’s not “just” comfort that they are seeking. Comfort is a pretty important thing I think. And especially since I was gone all day at work, I never minded nursing her a bunch at night. That togetherness did us both good. Neither of us exhibit any signs of long-term sleep deprivation damage – ha!

  5. Spicy Sister Jan 17 at 2:47 pm Reply Reply

    At 6 months, our son began doing the same thing.  We were room-sharing, and he woke every 2 hours for nursing.  Eventually I became so sleep deprived I developed serious ppd.

    What worked for us was first moving him away from our bed, then to another room.  Room darkening black out shades.

    And the godsend…..”Good Night, Sleep Tight” by the Sleep Lady.  Google her.  

    Her approach allowed us to find the balance in the transition that worked for us, and helped us to understand that so much of what was happening was that our son had only every learned to fall asleep by nursing or being close to us, which sounds sweet, but in the long run meant that at every slight waking he couldn’t easily roll over and fall asleep without our help.  In a way our devotion had stunted his development in this area.  

    So, we taught him, compassionately and clearly, at 13 months how to fall asleep.  First I night weaned, and then we began the Sleep Lady Shuffle in earnest and after 7 months of consistently waking every 2 hours, our son slept through the night by the end of a week, and has ever since.  He is an amazing sleeper now.  And it is so good for all of us!

  6. bethany actually Jan 17 at 2:55 pm Reply Reply

    If you think the band-aid method is what will work best for your kid, I say go for it, and I am jealous. :-) If you think the band-aid method won’t work for you, then keep reading and take my advice for what it’s worth.

    With my older daughter, we co-slept till she was about 15 months old. She actually slept for 3-4 hours at a time from one month on, but around 7-8 months she started waking up more frequently. By the time she was 9 months, she was nursing to sleep, I would creep away, and she would wake up 15 minutes later to nurse again for an hour. I was OVER it and wanted to have time to myself in the evenings, and to get a good night’s sleep when I did go to bed, but I wasn’t quite ready to put her in her own bed yet, and I sensed she wasn’t ready for that either. Also, in the mornings it was SO nice to be able to nurse her half-asleep little self in bed till I was ready to get up, instead of having to get up at the crack of dawn and feed her real breakfast.

    So I researched online and found Dr. Jay Gordon’s article about changing sleep patterns in the family bed:

    http://drjaygordon.com/attachment/sleeppattern.html

    He says he only wants it to be used for babies a year or older, but I adapted it to use with our 10-month old and it worked BEAUTIFULLY. The first night, there was an hour or more of crying, and it sucked, I won’t lie. But I was RIGHT THERE with her, comforting her. The second night, there was about 15 minutes of crying. When she woke up an hour later, I was able to just pat her on the back and say, “It’s okay, you can go back to sleep”…and she did!!! From then on, she slept for much longer stretches. If she went through a phase of increased night-waking again, we did the same routine suggested by Dr. Gordon and it always worked much faster than it did the first time.

    Good luck! :-)

  7. Kathleen Jan 17 at 3:08 pm Reply Reply

    Not a cosleeper, but I did have to convince my kiddo that the middle of the night nursing/bottle wasn’t coming any more – we did sort of what Amy suggests, switched him to bottles of milk (no nursing) and then to bottles of tepid water (much less interesting). It took about a week (of him hating us at 2 AM) and then he decided this was so not worth getting up for.

  8. Jessica Jan 17 at 4:16 pm Reply Reply

    I did the “band-aid”method only to find out there wasn’t even a band-aid  — there was no problem at all. My son was younger, though. He co-slept with us until 9 months. He was tossing and turning and waking every 2 hours to nurse. I thought he needed to nurse to go back to sleep; instead, as it turns out he must have been waking up to nurse. We moved him to his own crib, still in our room. The first night I nursed him to sleep, placed him in the crib (with maybe one or two false starts before I got him down successfully) and he slept the longest uninterrupted he’d ever slept in his life – 7-8 hours. I felt so guilty that I’d been keeping him from sleeping better because I thought he needed me…

    While he was still in our room, he routinely woke at 4AM to nurse, and then he slept in bed with us until the “real” morning. At 16 months we moved him to his own room. Again, I dreaded it, and again it was no problem. He dropped the early morning awakening, and started sleeping more soundly. Clearly, just the sound of us in the room was bothering him a bit.

    Gradual would have been a disaster for us — I’ve since learned that if he is in bed with me he will always wake every 2 hours to nurse, and that he will NOT be deterred. We’ve never done any real “sleep training.” but any attempt at going more slowly (like me laying down next to his crib in his room until he goes to sleep) just leads to endless tears.  

    So, I can’t tell you how the night weaning will go with a 16 month old, but I can tell you that ours moved out of our room without a hitch at 16 months and was basically like “duh, mom, why didn’t you let me get some peace sooner.”

  9. Jessica Jan 17 at 4:42 pm Reply Reply

    This is the same Jessica as above. I forgot to say — the way that we figured out that my son was ready to move out of our bed was that we had some test runs the preceding month. I’m a doctor, and every few months I am “on-call” from home 1-2 nights a wake. To avoid waking folks up, every time my pager goes off I sleep in a different room on those nights. When we were still co-sleeping, it rapidly became obvious that my husband was only getting me to nurse the baby 1-2 times a night when I slept in a different room – it was a striking difference from the usual every 2 hours. I was sad to admit it (would have co-slept forever, still love it), but it was clear that my son was better off without me overnight. So, that is something you could try first if you want – move yourself out of the bed and leave your daughter with her father. Have him get you if she wakes and really seems to want to nurse. Things might get better right away.

  10. EW Jan 17 at 6:32 pm Reply Reply

    We weren’t co-sleeping, but my little girl woke up once or twice a night to nurse until she was 13 months old.  At that point, we had mostly weaned her during the day (other than first thing in the morning and before bed).  We switched to having her dad get her and give her a bottle of cow’s milk, which she had to wait for (since he had to get it, heat it, etc.).  The first night she wailed.  The second she fussed a little, and the third she didn’t wake up.  It wasn’t worth it for the bottle.  So, my only suggestion if you don’t want to give up co-sleeping is try switching her to dad’s side?  I must say though that at 16 months, my kid was a lot more stubborn than at 13 months!

  11. ras Jan 18 at 1:51 pm Reply Reply

    I co-slept with my second daughter until she was 13 months old, then moved her to a crib for the same reason as the OP — I was tired of being an all-night milk bar.

    I have to admit, the transition was not easy. For the first few weeks, she was PISSED. She didn’t like sleeping alone and she would wake up every hour or so to remind us of that fact. She eventually did calm down, but slid right back into the pattern of nursing every two hours, except now I had to haul my exhausted self out of bed and go to her room.

    We tried for months to have DH take some of the night calls, and that also didn’t go over well with my stubborn child. There were hours of “Go WAY, DADDY!” and generally pissed-off screaming. Finally, when E was about 22 months old, I just started saying “no.” I’d go in, I’d snuggle and kiss and rock, but I would not nurse. At the same time, I cut nursing down to a smaller part of the bedtime routine and instead starting giving E a bottle of milk (I know, creating new problems, but I don’t care at this point). And lo and behold, E started sleeping! Most nights, she wakes up around 4 am to nurse, but that’s it. Not perfect, but a vast improvement over midnight, 2am, 4 am, etc.

    Whatever you decide to do, good luck! I hope your baby ends up being more like Ezra and less like mine. :-)

  12. Ms. K Jan 18 at 3:06 pm Reply Reply

    Just want to concur with everybody above…all children are different. I get comments all the time about my DD being the “most lovely laid-back easy child ever!” But those people do not try to sleep in the same house with her at night.

    Basically she refused to take ‘no’ for an answer when it came to nursing at night. And we didn’t even sleep in the same bed after she was six weeks old. There were really bad periods (teething, illness, growth spurts, cognitive growth spurts, whatevs) during her first two years when it was every two hours…no matter WHAT. Then our efforts would seemingly pay off, and she nurse only once or twice a night, or OMG sleep thru the night 3 days in a row!

    And then back to nursing constantly or every two hours. This kid would scream for hours and hours if she didn’t get to nurse. No compromise. I am sure her tenacity will serve her well in the future. But…any way, just to say – don’t feel bad/think it’s you if your kid doesn’t take kindly to ‘expert’ advice. All kids are different.

    Now she’s 2 and sleeping thru the night has finally gotten more common than demanding to nurse…I think it’s a developmental thing. She’s just ready to sleep in her own bed and be separate from Mama and Papa. (Although at least every third night there comes the 3:3am command from the crib: Mama! Papa! CUDDLE!” Followed by increasing insistence and then screaming….)

  13. Sara Jan 19 at 1:16 pm Reply Reply

    We also struggled with night-nursing while co-sleeping. We eventually managed to teach our daughter that we would nurse once when first got into bed and then not again until the morning. There were a few tear-filled nights (on all sides) but we got through it. I would rub her back a little or give her a snuggle at first. Now she sleeps through the night and we are still co-sleeping. If you would like to keep co-sleeping, as Amy said, there are lots of methods on the web so you can see what sounds best to you. It can be done, at least sometimes :)

  14. Christine Jan 20 at 12:15 pm Reply Reply

    I came here to recommend the same link that Bethany posted above. Though I have to admit that I’ve never actually used it – at least not yet.

    My 26-month-old is still waking often to nurse and one of these days I’ll get fed up and do something about it. Or maybe she’ll just start sleeping through on her own, like her brother did… I can hope, can’t I?

  15. Lizzie Jan 20 at 12:27 pm Reply Reply

    Not necessarily nursing related, but just a suggestion if you do anything that might involve tears…my daughter was a great sleeper (almost all night, in her own bed) until about 7 months when she got a bad cold, 4 teeth in quick succession, and started crawling all at the same time. After weeks of congestion and frequent waking (and of course equally frequent soothing from us) she got better, but her sleep continued to get worse. The more we tried to help her sleep the more she woke up, cried, needed more help to sleep again, and so on and so forth. After months, finally we tried a variation of the Sleep Lady method mentioned by someone above. The first night was awful, lots of tears from her and me both. I was so distraught my husband came and laid down with me beside her crib and started rubbing my back to comfort me. He swears the moment he felt me relax was the moment she stopped crying, laid down, and went to sleep. I felt silly for not thinking of how much my emotion could/would affect her. After that night, we would put her down together, and if she cried my husband would rub my back, hold my hand, etc, and it totally worked. We learned if I didn’t get upset then she didn’t really either. She’d cry a few quick “test” cries (no real tears) and then stop to see our reaction. We would just keep our eyes closed like “we’re all going to sleep, see?” and she would settle down and go to sleep. It wasn’t easy, but we were so connected that the best thing I could do for her was to keep my emotions in check and try to be in a calm, relaxed place myself. There were still tears, but on a much smaller scale and they didn’t last long. It’s still not perfect, but we’re all getting a lot more sleep and everyone is much happier in the morning!

  16. Olivia Jan 21 at 10:00 am Reply Reply

    Lizzie, I certain the parents’ level of stress affects baby’s, but I’m chuckling a little at your story because the last time we tried the “eyes closed, see we are all sleeping” trick, my daughter tried to lift my head to get me out of bed, lol.

  17. Leanne Jan 24 at 4:12 pm Reply Reply

    i co-slept with my 18 month old until just about a month ago and he also night nursed until about 3 or 4 months ago. it was too hard for me to do nighttime weaning AND the transition to his own bed at the same time. i’m a single mom and co-slept pretty much because it was just HOW I GOT SLEEP! but i’m also into the granola-crunchy kind of stuff :) anyway, my strategy for nighttime weaning went like this:

    -do a nice big nursing session right before bed. preferably in a place OTHER than your bed (but if i’m being honest, sometimes i did it in bed too. whatevs).
    -wear at least 2 layers of hard-to-access clothing. my problem was that my son would claw his way into my shirt in the middle of the night and latch on. so, i started wearing a snug fitting tank top, as well as a long t-shirt tucked into my pajama pants.
    -when he wakes up at night wanting to nurse, pat him on the back, console, and give positive encouragement. he will be SO mad at you for a little while. eventually, after lots of tears, he will go back to sleep. it will be a rough night, the first night. it will also be rough the 2nd and 3rd. but i think by the 4th we were doing pretty well. and by the end of the week, he was sleeping through.
    -if your baby is verbal, or even if they aren’t, saying something like, “you can have na-na’s (our word for milk) when the sun is in the sky” is really helpful. that way he has a concrete idea of when he will get to nurse again.

    like i said, it took a few nights. and lots of tears. but we worked at it and we both started sleeping SO much better. and we got a few more months of co-sleeping in, which made me happy. until my son started kicking me in the head in his sleep and i decided it was time for him to sleep in his own bed.

    but, seriously… the tank top/t-shirt combo really made a difference too. keep those puppies covered up and it will help baby avoid the temptation :)

  18. amy v Jan 05 at 8:19 pm Reply Reply

    My son will be 2 yrs old near the end of this month and yes, I’m still nursing….and YES (!) co-sleeping and waking every couple hours in the middle of the night,  Some days I’m so tired I can’t think straight, but mostly I’m so used to it I guess.  I don’t know what to do because I really, REALLY miss my sleep but I don’t think I can listen to him cry in his own bed.  I know- my issues, not his.  My heart breaks at the thought of him crying but I think once he’s 2, he needs to sleep in his own bed.  I miss having more room.  Don’t get me wrong, I will absolutely miss his little body so close to me and those morning snuggles, but I also miss sleeping at least 5 hrs in a row!  
    I have a question to ANY moms out there who’ve experienced my next problem….my son’s teeth have been getting cavities…I think it must be the night nursing because I don’t let him eat junk food or even juice boxes.  A couple of his uppers already have cavities and I feel so guilty and bad.  :(  I don’t know what to do….any suggestions?  If he nurses at all during the day  I usually wipe his teeth but not at night,  Has anyone else experienced this????

  19. toni Sep 16 at 12:48 pm Reply Reply

    Human children are designed (whether you believe by millions of years of evolution, or by God, it doesn’t matter) — to nurse *very* frequently, based on the composition of the milk of the species, the fact that all higher primates (Primates are the zoological Order to which humans belong, higher primates include monkeys and apes) keep their offspring in the mother’s arms or on her back for several years, the size of the young child’s stomach, the rapidity with which breast milk is digested, the need for an almost constant source of nutrients to grow that huge brain (in humans, especially), and so on. By very frequently, I mean 3-4 times per hour, for a few minutes each time. The way in which some young infants are fed in our culture — trying to get them to shift to a 3-4 hour schedule, with feedings of 15-20 minutes at a time, goes against our basic physiology. But humans are very adaptable, and some mothers will be able to make sufficient milk with this very infrequent stimulation and draining of the breasts, and some children will be able to adapt to large meals spaced far apart. Unfortunately, some mothers don’t make enough milk with this little nursing, and some babies can’t adjust, and so are fussy, cry a lot, seem to want to nurse “before it is time” and fail to grow and thrive. Of course, usually the mother’s body is blamed — “You can’t make enough milk” — rather than the culturally-imposed expectation that feeding every 3-4 hours should be sufficient, and the mother begins supplementing with formula, which leads to a steady spiral downward to complete weaning from the breast. Human children are also designed to have breast milk be a part of their diet for a minimum of 2.5 years, with many indicators pointing to 6-7 years as the true physiological duration of breastfeeding — regardless of what your cultural beliefs may be. I can provide you with references to my research on this topic if you wish to read more.

    The same is true of sleeping. Human children are designed to be sleeping with their parents. The sense of touch is the most important sense to primates, along with sight. Young primates are carried on their mother’s body and sleep with her for years after birth, often until well after weaning. The expected pattern is for mother and child to sleep together, and for child to be able to nurse whenever they want during the night. Normal, healthy, breastfed and co-sleeping children do not sleep “through the night” (say 7-9 hours at a stretch) until they are 3-4 years old, and no longer need night nursing. I repeat — this is NORMAL and HEALTHY. Dr. James McKenna’s research on co-sleeping clearly shows the dangers of solitary sleeping in young infants, who slip into abnormal patterns of very deep sleep from which it is very difficult for them to rouse themselves when they experience an episode of apnea (stop breathing). When co-sleeping, the mother is monitoring the baby’s sleep and breathing patterns, even though she herself is asleep. When the baby has an episode of apnea, she rouses the baby by her movements and touch. This is thought to be the primary mechanism by which co-sleeping protects children from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. In other words, many cases of SIDS in solitary sleeping children are thought to be due to them having learned to sleep for long stretches at a time at a very early age, so they find themselves in these deep troughs of sleep, then they may experience an episode of apnea, and no one is there to notice or rouse them from it, so they just never start breathing again. Co-sleeping also allows a mother to monitor the baby’s temperature during the night, to be there if they spit up and start to choke, and just to provide the normal, safe environment that the baby/child has been designed to expect.

    Is this convenient for parents? No!

    Is this difficult for some new parents to adjust to? Yes!

    No doubt about it, the gap between what our culture teaches us to expect of the sleep patterns of a young child (read them a story, tuck them in, turn out the light, and not see them again for 8 hours) and the reality of how children actually sleep if healthy and normal, yawns widely.

    But the first steps to dealing with the fact that your young child doesn’t sleep through the night, or doesn’t want to sleep without you is to realize that:

    (1) Not sleeping through the night until they are 3 or 4 years of age is normal and healthy behavior for human infants.
    (2) Your children are not being difficult or manipulative, they are being normal and healthy, and behaving in ways that are appropriate for our species.

    Once you understand these simple truths, it becomes much easier to deal with parenting your child at night. Once you give up the idea that you must have 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep at night, and view these nighttime interactions with your child as precious and fleeting, you get used to them very quickly.

    I highly recommend Dr. Sears’ book on Nighttime Parenting [available from the La Leche League International Catalogue]. Our children’s early years represent the most important and influential time of their lives. It passes all too quickly. But meeting your child’s needs during these first few years will pay off in many ways in the years to come.

    Sleeping through the Night
    by Katherine A. Dettwyler, Ph.D.

    Department of Anthropology,
    Texas A & M University

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