“Dear Baby Sleep Geek- My baby is waking up every 2 hours and the only way I can get her back to sleep is to nurse her. She doesn’t even seem hungry. She only nurses for about 3 minutes and falls asleep but then she is up again 2 hours later—wash, rinse, repeat!!”
I get a variation of this email all.the.time. And unless it’s a fresh newborn, chances are this little one has a nurse-to-
sleep association or learned hunger. How do you solve this common yet exhausting problem?
Build Independent Sleep First
If you know me, you know I am pretty conservative about using sleep training to drop necessary night time feedings. Sleep training isn’t designed to do this, but to build independent sleep. So, the absolute first step you need to do is ensure your baby is going to bed “ready but awake” at the beginning of the night. Babies who go down awake at the beginning of the night independently are much more likely to be able to fall back to sleep after normal night wakings without the help of nursing. The best way to do this is to move the nursing or bottle to the very start of the bedtime routine.
“I did that. My baby is still waking for night feedings.”
Your Baby May Actually Need the Night Feeding
First, assess which night feedings are age appropriate. Night feedings in babies under 9 months are common and may be biologically appropriate. But feedings every 2 hours at any age or night feedings after 12 months old rarely are. Chances are your baby has “learned hunger” or a nurse to sleep association. Your baby has become accustomed to frequent small meals throughout the night or now depends on the feeling of eating to fall asleep.
Night Weaning Options
I recommend dropping night feedings one at a time, unless your baby is over 9 months old. Since the first half of the night is when your baby has the deepest sleep, I recommend cutting the early feedings first which allows your baby a longer stretch of restorative sleep during the part of the night when he naturally sleeps more deeply. You have a few options for dropping unnecessary night feedings:
Option 1: Switch to a bottle.
I often recommend this as a first step regardless of what night weaning method you choose next. Have dad or non-breastfeeding partner give your baby a bottle. This is sometimes all you need to drop feedings. If baby isn’t rewarded with a warm snuggle at the breast by mom, baby just figures it isn’t worth the trouble—no offense to dad or the non-breastfeeding partner.
Option 2: Reduce the volume.
The strategy you use will vary depending on whether you are nursing or bottle feeding at night. Both methods take about 1 week, but can be sped up or slowed down at any time depending on your comfort level and your baby’s response to change.
If You Breastfeed at Night
Reduce the length of time your baby is nursing for each feeding, starting with the first feeding of the night. For example, if your baby usually nurses for 15 minutes, you can slowly reduce that by 2 minutes every night. Once you get to 3 minutes, you can drop the feeding completely the next night. If you are dropping another feeding, you can then move on to that one. The downside of this method is that your baby may not be happy to be pulled off your breast before he’s finished using it as a sleep aid. The benefit of switching to a bottle first means you can reduce the volume of feedings over time which tends to be easier on baby.
If You Bottlefeed at Night
Reduce the ounces in each bottle feeding, starting with the first feeding of the night. For example, if your baby usually drinks 5 ounces, you can slowly reduce that by ½ an ounce every other night. Once you get to 1 ounce, you can drop the feeding completely and move on to the next feeding.
Option 3: Push feedings later.
You can also push the first feeding of the night later by 15 minutes every other night. As you do this, the 2nd feeding should eventually be pushed into the morning hours, essentially dropping it as it becomes the first feeding of the day.
Option 4: Go cold turkey.
I recommend this method only when it’s pretty obvious that your baby is not taking in a lot of milk during these feedings. In these cases, dropping the feedings won’t impact overall calorie intake and breastmilk supply.
If he is gulping away the ounces from a bottle or you notice your breast empty a lot during night feedings, going cold turkey is like asking your baby to drop a full meal out of the blue. He’ll be hungry—and LOUD. Save yourself the stress and use a more gentle method to wean off each feeding slowly. It may take longer, but you’ll spend less time crying with your head under your pillow.
Get More Help
Dropping night feedings can be challenging, especially if you are breastfeeding and concerned about your supply. If you need help managing the transition, a sleep consultant with experienced in lactation (like me!) can help you improve sleep while protecting the breastfeeding relationship. Contact me if you’d like help!