Every night I was up with a nursing baby, and I wondered when it would end. Then I wondered if weaning would cause another sleep regression. How are sleep regressions and weaning related?
Weaning can either cause or shorten sleep regressions, depending on your child. That’s why I came up with 20 things you need to know about sleep regressions and weaning – to make weaning as easy as possible while protecting everyone’s sleep.
Here are the 20 things you need to know about sleep regressions, weaning, and how they impact each other.
Baby-Led Weaning Is Faster and Doesn’t Trigger Sleep Regression
When you’re first wondering if you ought to wean, ask yourself why you want to wean. Why?
Because if you let your baby lead the weaning, everything is much easier.
- In fact, mom-initiated weaning often leads to sleep regressions – and hungry, upset babies who just want to nurse already!
- Baby-initiated weaning, on the other hand, guarantees that the baby is ready for this next step – and it won’t affect their sleep as much.
Most babies who self-wean are at least 18-24 months old. However, it is possible to gently encourage babies to self-wean earlier.
For example, my third boy self-weaned not long after I became pregnant with his younger sister – probably related to both the hormone changes, milk production changes, and my ever-expanding belly that made nursing too difficult for both of us. Once he was done, nighttime feedings and wakings immediately stopped being an issue.
Not-so-fun fact: babies who are being weaned but aren’t ready may also resort to biting you – especially on your shoulder.
Babies Can Night Wean As Early as 4-6 Months of Age
When to wean can be a big question. So from a physical and neurological point of view, it’s important to know when a baby is capable of going overnight (up to 12 hours) without eating.
Most babies can be weaned from overnight feedings by about 4-6 months old, which is right in line with when they can be successfully sleep trained.
Can I Night Wean at 6 Months? Once your baby is at least 4-6 months old, they may be physically capable of sleeping for 12 hours without feeding provided they are getting adequate caloric intake during daytime hours.
Now, not everyone will wean at this age. But if you’re ready to wean, milk supply is a concern, or scheduling demands are becoming too crazy, it can be totally safe to train your child to go up to 12 hours at night without food.
Just expect it to impact everyone’s sleep for a while. How long, exactly? If you use a more gradual method, it’ll be easier – but it may take as long as a month to get rid of this weaning-inspired sleep regression and get everyone’s sleep back on track.
And for babies past the age of 4-6 months old? They can handle nighttime weanings, too. Whether or not they want to, though, is a different question.
Weaning Can Either Cause Or End Sleep Regressions
Weaning at night may or not be the amazing miracle you’re hoping for. You see, trying to wean (before your baby is ready for it) may actually end up causing sleep regression. On the other hand, it might not. It’s going to depend on a lot of factors.
Does Night Weaning Improve Sleep? Night weaning will either improve or worsen night sleep, depending on factors like how well the baby slept before, daily caloric intake, what foods the baby is eating, and sleep associations.
When you’re considering night weaning, there are five possible outcomes that you should consider. These same scenarios hold true when you’re starting solids, too.
- Your baby is a good sleeper already – and after weaning (or introducing solids) they’ll continue to sleep well.
- Your baby is a good sleeper already – but after weaning and introducing solids they won’t be
- Your baby isn’t a great sleeper and they’ll continue to struggle with sleeping even after weaning and solid foods.
- Your baby isn’t the greatest sleeper, but they’ll settle into a better sleep pattern after weaning and introducing solid foods.
- Your baby will reject weaning (and maybe even solid foods). Things will continue as they have been.
Is there a reliable way to know which will be the case? Not that I’ve found as of yet. I’ll keep looking, though.
Both You and Baby Will Miss the Snuggles, So Make That a Priority
Whether you bottlefeed or nurse, that time together is precious. Taking some of that away will be emotionally hard on both of you.
So add in some extra snuggles during the daytime as needed. It’ll help make weaning easier on both of you.
And if your baby cries at night, count on it taking a few days to adjust. Adjusting may even go easier if you use a fading or gradual sleep training technique that lets you physically comfort your baby at night.
Of course, that backfired for us. That’s when we made use of a tip further along – I got my husband to help! Keep reading for more on that tip.
Does Stopping Breastfeeding Affect Baby? Stopping breastfeeding after 4-6 months old should not have a negative impact on your baby as long as the baby gets sufficient nutritional and caloric intake and receives the emotional and psychological support they need.
6 Times You Should Quit Trying to Night Wean (at Least Temporarily)
There are six specific times when you should quit trying to wean for the time being.
- Your baby is too young to wean at night (less than 4-6 months old).
- The baby rejects weaning at this time. Sometimes you have to pick your battles – and delaying weaning may be necessary.
- Your baby has too strong of an eating association in order to fall asleep. You may need to work on that with sleep training.
- The baby is a distracted eater and can’t get adequate calories each day.
- The sleep regression is too rough and everyone needs to get some sleep so they can reset for another try.
- Your baby normally gets all of their calories during the day, but an illness or a growth spurt creates a temporary need for nighttime feedings.
This doesn’t mean you quit trying to wean altogether. You may be able to try again soon. Like in the case of illness or teething, you may just need to wait a couple of days before trying again.
Now, if you’d like to do some troubleshooting before calling it quits for the time being, here are some ideas:
- Illnesses (like colds, flu, ear infections, and diaper rash) will disrupt anyone’s sleep. Treat the illness and manage symptoms to keep your baby more comfortable while they recover. Doing so will help them sleep better.
- Teething babies may be able to keep weaning (and sleeping!) if you give them a weight-appropriate dosage of pain reliever. Make sure it’s okay with your doctor – they can give you the right dosage, too. And remember – teething pain is often worse at night.
- The bedroom environment is important to sleeping comfort. Find your baby’s ideal and make it happen. Important note: dress a baby in the same number of layers of clothing you’d wear at that temperature.
- Colicky babies may have underlying medical issues like reflux, allergies (food or environment), or sensitive skin (eczema) that make weaning harder and sleep regressions far more likely to happen.
Weaning Changes Your Baby’s Appetites for 1-2 Weeks
When you change an existing eating schedule, it takes time to adjust. It’s the exact same scenario for your baby who’s used to eating on-demand 24/7.
In fact, your baby’s appetite is going to be in flux for at least 1-2 weeks. So during the next few weeks, make sure you’re super-focused on offering more foods during daytime hours.
Curious Eaters Have a Hard Time Getting Enough Daytime Calories
Some babies are what we call “curious eaters.” These are the babies that would rather play and interact than eat.
These babies can have a difficult time getting enough to eat during daytime hours. In fact, if they can’t focus, it’s going to be nearly impossible for them to get enough calories during the day!
If that’s the case, then these babies are going to be waking up hungry at night. This is going to make weaning harder and cause sleep disruptions galore.
Not-so-fun fact: curious eaters tend to emerge at about 4-6 months old.
Even so, let’s go over a few tips that’ll help your curious eater focus a little bit better during mealtimes.
- Minimize distractions as much as possible while nursing or bottle-feeding. You may even need to feed your baby in a quiet room with the lights off.
- Use Eat-Play-Sleep to your advantage; babies who just woke up can be more focused (and eat better!) than sleepy babies who can get distracted.
- If your curious eater won’t eat well while you’re out and about, offer them another feed once you’re home and in a more familiar (and less stimulating) environment.
- Wear a fun nursing necklace so they can play with and keep nursing.
Babies who get too easily distracted while eating may end up needing nighttime feeds to supply up to a quarter of their daily caloric needs. Helping your baby focus while eating can save everyone a lot of sleep – and prevent so many food-related sleep disruptions.
Solid Foods Aren’t as Filling As We Think They Are
On average, breastmilk contains an average of 20 kcal per fluid ounce.
Let’s do a fun little experiment, shall we? Let’s see how much of each kind of food an average, 18-pound (8.2 kg) 6-month-old would have to eat. At this weight, the baby would need to consume between 738 and 800 calories per day.
|Calories per Ounce (kcal)
|Quantity Baby Would Have to Eat Daily
|Rice Cereal (2 tbsp made with 1 oz water)
|Baby Oatmeal (2 tbsp made with 1 oz water)
|Rice Cereal (2 tbsp made with 1 oz breastmilk)
|Baby Oatmeal (2 tbsp made with 1 oz formula)
In general, solid food is less calorie-dense than breastmilk. I mean, what adult (let alone a 6-month-old) would be able to eat 100 oz of squash each day? Certainly not me.
In any case, babies who are transitioning from breastmilk (or formula) to solid foods commonly don’t get enough calories. These babies are going to wake up hungry at night, needing to eat. And that’s going to be the start of a sleep regression unless their daytime caloric intake increases.
A quick tip: make your baby’s cereal with formula or breastmilk instead of water to help them get the calories they need to grow.
So if you’d rather skip the hangry baby sleep regression, make sure you add calorie-rich foods to the baby’s diet.
- Swap out regular potatoes and go for sweet potatoes.
- Use a variety of foods rich in protein, fats, and carbohydrates to give your baby the calories they need – and can fit in their tiny tummy.
- Get creative with mashed foods. Avocado is easy to mash, nutritious, and calorie-dense.
Offset Lost Nighttime Feeds By Offering More Daytime Feeds
Another way to prevent hunger-based sleep regressions is to offer more daytime meals. Structure your day to maximize your baby’s potential for food intake.
It’s going to mean a whole lot more work for you each day. But it should help you get nights back.
Oh, and don’t forget to make use of the most important feed each night! Give your baby one feeding session before bed to fill up their tummy for the night.
Example: Before weaning, my son ate every 3-4 hours or so each day. When we began weaning, I offered him food every 2-3 hours. This helped him get more calories during the day.
Adding Solid Foods Affects Digestion (and Sleep!)
Did you know breastmilk is one of the easiest things for babies to digest? That’s part of why it’s amazing. On the other hand, food that’s digested quickly also needs to be replaced quickly.
Baby formula, while very similar to breastmilk, takes longer to digest. That’s part of why formula-fed babies sleep longer than breastfed babies – because formula takes longer to digest. Solid foods also take longer to digest.
And what do babies who are busy digesting foods like to do? They sleep.
In other words, adding some formula or solid foods to your baby’s diet may help them sleep longer and better. Just make sure your baby’s old enough and new foods are introduced safely.
Food Timing is Everything
Now, as you add solid foods to your baby’s diet, just remember that the timing is important.
Here’s a great way to manage the timing so that you maximize sleep potential, ensure they get enough calories, and hopefully don’t poop in the middle of the night.
- Start the meal by offering your baby their preferred milk (formula or breastmilk via nursing or bottle)
- After 30-45 minutes, offer a small meal. Be sure to introduce new foods safely. For younger babies, stick to a short 30-minute window between milk and meals. As your baby gets older, you may even begin waiting 60 minutes after milk to offer a meal.
- Let your baby enjoy the meal until they are full, content, or bored to tears.
- Rinse and repeat – offering solids after milk.
Negative Sleep Associations Need To Go
After four kids, I’ve learned an important fact. Sometimes your baby is just using you as a human pacifier.
For newborns and infants under 4 months old, that’s totally fine. But once your baby starts settling into a more adult-like sleep pattern, this quickly turns from cute into a negative sleep association.
If you want to read more about sleep associations and sleep regressions, make sure you read my article on it here. But in any case, that negative sleep association has to go – so that the sleep regression can end and everyone can sleep!
In our case, getting rid of the mommy-pacifier also helped sleep regressions end faster and nighttime weaning go better.
Don’t Replace Nighttime Nursing with Another Sleep Association
Now, it may be tempting to replace the nighttime nursing sleep association with something else, like a pacifier. (We did that.)
But guess what? Trading one negative sleep association for another negative one doesn’t help. It just makes weaning and sleep regressions take longer to resolve.
So work on getting over those negative sleep regressions – not replacing them with something else that’ll need to be addressed, too.
Remember: This, Too, Shall Pass
This was my least favorite thing to hear when my children didn’t sleep well. In fact, just typing this makes me cringe a little bit. But it’s still true.
Children do grow up. They will outgrow this stage, too – eventually.
So if you’d rather go with some baby-led weaning or baby-led sleep training to manage those sleep regressions, go for it. They’ll let you know when they’re hungry, or thirsty, and what they need.
Pro-tip for thirsty babies: Once my babies were able to handle a basic sippy cup, we started putting a sippy cup (full of water) in their cribs each night. That way, if they were thirsty they could get a drink by themselves. My sister-in-law gave me this tip and it’s been a total lifesaver!
Night Weaning Done Right Takes Time
Change is hard. Making changes over time makes it much easier to manage. Babies generally prefer gradual weaning over time.
Here are some ways to make night weaning more gradual:
- Teach your baby to use a sippy cup. Fill a sippy with water and leave it in their crib. It’s a safe and efficient way for them to get a drink whenever they need it – even during the night.
- Don’t get up right away to nurse – wait until your baby demands it. Then, keep nursing as short as possible.
And for when you’re actually ready to night wean, it can be done in 3 simple steps (over time).
- When you start weaning, nurse the baby for a few minutes. Then, offer a bottle or a sippy cup to top things off.
- Gradually nurse for less time – and be quicker to offer the bottle or sippy cup.
- Offer the bottle or cup first – and nurse if absolutely demanded.
Weaning Too Fast Causes Problems For Nursing Moms
Another reason to wean slowly is to save yourself some serious pain. Weaning too quickly (or going cold turkey) can lead to engorgement and mastitis for you.
And since one of the best treatments for mastitis is expressing breastmilk, you’ll be tempted to resume night nursing.
So skip the regression and the mastitis – take it slowly.
Make a Plan (or Plan to Fail)
Making a plan and sticking to it is key when weaning. Just winging it rarely works – because it’s far too easy to fall back on things that work (like nighttime nursing).
Plus, your baby can sense weakness – or at least your mood. So if you aren’t sure that you want to do this, they’ll know. When I wasn’t sure, it made my babies more anxious – which made me anxious. It became a feedback loop of doom that ended with less sleep for everyone.
So make a plan and stick to it. Give it time to work.
And don’t forget to tank up your baby. You can nurse them via cluster feeds every 1-2 hours before bed to help them sleep better.
Fact: Your Plan Isn’t Set In Stone
Just because you make a plan doesn’t mean it’s unchangeable. You can either allow plans to change as needed or you’ll soon find that the plan doesn’t work as it was intended.
Remember That Weaning at Night Is Different Than Daytime Weaning
As you’re weaning, remember one more important fact:
Night weaning and daytime weaning are two separate events.
Trying to do both at once makes things a whole lot harder. So if you can plan to tackle one type of weaning first – then you can worry about the other one later.
Get Help – Make Dad Do It!
Guess what? Dad’s time to shine is officially here.
If your baby associates you too much with nursing, you won’t be able to comfort them. They’ll get too worked up expecting to nurse! You being present will end up being a distraction – not a comfort.
So if that’s the case, put dad in charge of handling the nighttime checks while weaning, comforting the baby while sleep training, and checking on the baby during sleep regressions.
They can be in charge of nights, naps, or all of the above.
This ended up being the most important factor in us being able to successfully manage sleep regressions, weaning, and even sleep training.
So let your partner help in the weaning process. It might just be the best thing that ever happened to everyone’s nighttime sleep.