Figuring out how to manage sleep training and weaning can be challenging sometimes – and even more so when they’re done together. Here are some tips and things to know.
Weaning and sleep training can be done at the same time or separately and should be tailored to the family’s needs. Experts generally recommend sleep training first, followed by baby-initiated weaning. Expect the whole process to take as long as several months.
Here are 20 things you need to know about weaning, sleep training, and how they impact each other.
Babies Can Night Wean and/or Sleep Train as Early as 4-6 Months Old
After extensive research, I’ve found that most doctors recommend waiting until a baby is at least 4-6 months old before sleep training and weaning – whether just at night or full weaning.
Here is why babies should be at least 4-6 months old for sleep training.
By about 4-6 months old, babies have passed the critical “fourth trimester” of development. They’ve settled into a more adult-like sleep pattern and their brain has developed enough that they are physically capable of sleeping for anywhere from 4 to 8-10 hours at night.
To read more about why pediatricians say to wait until a baby is at least 4-6 months old for sleep training, read my article on when and why pediatricians recommend sleep training.
Why babies should be at least 4-6 months old for weaning.
Now, we’re not talking about a necessary or required weaning from the breast when you’re changing to formula. Because that’s a whole other scenario. And as long as your pediatrician is on board, that’s just fine.
What we’re talking about here is introducing solid foods. Before 4-6 months of age, a baby isn’t physically capable of eating anything but milk – whether that’s breastmilk or formula.
At four to six months of age, the infant is developmentally ready to accept solid foods.Article: Weaning from the Breast, April 2004 via US National Library of Medicine
Now, the same literature nursing your baby as long as they tolerate it, citing historical examples where ancient cultures breastfed children until they were as old as 4. However, this study also acknowledged that nursing trends have changed. They advocate a slow weaning process (over a period of months) that involves the introduction of solid foods at 4-6 months old for optimal overall development.
In other words, babies require milk (formula or breastmilk) exclusively until at least 4-6 months of age. After that, they can start having some basic solid foods, though they’ll still largely rely on milk as their primary food source until they’re a toddler.
Being at least 4-6 months old, though, is the minimum for introducing solid foods.
Sleep Training and Weaning are TWO Separate Things
While many parents want to do sleep training and weaning at the same time, the simple fact is this: they’re still two very separate things.
This is important to know and recognize because it’s a huge source of frustration for parents who just want a good night’s sleep already.
So knowing that these are two separate events, let’s look at what our options are:
- Sleep train without weaning
- Sleep train with weaning
- Wean without sleep training
Those are just the basic combination options. If we were to add in the various ways to wean and sleep train, there are thousands of combination possibilities.
Then we need to add in the fact that your baby has a say in this whole process. That’s right: just because you can wean or sleep train doesn’t mean you (or your baby) will be ready for them.
That’s going to add in a whole other level of possibilities – and potential issues.
Even so, let’s cover some basics to both just for a point of reference.
A Basic, Mother-Led Weaning Schedule
Even so, after extensive research, I found a historical and evidence-based outline for weaning. You can read the whole example of a mother-led weaning schedule (first published in 2004 in the journal Paediatric Child Health) by clicking here. Here’s my takeaway from it:
- Begin weaning by substituting a child’s “least favorite” feeding with a bottle or a cup (we used a sippy cup). Let the baby drink pumped breast milk, formula, or other age-appropriate milk until satisfied.*
- Once the baby accepts the first feeding (and the cup or bottle) well, substitute a second feeding. This may take anywhere from a few days to weeks or even months.
- Replace subsequent feeds at a pace determined by both the baby and mom’s preferences.
- Substitute solid foods as developmentally appropriate. Start with a few teaspoons. Gradually increase the variety of foods as well as the serving sizes. Be sure to start with a simple, iron-fortified cereal like rice cereal.
- Remember that partial weaning is a viable choice for mothers and children who still wish to breastfeed for some favorite or special feedings.
Important note: While weaning, be sure to watch for signs of dehydration and monitor weight gain to make sure your child is growing properly.
Remember that asterisk (*)? The article did make this important note about whole milk:
Whole cow milk should be avoided until… preferably 12 months of age, and then not more than 720 mL (24 ounces) of milk per day should be offered. If the baby is taking much more than 720 mL, this may result in iron deficiency anemia, obesity, and a poor appetite for other foods.Article: Weaning from the Breast, April 2004 via US National Library of Medicine
The study also recommends limiting fruit juice to no more than 60-120 mL (2-4 ounces) per day, citing pediatrician recommendation.
A Basic Outline for Sleep Training
For this, we’ll want to look at the basic sleep training guidelines.
- Make sure it’s safe and appropriate to sleep train your child. Generally, this means waiting until your child is at least 4-6 months old and sleep has become an issue that needs to be addressed.
- Choose a method of sleep training that fits with both your goals and your parenting style. There are lots of options for any and every parenting style.
- Use that method to create your own personal and customized sleep training plan.
- Implement the plan and evaluate it as you go – you may need to be flexible and make changes on the fly.
- Be patient, consistent, and dedicated. Remember that sleep training may take as long as a month or more.
For more details on these steps and other sleep training guidelines, be sure to read my article on that by clicking here.
Weaning and Sleep Training Require These Qualities to see Success
Whether you’re prepping, knee-deep in research, or trying to survive either weaning and sleep training, there are five core qualities you’ll need to rely on to succeed. They are as follows.
|Quality Required for Success||Rationale|
|Patience||Sleep training and weaning both naturally take time – sometimes as long as months.|
|Consistency||Both weaning and sleep training will only work with a dedicated and consistent effort. Changing too much will undermine the whole process.|
|Flexibility||Sometimes, minor changes will be required in order to make the whole thing work.|
|A basic understanding of child development||Too many parents have unrealistic expectations for their babies or children. By knowing what your child is actually capable of, you’ll be able to skip all of that frustration.|
|Timing||Trying to wean or sleep train at the right time for your family is key. It is possible to start too early – just as it’s possible to wait too long for things to become a problem.|
When to Sleep Train First (Followed by Baby-Led Weaning)
After extensive research and re-reviewing what the other sleep experts have to say about what to do first, most experts agree that, in general, sleep training should be done first – followed by weaning. This is for two reasons:
- Sleep training early gives your baby a foundation for good sleep – and gives you a better night’s sleep.
- Delaying weaning gives your baby time to grow, develop, and wean on their schedule.
By focusing first on sleep training, the bigger issue of sleep gets addressed and remedied. And in most cases, the problematic night wakings and feedings disappear on their own.
Because really – most parents love that time spent cuddling and feeding their baby. The underlying reason most parents want to wean is that the night wakings and feedings have become an issue. So if you address the sleep problem, the night feedings will take care of themselves as your baby becomes more proficient at self-soothing back to sleep.
Rocking Sleep Training and Weaning at the Same Time
There are definitely times when you may need to wean and sleep train at the same time. Just make sure that your baby is old enough to do both – and has no issues with dehydration or growth. And always make sure your pediatrician is on board with the plan!
Then, remember that there are different levels of weaning.
- In some instances, “weaning” may be used in its etymologic sense of “a change” rather than actual weaning.
- It may mean actual weaning – where you’re offering a bottle or a cup instead of nursing.
- Or it may mean complete weaning – where no more milk or food will be offered at night.
For example, if your child has developed a strong negative sleep association with feeding, you may want to address that. One way to address it is by moving the bedtime feeding to the start of the bedtime routine instead of the end.
Another way you might rock sleep training and wean at the same time is by slowly reducing the number of minutes you allow your baby to nurse during the night. It will take some time to achieve a complete night weaning, but it is possible.
For bottle-fed babies, you can work on weaning while sleep training by slowly reducing the quantity of milk available in the bottle. Again, this will take some time to accomplish – but it can be done in tandem with sleep training.
As you reduce how much milk is available at night, be sure to build your response to your child into your sleep training plan. Will you respond right away? Or will you give your baby a few moments to self-soothe and settle before you go check on them?
Then, slowly fade your response – and you’ll have weaned and finished sleep training before you know it.
When to Night Wean Before Sleep Training
There are four times when a family should focus on night weaning before worrying about sleep training.
|Situation When Night Weaning Should Occur||Reasoning|
|Toddlers who wake up at night ONLY to eat.||This is a common issue for families – their toddlers are still waking to nurse (or take a bottle) at night. Once it becomes disruptive, it’s okay to wean – before attempting sleep training. In many cases, weaning will solve the problem and make sleep training unnecessary.|
|Babies who are always fed any time they wake at night.||These babies may be waking multiple times each night, having developed a negative sleep association – and may benefit from being offered another form of comfort (like a pacifier) instead. Even minor weaning (off of just some of the night feedings) may help these babies and their parents to get better sleep.|
|Families who cosleep and/or bed share – and want to continue doing so.||Families who practice attachment parenting may want to continue cosleeping or bedsharing – but get more sleep. In these cases, a weaning schedule may help accomplish both goals without needing to sleep train at all.|
|Medical reasons or concerns.||Whether the medical reasons are mom’s or the baby’s, medical reasons are a valid reason to wean – and in many cases, should be addressed before sleep training to prevent treatment delay.|
Tips for Sleep Training Without Night Weaning
When you’re going to focus on sleep training without weaning – or just focus on sleep training first, there are some important things I’ve learned through both research and experience.
First, know when you’re going to feed your baby both at night and during the day. When you’re half asleep, it’s far too tempting and easy to just go and nurse the baby – and then you’re going to risk developing negative sleep associations that will need addressing.
Doing so will not only undermine the sleep training, but it will also make things worse. Here’s how I discovered that fun fact.
Example: with our oldest child, I went in to comfort him at night any time he fussed for “too long”… only “too long” quickly became “at all” – and he was being allowed to nurse any time he made noise. Soon, he was waking as often as every 20 minutes and I was beyond exhausted.
Next, have your sleep training plan written out. Try to account for every possibility you can think of. Why? Because trying to think of a plan – on the fly and in the middle of the night – generally doesn’t work very well.
So think of every possible scenario – and plan your response. Here is how that worked for us.
For our oldest son, we began implementing a “no-feed” window. Between bedtime and 2 A.M., my husband responded to his cries and offered a pacifier. After 2 in the morning, I was free to go nurse him up to twice on demand. He adjusted quickly – and his sleep improved dramatically.
Our son was physically capable of going a single 6-hour window without feeding – and sticking to that proved to be what both of us needed in order to establish a sustainable sleep schedule.
Finally, stick to your plan. When my son got sick with a minor cold and I didn’t stick to the plan? Things quickly regressed and became worse. But even while teething we realized we needed to stick to our plan – because it could still work with one slight adjustment.
We just made sure to offer pain medicine (ibuprofen or acetaminophen) at appropriate intervals. Be sure to ask your pediatrician for your child’s age-appropriate and weight-based dosage information.
Know that Night Weaning Alone May Trigger Sleep Regressions
When you first start weaning, there is the very real possibility that things could get worse for a short period of time. Specifically, the sleep schedule may get worse.
However, this is totally normal, expected, and can be dealt with as long as you know that it may happen in advance.
In most cases, it will just mean a couple of rough nights while everyone’s adjusting to the new normal. In some more severe cases, you’ll need to use good sleep training practices in order to get through the worst of things.
For more information on sleep regressions while weaning, be sure to read my article on it over on SleepRegression.com by clicking here.
Offset Sleep Training and/or Night Weaning with Increased Daytime Snuggles
This tip is hugely important. My kids are snuggle bugs – they love to spend every possible moment cuddling. Even as they grow up, they still require a lot of cuddle time. Yes, I love it.
But as babies, it was hard finding a balance for extra cuddles – especially during the day when I had things to do and obligations to meet.
Even so, once I focused on dedicating extra time during the day to cuddling my growing babies and toddlers, nights became easier. It’s still something we focus on, even with our school-aged children.
So spend a few minutes, each daytime, cuddling your children. It makes the nights easier.
6 Times to (Temporarily) Quit Night Weaning
Are there times when you should quit weaning? Definitely. Now, this may not mean you quit trying to wean forever. It could very much so be a temporary quitting. In fact, I’d recommend you try again sometime soon – if weaning is what’s best for you.
In the meantime, as long as there isn’t a medical concern that necessitates immediate weaning, you may need to take a few days or weeks off in these six situations.
|When to Quit Weaning (even temporarily)||Rationale|
|Your baby is too young.||Babies less than 4-6 months old require breastmilk or formula. Consider delaying weaning as long as possible or transition to formula.|
|Your baby refuses to wean.||Some babies just aren’t ready yet. As long as it’s not medically necessary, consider delaying weaning. Transitioning to a formula may work, too – if your baby goes for it.|
|Your baby has a negative sleep association with feeding.||You may need to temporarily quit while you formulate a sleep training plan to address the negative sleep association.|
|Your baby is a distracted eater who can’t get enough calories during the day.||In this case, your baby requires nighttime calories to grow and develop. You may want to create a distraction-free daytime nursing or eating environment to offset this as much as possible.|
|This sleep regression is too hard.||Sometimes, you may need to quit trying to wean for a couple of days in order to reset everyone’s ability to try again. Taking a few nights off to get some sleep may be your key to being able to try again later – this time with success.|
|Illness or a growth spurt requires more calories quickly.||Perhaps your baby normally is able to get enough calories during the day. However, while ill or during a growth spurt they may need an extra feeding or two at night to get enough calories to grow and get better. Taking a couple of days off of night weaning will probably be enough to do the trick.|
Want some troubleshooting ideas before calling a temporary time-out on weaning? Here are some ideas for the most common issues:
- The bedroom environment is vital to sleeping comfort. Find your baby’s ideal, and then make it happen. Important note: dress a baby in the same number of layers of clothing you’d wear at that temperature.
- Illnesses (like colds, flu, ear infections, and diaper rash) will disrupt anyone’s sleep, even a baby’s. Treat the illness and manage symptoms to keep your baby more comfortable during recovery. This will help them sleep better and recover faster.
- Colicky babies may have an underlying medical issue like reflux, allergies (food or environment), or sensitive skin (eczema) that makes weaning harder. Know this may trigger sleep regressions.
- Teething babies may be able to keep weaning (and sleeping) when given a weight-appropriate dosage of pain reliever. Make sure it’s okay with your doctor first, of course. And remember that they can give you the right dosage information. Fun fact: teething pain is often worse at night. Pain medicine may be the key to making nights more bearable.
Try Different Sleeping Arrangements While Weaning and/or Sleep Training
In some cases, you may want to try a different sleeping arrangement while weaning and/or sleep training if the existing sleeping arrangements aren’t working.
So if the status quo isn’t seeing improvement or it’s just flat-out getting worse, consider a temporary change to another sleeping arrangement.
Here are some ideas to consider:
|Sleeping Arrangement||When it May Work Well||When to Skip it|
|Consider co-sleeping.||Babies may do better right next to you, even while weaning or sleep training. This scenario may work especially well if you’re taking a few nights off to nurse on demand so that everyone can get enough sleep for another try.||If weaning is an absolute must, this may not work as well for an easily-frustrated baby.|
|Part-time co-sleeping.||Babies that require close contact with mom may need an intermediate step between being held all night and sleeping all night in their own crib. Sleeping in their own bed until the first waking or feeding – then co-sleeping the rest of the night – is a great compromise and intermediate step.||Any time co-sleeping is a safety concern, please skip it.|
|Separate beds, same room.||If co-sleeping is a concern but you’d like to have baby close, consider separate beds in the same room. That closeness may be just the thing to make nighttime easier for your family.||Babies may take some time to adjust to this – especially if they want to be right next to you, dang it!|
|Separate beds and separate rooms.||Babies who are light sleepers may benefit from moving to their own room with their own white noise machine. Sometimes, your sleep noises are what’s waking them – and then their sleep noises wake you. Having separate rooms may be the answer.||Just make sure you have a baby monitor if needed.|
Remember that Weaning Changes Your Baby’s Appetite for a Couple of Weeks
Change takes time to adjust. That’s normal. It’s the same for your baby, whether they’re accustomed to eating on-demand 24/7 or they’re used to eating every few hours of the day – and now they’re being weaned at night.
Changing your baby’s feeding schedule by weaning will require up to a couple of weeks for things to settle into a new normal. So make sure that, especially during the day, you’re offering calorie-rich foods during the daytime to make up for the change in feeding schedule.
You Should Expect Difficulty Night Weaning if Your Child is a Curious Eater
Some babies are “curious eaters.” These babies would rather play and interact than eat. As such, these babies have a harder time eating all of their required calories during daytime hours.
In fact, if they can’t focus properly during daytime feeds, it will be impossible for them to eat enough calories during the daytime. In other words, these babies are going to wake up hungry at night – unless you’re able to help them adjust.
Not-so-fun fact: curious eaters tend to emerge at about 4-6 months old.
Here are some tips to help your curious eater focus better during mealtimes:
- Minimize distractions while nursing or bottle-feeding. You may need to feed your baby in a quiet room with the lights off and a white noise machine going.
- Use Eat-Play-Sleep to your advantage; babies who just woke up can be more focused than a sleepy, distracted baby.
- If your curious eater won’t eat well while you’re out and about, offer them another feed as soon as you’re home and in a less stimulating environment.
- Wear a fun nursing necklace so they can play and keep nursing.
Babies who get easily distracted (while eating) may end up needing nighttime feeds to supply up to a quarter of their daily caloric needs. Helping your baby to focus while eating can save everyone a lot of sleep – and prevent many food-related sleep disruptions.
Weaning Note: Solid Foods are Not as Filling as Milk
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, 22-pound (10 kg) 12-month-old would have to eat. At this weight, the baby would need to consume between 950 and 1000 calories per day (based on a 95-100 kcal/kg/day caloric requirement).
|Food||Calories per Ounce (kcal)||Quantity of Food a 12-Month-Old (22 Pound) Baby Would Have to Eat Daily|
|Whole Milk||18.6||51-54 oz|
|Almond Milk||5||190-200 oz|
|Rice Cereal (2 tbsp made with 1 oz water)||15-20||50-63 oz|
|Baby Oatmeal (2 tbsp made with 1 oz water)||15-20||50-63 oz|
|Rice Cereal (2 tbsp made with 1 oz breastmilk)||35-40||25-27 oz|
|Baby Oatmeal (2 tbsp made with 1 oz formula)||35-40||25-27 oz|
|Unsweetened Applesauce||12.9||73-78 oz|
|Mashed banana||25||38-40 oz|
|Mashed squash||2-8||125-475 oz|
|Scrambled eggs||40||23-25 oz|
Now, by 12 months old, a toddler isn’t going to just be drinking breastmilk or formula. They’re going to be eating a good variety of foods – which is what they need because they need a lot of calories.
But think about this from a baby’s perspective: their best bet is going to be breastmilk or formula – because it’s the most calorie-dense and its’ what they can actually handle consuming.
I mean, what adult (let alone a 6-month-old or a 12-month old) would be able to eat 125 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 and will need to eat.
So as you start introducing solid foods, just remember that they aren’t as filling. Supplement as needed with calorie-rich foods like:
- 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.
Make Sleep Training and/or Weaning Nights Easier by Offering More Daytime Foods
Don’t just offer more calorie-rich foods during the day – you’ll also want to offer more quantity of daytime foods or a number of feedings. That way, you can minimize the risk of nighttime wakings and feeds.
Yes, this is 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 – the before-bedtime meal! Give your baby one feeding session before bed to fill up their tummy for the night.
Example: Before weaning, my son usually ate every 3-4 hours or so each day, including at night. When we began weaning, I offered him food every 2-3 hours during the daytime. This helped him get more calories during the day and helped us stretch times between feedings at night.
Remember that Changing Feeds Affects Digestion and Sleep
Changing diets (and the times when you eat your food) will impact not only sleep but also digestion. And how you digest food also affects sleep.
Breastmilk, for example, is one of the easiest things for babies to digest. Of course, food that’s digested quickly also means that the baby gets hungry again sooner and faster.
Baby formula, while chemically very similar to breastmilk is different enough that it does take longer to digest. That’s part of why formula-fed babies sleep longer than breastfed babies – it’s because formula takes longer to digest. Solid foods also take longer to digest.
And what do people (and babies) who are busy digesting foods like to do? They love to nap or 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.
When Nighttime Feeding Becomes a Negative Sleep Association
If your baby requires being able to nurse or bottle-feed back to sleep – and starts waking up more and more frequently at night – you’re going to discover a not-so-fun problem.
This is a problem known as a negative sleep association – and it will require intentional sleep training to fix it.
In this case, you may want to consider a temporary hiatus on sleep training to implement (or re-implement) co-sleeping so that everyone can get some quick sleep. This way, you’ll be rested enough to address the negative sleep issue with sleep training.
Or, you may want to just skip ahead to ease your baby out of this negative sleep association with either intentional night weaning and/or sleep training.
We used a combination of sleep training and night weaning to help our oldest son out of this particular negative sleep association. We used a “no-nursing” window (from bedtime to 2 A.M.) with a maximum number of 2 feeds between 2 A.M. and wake-up time. Then, we used fading methods and sleep training to help ease the transition.
For more information on sleep associations, be sure to read my article on it right here.
Weaning and Sleep Training Both Take Time
I can still remember how exhausted I felt every day with a new baby – and how I wished so much for an overnight cure that would guarantee our family a better night’s sleep.
Well, such a thing is a myth. The truth of the matter is that both weaning and sleep training generally take some time. Sure, there’s a spectrum.
- Some kids won’t need any sleep training or weaning at all.
- Some kids will be able to sleep train very quickly.
- Some kids will take a week or so.
- And some kids will take even longer to settle into a sustainable pattern.
So remember that both take time – and that way, you’ll be mentally prepared for the long haul. That way, if your kid is one of the ones who can figure things out faster, you’ll be pleasantly surprised – rather than devastated if things take longer.
Remember that Night and Day are Different for Both Sleep Training and Weaning
Here’s an important thing to know, no matter what age your child is: night and daytime are two different things. Just as sleep training and weaning are different, so are dealing with each of these things during daytime and nighttime hours.
Example: we were able to sleep train nights much faster than we were able to sleep train during naps and daytime. Our kids also weaned down to one-a-night feeding, then weaned during the day before they were able to drop that last night feeding.
So remember that you aren’t just sleep training – you’re going to be sleep training nights and sleep training naps. Then you’re also weaning nights and weaning days.
The best part about remembering this is that you have more milestones and achievements to celebrate – even if it is more work.
Let Dad Help with Weaning and Sleep Training
This is the most important thing to know with both weaning and sleep training: ask your partner for help.
In our case, that’s my husband and the father of our children. He’s the real hero of sleep training and weaning! This is where daddy got to shine. When our children were younger, he bemoaned the inability to help feed our bottle-hating breastfed children. But now? Now his inability to feed the children became an advantage – because he can go comfort them without resorting to nursing them.
In some cases, you may also ask your village and family for help.
But for us, the key really ended up being daddy’s superpowers of being unable to nurse the baby and sticking to our sleep training plan. He’s what made being able to successfully sleep train and wean happen at the appropriate times.
Hang in there – and ask for help.
Can You Night Wean Cold Turkey? Yes, you can night wean cold turkey. Expect your baby to dislike quitting immediately, though. A note for nursing moms, be careful weaning cold turkey as this could cause issues with your milk supply – and it could lead to morning engorgement or even mastitis.
What’s the Best Way to Wean During Naps? Naptime weaning is best done very similarly to nighttime weaning: take it slow. Start by offering less milk (in ounces or in minutes allowed to nurse) that gradually lessens over a period of days or weeks. Make sure to offer increased food during meals to offset calorie loss.