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Toddler Tips

Nighttime Nursings

From New Beginnings, Vol. 26 No. 1, 2009, pp. 42-43

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

I can not get my 18-month-old to sleep well at night. It seems he wants to nurse constantly! I didn't mind so much when he was very little but now that he is getting older, I admit that I am feeling burned out and need a good night's sleep. Why would his nursing increase at night instead of diminish like I thought it would, and what can I do to get him to cut back or stop so that my husband, our baby, and I can finally get a full night's rest?

Mother's Response

As a mother to seven children ages 12 to one year old, having breastfed all of them and currently tandem nursing my one-year-old and almost three-year-old, I find many times a toddler will nurse all night due to the busyness of his or her day (or mine for that matter). Or it could be from teething and just needing comfort. I have experienced this with most of my children. On my busy days he sometimes only nurses two to three times during the course of the day, but nearly always makes up for it at night. It can be very tiring, but I try to rest during the day when he does. Could you nap when your son does? At night, could you bring him into your bed and nurse him as both of you fall back to sleep? Finally, perhaps he's a little hungry at night. Giving him a healthy bedtime snack could help curb his appetite and he might not want to nurse as often. May sweet sleep soon be yours.

Theresa G.
Chicago, IL, USA

Mother's Response

The only thing that worked for us was to stop nursing in gradual increments during the night. This is what I did: I made sure my toddler was going to bed with a full tummy (i.e., giving him a healthy but filling snack); I always nursed at bed time to put a little more in my child's tummy; and I gradually increased the amount of time between nighttime nursings.

During the transitional time period, I left the task of comforting our toddler up to my husband. Since he doesn't have breasts, our children didn't get so upset when they weren't nursed. Yes, they called for me, but he did a great job of pacifying them without nursing.

It was a gradual shift, and it was still hard to do. When my toddler was sick I did return to nursing during the night, but it was always easier to night-wean after they had successfully done it once before. Once we refrained from nursing at night, I found I really appreciated breastfeeding more.

Teddi Anshus
Bellingham, WA, USA

Mother's Response

As the parent of a child who was a frequent night nurser, I have come up with a theory on toddler night nursing. I believe there are some children who have a need or temperament to night nurse frequently and some children who have periods of frequent night nursing due to illness, pain, developmental milestones, or a family disruption.

My son night nursed frequently from birth. He would scream and greatly protest any attempts that I made to limit his night nursing and it became very clear to me that he needed this type of attention from me. I chose to get more rest during the day, not talk about my child's sleep with others, not to read night weaning books as this would frustrate me, and instead, drink a cup of coffee in the morning. At two-and-a-half he spontaneously started sleeping longer stretches. At three, I decided to gradually night wean him because I was three months pregnant and knew that I would need to be taking care of the baby at night. By the time my daughter was born, he was sleeping soundly through the night. I believe in the LLL philosophy that when a need is met it goes away. He is now five, and I recently had a party at my house after he went to bed and he never woke up.

On the other hand, my two-year-old daughter is a "typical" sleeper who has woken two to four times a night since birth. When she goes through phases of frequent night waking I know that this is a clue that something is going on with her. Toddlers will wake at night for many medical reasons such as teething, ear infections, food allergies, and when they are fighting off an illness.

Also, some toddlers will go through a brief regression just before they are going to spring forward in their development. Suddenly, your toddler may start talking in sentences when he couldn't before and his nighttime pattern will go back to normal. There may have been some recent changes in your family, vacations, visitors, or increased work hours from you or your spouse. This can also increase your child's need to reconnect with you at night. Often I find that by the time I think I have figured out what is causing the night waking, it has passed.

Becky Straub
Hillsborough, NC, USA

Mother's Response

During my almost 10 years as a La Leche League Leader, that 18-month milestone was a reoccurring theme! I had experienced it with my own daughter: the constant night nursing, the sleepless nights, being "touched out," and the frustration. And I heard it year after year from the moms who came to my LLL Group. It took me a long time and lots of research to understand why this happens. Around 18 months, babies go through a big developmental curve. Their brains actually start to change and process things differently. They may be learning to talk, they may be gaining cognitive steps, and they may be gaining large motor skills they didn't have before. All of these changes cause the brain to go into overdrive and it changes sleep cycles. If you remember, it probably was like this before they learned to crawl and again when they learned to walk. It will happen again many times in their lives, but at that point they will know how to put themselves back to sleep.

So now that you know why -- what can you do about it? I like getting Dad involved. Babies have to learn that both parents can comfort them and if they cry, it's okay that Daddy is comforting them. You can wait it out if you have the patience and keep nursing at night. You can put down some ground rules -- breastfeeding is often the first place that discipline occurs. Remember breastfeeding is a relationship and if either one of the parties involved isn't happy, adjustments need to be made.

Diana Torp
Morago, CA, USA

Mother's Response

Does your baby nurse less during the day? Could he be so busy exploring the world that he doesn't settle down to nurse until nighttime? Could he be eating more solids during the day but still truly needing to nurse (whether for nutrition or suckling or both)? Could he be going through or nearing a big developmental change or milestone? Has your life been stressful, busy, or distracted in a way that takes some of your attention away from baby?

My 24-month-old daughter nurses more at night (without decreasing daytime nursing) during periods when I am very distracted and not providing much concentrated attention. My daughter also does not sleep well when she doesn't feel good. Could your baby be teething? Sick? Could he be bothered by a wet diaper?

If you have ruled out these possible causes, you might consider the possibility of a reaction to some food(s) in his or your diet. I have found that my daughter nurses "constantly" at night when she is reacting to a food she or I have eaten. As we have eliminated problematic foods from our diet, her symptoms of poor sleep (fussing, thrashing, and nursing a lot) have become more clearly related to specific exposures. When we consistently avoid the problematic foods, she only nurses once or twice at night and we all get a restful night's sleep.

If your son is reacting to food(s), there are likely other symptoms besides night nursing. Doris Rapp's book, Is This Your Child?, is packed with helpful information and discusses a broad range of clues. If there is a physical problem such as food reactions, night-weaning and sleep training techniques may circumvent an important feedback avenue without solving the real problem.

I understand the challenges of prolonged, frequently interrupted sleep. I wish you the best in your quest for rest!

Kim Adams
Springfield, MO, USA

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