Q: I have been told that my baby will sleep more if I wean her. Is that true?
An excerpt adapted from an upcoming Praeclarus Press book by Winema Wilson Lanoue
It is easy for others around us to turn every challenge we have as a parent into a problem that needs to be solved. Most breastfeeding and gentle parenting experts agree that the stages babies and children go through are not problems; they are developmentally appropriate and instinctive behaviors.
We may not always understand why a baby does what she does, but there are reasons for her behavior. Babies cannot manipulate you. They do not have the capacity to ask for something that they don’t truly need, at least until they are over a year of age, and often beyond. This includes sleeping/waking, and night nursing.
Some babies don’t need many night feedings and some wake several times to nurse, and continue to do so for quite some time. Neither of these behaviors is wrong. Among other things, this variation in waking depends on their mothers’ differing milk storage capacities (see the infographic below). Babies who can get a lot of milk at one feeding may nurse less often and vice-versa.
Needs not habits
You can feel confident that you are doing the right thing by meeting your baby’s nursing needs during the night. She will not learn bad habits. She will be able to soothe herself in the near future. Generations of mothers who parented as they were needed, whose children are now healthy adult sleepers, offer great proof of this.
There is a lot of pressure on parents to get their baby sleeping through the night as soon as possible and lots of misinformation comes with claims that your baby should not need you. If your baby isn’t ready to sleep through, and most are not, you are not teaching her anything except to give up on her needs. Translation: you won’t be there for her, so she should “shut down.” What happens in babies’ brains and bodies as they do this can be stressful, to say the least, and there is growing evidence that there may be more long-term harm than short-term good (as defined by a bit more parental sleep). Sharing the science behind this possible damage with others in your life may help them realize that you accept your baby where she is and want to meet her needs. When she is older and ready, unless there is some underlying problem, she will sleep more. For now, know that a baby who wakes to nurse is showing one sign of being healthy and attached (Controlled Crying and Long-Term Harm; Neuroscience Shows Breastfeeding Is Not Just Milk; What Is Normal Infant Sleep?)
But your question was whether your baby would sleep more if you weaned.
A young baby who is weaned or night-weaned may or may not sleep more and, if she does, may be “shutting down,” as discussed above. If you were to wean, she would probably still need to eat and be comforted during the night (and, indeed, waking for a child under 6 months old can be a safety mechanism), so you would have to consider what you would feed her instead and how else you might respond to her needs.
An older child who wakes a lot to nurse (“a lot” being relative to each family) may or may not sleep more when weaned or night-weaned. It really depends a great deal on the individual child and the reason behind the waking (hunger, discomfort, etc). Remember, even if you choose to night-wean and meet needs differently, they are still legitimate needs. Mothers who choose to wean will need some backup ideas in place for soothing their child (day or night) and may want to consider what are her reasons for waking if she continues to do so.
Mothers who try night-weaning often find that it works best when the child is old enough to understand what the mother is asking of her. Nancy Mohrbacher considers whether Older Babies Need Night Feedings on her blog.
Babies’ needs aside, moms need sleep. As brief as this time is, it can feel like torture when you are tired. There are helpful strategies, which I explore in my upcoming book, and you can read one mother’s ideas for coping here in Sleep Like a Baby.