When my daughter was five months old, she started waking almost every hour looking for boob to put her back to sleep and I was beside myself. She had been sleeping so well up until then, but now her sleeping was fitful and feverish. I knew that all babies woke a little at night, but were they supposed to wake every hour for days and weeks and months in a row?! It wasn’t just developmental stuff or teething, it had to be something else…
This story may sound familiar to many mothers, especially if you are the co-sleeping and breastfeeding on demand type. I was (and still am) totally against using ‘cry it out‘ or sleep training in any way and I wasn’t about to stop co-sleeping or breastfeeding. But, I had to search for some sort of solution because waking up every hour just didn’t seem natural. Four years later, after doing lots of research and reading, after doing natural parenting workshops, and after another baby, and after some very nice nights of sleep, I have a list. Here is how to help get a co-sleeping, breastfed child to sleep better, while still keeping the very important, night-time connection and support that a child needs. I did not come up with this list from thin air, it’s all through my experience through researching and talking to other mothers.
1. Don’t Give Up on Co-sleeping or Breastfeeding!
Night time parenting is just as important as daytime parenting. If people are pressuring you to stop co-sleeping because you’re complaining of lack of sleep… just stop complaining to them, and complain to someone else who will listen with an open mind. Co-sleeping and breastfeeding on demand are topics that not everyone agrees on, so if you bring your problems to the wrong person, they may influence you to do something that you will regret later. Your child is only little once. Children gain a huge amount of security and trust by having a parent on call at night. You can leave your complaints with me if you have to. If co-sleeping is causing you anxiety, that’s different and maybe you should consider room sharing or some other situation.
(Numbers 2-5 are all very linked together!)
2. Feeding with Awareness
I discovered that every time my daughter would wake, I would quickly shove the boob back in her mouth to put her to sleep. I thought it was the only way to get her back to sleep! I felt like I had to change something, so I started doing a few things: 1) I started offering a cuddle for every other time she woke, instead of the boob every single time. Cutting down on feeds was a big relief to me! (note, a very young baby needs to feed frequently at night, so this is not advice for the wee little ones) 2) I shortened the length of the feed. This one was mainly because I was doing elimination communication at night, and I didn’t want to have her drinking too much, otherwise I would have to keep taking her to the potty all night! It seemed natural to do this, as I don’t think the cave people would have wanted to get out of bed three times a night to take their baby to the bushes to pee. 3) I started really paying attention to when she was truly in need of a feed… like, if she just had boobs an hour ago, did she really need them again?
3. Watch for Control Patterns
A control pattern is anything that a child does to repress an emotion. For example, sucking a thumb, using a dummy/pacifier, or constantly on the boob, even if they are not really hungry. Often a child uses a control pattern to help them fall asleep or in a situation when they are upset, nervous, or feel like they want to cry. What happens with night wakings and control patterns, is that every time a child wakes at night, they need their control habit to get them back to sleep without crying. It’s not that thumb sucking, using a dummy/pacifier or breastfeeding to sleep is bad, but if it’s used primarily to get them to sleep, then it is certainly a control pattern. To help with control patterns, here’s the next point.
4. Make Sure Your Child is Allowed to Freely Express Their Negative Emotions Throughout the Day
Almost every baby gets cranky at some point during the day for no apparent reason. Or, if the child is older, they might hurt themselves or get upset. The most automatic reaction we have is to stop them from crying. We either use distractions, words or motion (rocking, bouncing) to make them stop crying. Or, we give them some food, a dummy/pacifier, etc. And, we try sticking the boob in their mouth to stop them from crying. Distracting or stopping a child from expressing his or her emotions is something that works short term, but can back fire later on in the form of restlessness, aggression or relentless whining. Crying is a natural process and helps children to release the stress that occurs from day to day living. Unfortunately, in our society, we portray crying as bad or as something being ‘wrong‘, but this is not the case with emotional crying. Emotional crying is an amazing built-in healing mechanism for relieving stress. Some babies and toddlers need to cry more than others.
Of course, we want to lessen the chances of our babies getting frustrated, but nobody lives in a perfect world and upsets happen. If you have done everything possible to keep your baby or toddler happy and they are still border line tantrum, let them have the tantrum!!! You might find that they cry much harder and longer than necessary (for example, crying because you give them the wrong cup). The tantrum ‘over nothing‘ is an excuse for them to get their emotions out. You know how you feel after a good cry? Your baby or toddler will feel the same. Even young babies benefit from a cry in a pair of loving arms. Be sure to support their crying and never make them feel bad for releasing their emotions in a natural way. Releasing their negative emotions during the day, will help them to have a more peaceful sleep at night.
5. Don’t Think You Always Have to Feed To Sleep
I remember sitting there for AGES while my little one sucked and sucked so that I could get her to sleep and I started feeling quite a bit of resentment because of it. When I stopped associating boobs with falling asleep, she slept tremendously better. Countless other mothers report the same thing. Boobs can be for boobs and boobs don’t always have to be for falling asleep on. It really saved my sanity to do it that way. It’s not to say that you should never feed to sleep as a strict rule! If it happens easily, then great. But, if it’s not happening easily, it could mean that they are in need of a big stress release in the form of a cry in your arms. Be relaxed about it and your child will also feel relaxed about it. It was nice when I stopped worrying if my kids would fall asleep on the boob or not.
If your child is used to having boobs to bed, they are probably going to cry if you don’t offer them for sleep. This crying should be supported and will help them to release their pent up emotions of the day. You might find that they cry a lot and this is a very normal process of releasing stress for them. It’s important not to abandon your child while they are crying. If you feel that you can’t handle the emotional releasing, then maybe it’s not time for you to give up the feed to sleep, maybe try it when they’re older. I always found that on the nights my kids DID NOT fall asleep on the boob, and instead had a big cry in my arms, they always slept considerable better, as in 10x better. I fed them just before bed time instead.
How much exercise does a child need? A LOT! Never underestimate how much exercise they need. Even babies need a fair amount of exercise, they can get this just by kicking, rolling around on the floor, climbing and crawling, etc. Older toddlers need to really run and climb a fair bit. If you’re stuck inside a lot, see if you can find ways to give your child of plenty of exercise indoors, playing games, dancing, rolling balls, etc. On days when my kids have had an enormous amount of exercise, they almost always sleep like a rock.
7. Keep them Dry
One big reason why babies wake at night is simply because they are wet. Even disposables can’t always mask the coldness that goes along with being wet. I practiced night time elimination communication with my kids and found that they always would stir right before they had to pee. Of course, not everyone is going to jump out of bed to take their kid to the potty in the middle of the night, but it’s something to keep in mind as to why they are waking. Another reason to reduce the frequency and duration of feeds at night is to also reduce the amount of pees that they do!
8. Watch the Diet
You don’t need to go crazy with it, but see if there are certain foods that make your child stay awake. My younger daughter is extremely sensitive to raw cacao! When she was a baby and she was heavily breastfed, even if I ate the cacoa, she was up squirming all night because it was being transferred through my breastmilk! Now that she’s older, if she eats it at night, we almost always have a restless night.
9. Ask Your Partner for Help
Sometimes it’s all just too much for us to handle. I sometimes would feed my babies and hand them over to my husband for him to cuddle them to sleep. Man, oh man, would they cry! But, they were in dad’s loving arms, and I knew they were safe. The crying was releasing a huge amount of stress from their system and afterwards, they always slept peacefully for a long time.
10. Consider Age Appropriate Night Weaning
A gradual approach to night weaning is best. I started around 8 months and finished night time feeding around 20-22 months. Night weaning simply means you stop feeding at night. And, night weaning may mean different things for different people. It may happen at different ages too, whenever you feel that it is right (with the exception of young babies who need to feed at night). Often, babies and toddlers start sleeping much better at night when they are partially or fully night weaned. This one can be tricky though if you are a working mother and you don’t get the chance to feed many times during the day. So, be mindful of your situation.
11. Avoid TV and screen time right before bed
Screen time, especially TV is not really recommended for children under the age of two anyway, but sometimes it happens! Make sure that the last thing they are doing before bed is not in front of a screen, it stimulates their nervous system too much and can make it difficult for them to sleep.
12. Self Care
Be sure to take care of yourself. Don’t go to bed too late, eat proper food, get a little exercise each day and get some kid-free time off at least once a week or so, even if it’s only an hour. Night wakings are always worse when you’re not taking care of yourself!
I hope these ideas work for you. I’m still breastfeeding my 4 1/2 year old and 2 year old and we’re all co-sleeping AND I have had lots of sleep over the past 4 years (when I’m not up late writing blog posts).
Disclaimer: I am not a lactation consultant. All advice in this post is coming from an educated personal point of view. All baby’s needs should be taken into consideration, especially if they are sick or have special needs. Very young babies should never be night weaned and should be fed on demand, with awareness.