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When Your Co-Sleeping, Breastfed Child Wakes Up 800 Times a Night: What to Do

Katesurfsbabywakes

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. Years later, after doing lots of research and reading, after doing natural parenting workshops, and after having other babies, 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.

5. Exercise
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!

Disclaimer: I am not a lactation consultant. 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.

218 Responses »

  1. Hi Kate! I’m glad I came across this post but I’m still not really sure what to do with my baby as I don’t know if he is too young to not be nursing him to sleep. My son is 4.5 months old and we co sleep for the most part. I don’t sleep good at all with him in our bed so I sometimes try to gently transfer him into his crib (literally 6 inches from my side of the bed) when he seems to be sound asleep. But he tends to wake up at the end of each sleep cycle (about every 45 minutes) and will only fall back asleep if I nurse him to sleep.

    He is starting to get tired and wanting to go to sleep around 6pm every night which is before my husband even gets home from work (so I basically never spend time with my husband anymore and some nights I don’t even get the chance to have supper). I am in bed trying to get my baby to sleep usually for about 2-4 hours as he fights going to sleep sooo hard even though he’s so tired! I’ve tried rocking, bouncing, laying him in his crib to try to fall asleep on his own (not crying it out though), and I’ve tried just holding him and cuddling him but he just looks wide awake when I try that. I’ve tried having a bedtime routine for him and it doesn’t seem to make a difference, I want so badly for my baby to be able to sleep in his crib next to our bed and to be able to fall back asleep without having to be nursed, I just don’t know if it’s too early for that or not. I also would really like my evenings back as I can’t seem to leave him once he’s asleep because I have to put him back to sleep every 45 minutes.

    He also won’t nap without being attached to my boob and he naps after being awake for an hour and a half, so I basically spend my entire day in bed, since each nap is anywhere from 45 minutes to 2.5 hours. I tried waking him up once to try and make his naps the same length and at the same time each day and he was MAD! It did not work at all!

    I want so badly to do the right thing for my baby and for him to be a good napper and night sleeper, I’m just not sure I know how to do that anymore. So I am wondering if you have any suggestions? How/when do I start?

    Reply
    • Oh mama! I hear you… So… if he’s taking that long to go to sleep, he’s probably not that tired… or he needs a big release of accumulated emotions. Even newborns need to release their emotions! They get frustrated and stressed just like adults. Do you have a baby carrier? I would highly recommend having one. That way, you can put him in there and get your evenings back. If he’s tired enough, he can fall asleep in there and you can eat dinner with your husband while he sleeps on you! That’s at the bare minimum… But yeah, unless you think somethings physically wrong, it’s emotional. Waking after every sleep cycle would be accumulated emotions. I highly recommend reading ‘Tears and Tantrums’ by Aletha Solter. There’s no minimum age where a baby can fall asleep without nursing. If it happens easily, then it’s fine. But, if it’s taking 2-4 hours to get him to sleep, then he needs a big cry in arms (not alone, not cry it out). He may cry for a long time and at first, it may not seem to work, as it stirs up a lot of emotions. But, after a few big cries, I think he will start sleeping more peacefully. Let me know how it goes.

      Reply
      • Okay, so tonite I followed your advice and my baby cried on and off while I held him him and hugged him for about half an hour and then when he seemed calm I decided to try and nurse him because I wasn’t sure if he got enough to eat when I initially fed him because he was so frustrated and worked up. He was grunting and shaking his head side to side so that was when I decided to try just hugging him and letting him release those emotions. Once e calmed down and I nursed him the second time he nursed for about 2 minutes and then unlatched and laid his little head down on my boob and fell asleep! He did wake up once and immediately latched back on for a few minutes but that was pretty much it. Then I put him in his crib and he woke up after about 5 minutes and I imagine it was once he cooled off from my body heat leaving him. So then my husband picked him up and just held him and he fell back asleep in about a minute! My husband hates the crib (haha) so he laid our son down next to him and now we will see how the rest of the night goes! (We are in Canada so it’s 10:15pm here..). Thanks for your help! I am hoping the rest of tonite will go smoothly.

        OH! And yes, I have a carrier… well..a wrap… and my son loves it but he won’t sleep in it anymore now that he’s too big for the newborn hold! (My 4.5 month old is a big boy! He’s 18lbs!). And I am considering getting a better carrier with more support as he gets very heavy, very quickly in the wrap now that he’s so big.

      • Oh, I wonder if you might like an Ergo? Or some sort of structured baby carrier, with buckles. The only one I would avoid would be a baby bjorn. Let me know how the sleep goes!

  2. Ya, I think I would like to give one a try, thanks for the recommendation. Last night didn’t go so great! My son went to sleep around 6:30pm, which I thought was great. But then he woke up at 7:20pm and was awake (but tired and kind of whining) until close to 11pm! All night he wouldn’t sleep unless he was attached to my boob. I tried just cuddling him and he was not havin it! Then he was awake at 7:30am and wouldn’t go back to sleep. It always seems like the first night that I try anything new with him it works wonderfully, and then every other night doing the same thing it just doesn’t work! Do you think I should give up? Or keep trying?

    Reply
    • Aw, sometimes when the crying starts, it stirs up a lot of big emotions! I like to say it’s like cleaning out a dusty room. Gets messier first before it gets clean. But, do read that book and see what you think, there’s so much more useful information in there.

      Reply
  3. Okay, I will give it a shot! Thanks 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Jas, i’m in the exact same situation here, my son is 5mo, how is it going? im trying pretty much the same things.

      Reply
      • Hi martianase, things have gotten quite a bit better lately. My son now seems to only be waking up about 3 times a night now which is a huge improvement. He seems to need a good cry in my arms for a couple minutes before going to sleep initially at night but then seems to fall asleep much easier. Although some night the cry and nursing don’t seem to work and I have to stand and rock and bounce him which is getting super hard because my boy is so big! I am still having to nurse him to sleep each time he wakes in the night for the most part. Some nights he will randomly wake up not long after I finished nursing him and then I just put my hand on him and say “shhhh” for a minute and snuggle up close to him and he seems to go right back to sleep. I still have to stay right next to him once he’s asleep though. So my bedtime is pretty much 6:30 everynight! And he won’t sleep in a carrier anymore because life is just too exciting haha! I hope things improve for you and your son!

  4. Hi, loved reading your article.
    My son is 14 months and I am very ready to start night weaning. Our typical night looks like this…bedtime routine ending with a nurse/cuddle and sometimes a rocking depending on how much he’s trying to avoid sleep 😝. Asleep between 6:30 and 7:30…different every night depending on when the second nap ended. I put him to sleep in his crib and most of the time he stays asleep for 4 hours before he gets up and calls out to me at which point I come into his room (that also has a double bed in it), and nurse him back to sleep and we co- sleep the rest of the night. (we can’t co sleep in our room as my husband is a very loud snorer and restless). The rest of the night he wakes sometimes as often as every two hours looking for help back to sleep… When he was younger I would put in the effort to rock him instead of nursing but after 14 months of sleep deprivation I do what’s easiest and allows me to stay in a sleepy state. So my concern now is the frequency of the waking, it’s taking it’s toll on me, and his restlessness. I have read countless websites on baby sleep and I understand fully that he has sleep associations (that I’ve created) and also that it’s normal for babies to do some tossing and turning. I’m wondering though if you have any suggestions on how to stop the night nursing altogether (I’ve been working on cutting some and I just repeat lie down its bedtime in a very calm voice until he does) but continue to co sleep or room share at least. The first four hours of the night when he is in his crib he is only tossing and turning between sleep cycles and it is normal. When he co sleeps the rest of the night he is more restless and for longer but when I try to put him back in the crib because I believe he would sleep better he gets very upset. I’m so torn because I am a firm believer in attachment parenting but I truly believe I may be hindering a better night sleep for my son (and myself). I understand why he wants to be so close to me at night, I like it too, but if it’s robbing us both of sleep what am I to do? Any advice?
    Last side note, of my long winded message… I used to sidecar co sleep with him when he was younger because he wasn’t crawling, walking, climbing, etc and he seemed to really like that. ( I attached his crib with one side off with clamps to my bed, very very secure) I stopped it once he became more mobile because I was afraid when he woke he would get onto my bed and then onto the floor. He gets off furniture on his own very well and I figure he would just get out of bed if I were to do the side car scenario again and it would then take longer to get him back to sleep….. Otherwise I think side car would be my best option, cause he would be close to me but we would both still have our own space) Any experience with this?
    Thank you so much for any advice you can give and for your time. It’s nice to hear from experienced moms with similar parenting beliefs instead of from ppl who just want you to do sleep training.

    Reply
    • Hi! I totally hear you on so much of what you said! so… usually, restless sleep is a sigh of pent up emotions… that’s what we would say in aware parenting (I’m a certified aware parent instructor). So, crying (in arms or in the presence of a carer, not cry it out), is a very good way of getting those pent up emotions out. The feeding to sleep has most likely caused a control pattern, which means that he’s looking for that every time he wakes. Of course, you probably would have come across that already. So… I highly recommend reading the book ‘Tears and Tantrums’ by Aletha Solter! you can still continue to have that very important night time connection, without giving up sleep. The book goes into great detail about suppression mechanisms (feeding to sleep, etc.) and how to help a child release those pent up emotions. You may want to pick a day when you’re feeling more rested to deal with the night weaning, because he will most likely cry when you won’t let him have the boob. And, you can do it gradually. My son is 13 months right now and my sort of rule is we can do one nurse at night and if he wakes more than that, I cuddle him and he does cry a little, but then goes back to sleep. I hope some of that helps… oh, and one more thing I thought of is possibly moving your bed on the floor for a temporary solution? Or, I used to have a bed rail when the floor wasn’t an option. Let me know how it goes and if any of that resonates.

      Reply
      • Hi Kate,
        Thank you so much for getting back to me and for your thoughts. I have ordered a copy of that book you suggested.
        I had already taken away my bedframe so that my mattress and box spring are right on the ground. I do have a bedrail waiting in the closet for when the time was right… I think I may pull that out and attach it to the foot of my bed if I decide to try the sidecar crib again, that way I don’t have to go to bed at 7….although maybe I should 😝.
        Looking forward to getting that book and reading some more on these things.
        Thanks again for getting back to me.

      • Oh, I hope things improve. Let me know how it goes!

  5. Hi I’ve tried to allow my 15 month old son to cry in my arms, but he will just scream and scream! He literally would scream for hours like he’s being hurt. Every time I move out of bed he’ll wake up screaming even if he’s fast asleep. Do you have any suggestions?

    Reply
    • I highly recommend reading the book, “Tears and Tantrums’ by Aletha Solter. She goes into so much detail about the crying. Sometimes children have a lot of crying to do! And, the book will help you differentiate between the crying for pain and crying for emotions. I hope that helps!

      Reply
  6. This is such a helpful article. I have a 7.5 month old baby girl, who I have co slept with every night, EBF and on demand ans also nurses to sleep. I am really starting to struggle. I have loved every moment up until the past few weeks. I’m now struggling to get her to sleep, then when she is asleep she wakes up and crawls all over the bed. Since she learnt to crawl she just won’t stop? She is teething too and also had her first coldsore, she has also stopped eating solids full stop. Last night I felt like it was every 10 minutes! So so restless! Before all this she was waking around 3 times a night for a couple of minutes…no issue at all! We all had great sleep! Is this a phase or do I need to step in and make some adjustments somewhere?

    Reply
    • I highly recommend reading the book, “Tears and Tantrums’ by Aletha Solter! Usually, when babies wake up all night long like that, it’s more than developmental, there is usually some sort of repression of emotions. I hope that helps!

      Reply
  7. Hi Kate. I was searching for a solution online to our night troubles and came across your blog. My daughter is just about 11 1/2 months old. She has never been the “greatest” sleeper and usually would wake 3 times a night. We don’t habitually co-sleep, but she is in a crib right by our bed. Sometimes I will bring her to bed with me just out of the need to sleep when she seems like she is getting into the habit/pattern of waking 4+ times a night. Up until a few weeks ago, if she would wake, I could nurse her and she would fall back asleep for a least a few hours. I could then put her back into her crib and go back to sleep.

    In a side note, she will not use a pacifier at all, no matter how often I offer it to her. I have tried different shapes/sizes/styles, she insists on using me as her pacifier. She did use a pacifier for a brief stint when she was about 3 months old, but has refused that or her thumb since around 5 or 6 months.

    The issue is she has been waking much more frequently throughout the night to nurse. I have noticed she is only feeding maybe once a night each time she wakes: the other 3 times are for suckling for comfort. She seems like she is refusing to sleep without my boob in her mouth! We have tried letting her put herself back to sleep a few times, and the success was short-lived. Just last night she cried for an hour and a half straight until I finally brought her to bed with me. If she is in bed with me, again, she can’t handle not having my boob in her mouth, even if she isn’t eating.

    I have tried rocking her and holding her until she falls asleep, but this only agitates her more because she can’t nurse. She will cry louder, push away from me, and arch her back. She refuses to give in until she can suckle.

    I’m not sure what to do. I was an advocate of comfort nursing, but I feel like she is taking it to a whole new level! I don’t want her to get to the point where she will only sleep if she is nursing. She eats plenty of foods during the day, and I nurse her before she goes to bed at night.

    I do have a carrier that she can be in during the day. She didn’t like it when she was younger but I have used it more recently while trying to make dinner, and she seems content in it. Should I try wearing her more frequently? If I do use the carrier I have to put her on my back because otherwise I can’t get much else done with her in front.

    Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    Reply
    • Hi Rachael! What you’re describing is what I’ve heard from countless other mothers and what I’ve experienced myself! I highly recommend reading the book, “Tears and Tantrums’ by Aletha Solter. Often, what happens, when a baby uses a repression mechanism (sucking usually, in this case, your boob), they often wake up frequently and can’t go back to sleep without it. There’s an accumulation of emotions and they’re looking for a way to come out… or they get repressed. So, lots of crying (in arms) might be needed to get those emotions out and to help her have a more peaceful sleep. If you can handle a night when you’re up for some crying, you can wait until those nights to deal with it, and hold her, while she cries. She will definitely push away and arch her back, etc. That’s really normal. Otherwise, it might be ok to keep using the boob, so that way you can at least get some sleep and wait for the days/nights when you have the energy to deal with some crying in arms. I hope that helps! Let me know how you go, or if you have any more questions.

      Reply

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