Many new parents think that they have to night wean in order to sleep train.
This is not true! You can maintain night feedings AND sleep train.
Usually, the key issue here is separating sleep and eating.
Once breastfeeding and weight gain is well established, usually by 2 months of age, a breastfed baby should be able to go at least 3-4 hours between feedings at night, if the breastfeeding parent so desires. (Some parents are perfectly happy to breastfeed all night long; this post is not for them.) Check with your child’s pediatric healthcare provider to confirm that weight gain is good and that there are no feeding concerns.
Typically, by this age, the first or second stretch of sleep is the longest and then feedings are more frequent. But they need never be more frequent than every 3 hours during the night, again, as long as weight gain and breastfeeding are going well.
Formula-fed babies should be able to go at least 3-4 hours between feedings as well.
If your baby is feeding more often than this, she is most likely using nursing (or less commonly, bottle feeding) as a way to soothe herself to sleep. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. The problem is when this interferes with either the baby’s or the parent’s ability to get restful sleep.
You can start by just logging the feedings as they are now, either on paper or in a free app like Huckleberry. If you are breastfeeding, make note during which feedings you feel a letdown or can observe your baby swallowing repeatedly during the feeding. If you are bottle feeding, make a note of which feedings are a substantial volume. If your baby takes, for example, less than one ounce in a particular feeding, you can feel confident that he wasn’t hungry at that time.
Next, pick a target time for the first night feeding. It should be at least 3 hours after bedtime but might be longer if your baby already sleeps a longer stretch.
If your baby wakes up before that target time, use a different method of soothing him back to sleep. Breastfed babies often do better if they are soothed back to sleep by a non-breastfeeding caregiver. Even if the target feeding time arrives but your baby has still not fallen back to sleep, do not feed.
Wait for your baby to fall back to sleep. The next time he wakes after the first target feeding time, promptly go to him and offer a full feeding.
The next target feeding time will be at least 3 hours after the start of the first feeding. Again, if your baby wakes up before that time, use another method of soothing to get her back to sleep. The first time she wakes up after the second target feeding time, go to her promptly and again offer a full feeding.
And so on, if there is a third feeding (or more).
Try, whenever possible, to put your baby down awake after the feeding, but with a young baby, don’t stress unduly about this. Just decoupling feeding from sleeping some of the time will help.
During the day, also work towards putting the baby down awake after feeding when possible, but again, don’t stress unduly about this. Many parents find it helps to feed when the baby first wakes up, rather than right before a nap, to separate feeding from sleeping. If your baby is only for awake for an hour at a time, he shouldn’t need to eat twice during that time.
Taking these steps are a gentle way to gradually work towards improved sleep, especially at night, without doing any forced night weaning or any "crying it out."
If you have questions about how to do this, scheduled a free chat and get your little one gradually on a track towards better sleep.
Abby Wolfson is a pediatric nurse practitioner, certified child sleep consultant and former NICU nurse. She divides her time between Brooklyn, NY and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.