by guest blogger Wendy Wisner, IBCLC
I’m writing this as I lie in the dark at 9:30pm nursing my 14 month old back to sleep. He fell asleep about two hours ago and here he is again, wanting to nurse. He woke up and I wasn’t there. He let out a small cry, a complaint, and when I came into the bedroom, he was beginning to sit up. Now, two minutes later, he’s rolled away from my breast and is back in a deep sleep.
Since having two babies of my own, and helping hundreds of women nurse through all the stages of breastfeeding, I have learned this: Most toddlers don’t sleep through the night. There! I said it.
Most of the moms I work with who nurse beyond a year find that their babies start to sleep better at some point, but that point seems to vary greatly, with some babies sleeping all night as early as 18 months, but some not doing so until 4 years. 4 years. Yes, you read that right.
That doesn’t mean that a nursing toddler will nurse all night like a newborn (although they all have their nights, don’t they?!), but just that most don’t sleep 10-12 hours without nursing. Even weaned toddlers wake up some of the time – some can soothe themselves to sleep, and some need parental comfort. This is common and normal, despite what you may have heard or been told.
I always go back to the work of Kathy Dettwyler, an anthropologist who studies breastfeeding and nightwaking from a historical, cross-cultural, biological point of view. Her research indicates that human children are designed to nurse very frequently for several years, and stay close to their mothers during wakefulness and sleep. According to Dettwyler, it is normal for human children to nurse at night up to 3 or 4 years old. A summary of the research can be found at Dettwyler’s website: http://www.kathydettwyler.org/detsleepthrough.html.
My six-year-old sleeps in the bedroom with us. (He has his own bed but he still prefers to sleep in our room.) He was once a nursing toddler too. He nursed in the middle of the night until he was three-and-a-half or so. It was a very slow progression to this, with the nightwakings decreasing little by little over the years (and then increasing for a bit during teething or illness). Even after he stopped needing to nurse in the middle of the night, he sometimes needed to cuddle back to sleep. Even now, I hear him stirring, waking up a bit. Usually he can settle back to sleep on his own. Sometimes my husband stretches out his arm to touch him.
Do you sleep all night without waking? Yeah, I know. You can put yourself back to sleep if you wake up! So can I, but I like to snuggle up to my husband sometimes to help me fall back asleep. The same is true of babies and children. And for most, the soothing that they crave at night comes in the form of suckling – that’s why toddlers and young children who don’t nurse often suck on a pacifier, a thumb, or the end of a blanket. This need to suck is a developmental/biological urge, and diminishes naturally, as it’s meant to.
Also, here’s another revelation – some toddlers actually still need the nutrition of breastmilk in the middle of the night. I know – your pediatrician may have said your baby didn’t need breastmilk for nutrition past 6 months of age. But it’s simply not reasonable to expect a toddler (whose tummy is the size of his or her fist) to sleep for 10-12 hours without eating. That’s half the day. A little middle-of-the-night snack sounds reasonable to me.
But, you might say, all of this is terribly exhausting and inconvenient. We live in the modern world. We need to push past our biological make-up and just sleep. I hear that – believe me, I grumble about it just as much as anyone. And I suppose I could have taught my children to self-soothe as babies. I could have tried a pacifier, a lovey, or some other gentle sleep training method (I would not Cry-It-Out, but that’s another post unto itself!). I could offer my nursing toddler a snack or a cuddle instead of a breast.
There are several reasons why I let my children nurse back to sleep for as long as they need.
First, I’m LAZY! Nursing back to sleep usually takes a few minutes, and when I’m sleeping next to my child, I barely have to get up. I have just gotten really good at creating an environment where nursing at night is thoughtless and non-disruptive for me (most of the time).
Also, call me crazy, but I’m totally fascinated with how human species nurse their young (I guess that’s why I became a lactation consultant). With my older son, I wanted to see what would happen if I let him give up nighttime nursing on his own. A part of me certainly was suspicious of this tactic. Had I simply created a bad habit that would never end? Was I just going to have to get him to stop?
The answer is NO, and I’m here to prove it! He really just stopped waking up to nurse, ON HIS OWN. I did nothing (trust me – I was too tired to do a thing). His sleep just got deeper with fewer wake-ups, and if they did happen, he could roll around a little and put himself back to sleep. Or he would reach out and I would hold his hand. The “suck-to-sleep” thing just got old for him. He began to prefer holding my hand to nursing. Yes, it took much longer than we in the modern, Western world expect, but it did happen.
And finally (and this is perhaps the most important thing), letting my children nurse until they are done—at night and otherwise—has taught me to trust them in all arenas of life. It has taught me to let them be who they are, whether or not I always “get it” or understand. It has taught me to take life a little slower, to live in the moment, and not rush to the next thing too quickly. It has taught me to trust my body, my biology, and my instincts.
You don’t have to do what I do. Maybe your child will give up night nursing earlier than mine, or maybe you will find other gentle ways to deal with nightwaking. But if you don’t mind the wake-ups, and you’re OK with waiting for as long as it takes to let your child give up nightnursing, you are not alone. And it will be a very beautiful, intimate thing to witness.
Does your toddler nurse at night? How do you feel about it?
***Wendy Wisner is the author of two books of poems, Morph and Bloom (2013) and Epicenter (2004), as well as a chapbook, Another Place of Rocking (2010). Wendy is a Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and blogs about breastfeeding, motherhood, and writing at www.nursememama.com. She lives in New York with her husband and two sons.
You can find Wendy and her work at the following links: