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Ask Dr. Mayim: What can I do about sleep training?

A tired mother is about to go back to work and wants to end her nightly feeding sessions
By Mayim Bialik     Published on 02/18/2019 at 10:00 AM EDT

Through Grok Nation, my YouTube channel and my social platforms, I get so many questions about a variety of topics: parenting, breastfeeding, veganism, Judaism, acting and more. That’s why I launched Ask Dr. Mayim, an advice column on Grok Nation where you can ask me questions about things going on in your life and I’ll give you my best, honest opinion.

In this week’s Ask Dr. Mayim, I try to help a mother who is exhausted from nighttime feedings from her first baby. Read the question and my advice below; at the end, you’ll also find out how you can submit your own questions for Dr. Mayim!

(You can read all the past columns here.)

Dear Dr. Mayim,

We have a darling little girl who will be 1 at the end of this month. I am breastfeeding and bed sharing for some of the night. She settles herself to sleep for two naps a day and goes to sleep beautifully at 7 p.m. in her own bed but wakes up at around midnight and then every two hours until the morning. I have to breastfeed her back to sleep and usually leave her next to me in the bed. Despite being utterly exhausted, I would be happy to continue this for as long as she needs, but I have to return to work in two weeks and I am worried about being too tired to do my job properly.

We have tried to leave her to settle herself back to sleep but she becomes distraught. Do you have any suggestions on how to teach her to self settle at night without leaving her to scream herself silly?

Any help would be gratefully received!

Exhausted Mama

Dear Exhausted Mama,

I feel you. I’ve been there. Twice.

As a lactation educator counselor, it is my job to tell you that what you are describing—despite what the lucrative business of ”sleep training” coaches and books will tell you—is normal.

Mammals nurse throughout the night. Breast milk is metabolized within a few hours and babies—even 1-year-olds—often need to nurse frequently.

The reason she gets a long stretch is likely because she is “more tired” and it takes less to wake her from light sleep. As the night wears on, light sleep may rouse her more and she needs comfort to get her back to sleep.

You are not spoiling her. You are not being manipulated. This will absolutely pass and child-led weaning is a beautiful and rewarding path.

That being said, I can’t decide for you what your life can look like. I can’t tell you to need less sleep, and I don’t know if your life and work can shift so that you get more rest, as many of us need when we are choosing to not night wean. Many women simply cannot tolerate less than eight hours straight sleep. For those women, the choices they make suit them and there is no way I can judge that.

Many women function with very little sleep when they nurse babies, and we find ways to work around it. If that’s not your choice, I don’t have a magic solution and that’s important to understand. Babies taught to not have night needs eventually stop reaching out for their needs to be met. The Ferber method and similar sleep training methods used to encourage parents to ignore a baby’s cries and even if they threw up from crying so much, to not make eye contact, change the bedding, and leave the room again.

Before six months, sleep training is typically very difficult for baby and mama. After six months, it will also be hard and many of us wait until baby has more cognition so that toddler books about weaning can be used and we can hold children through their frustration and tears. Nursies When The Sun Shines is a great one, and I made my own book for my younger son when I night weaned him at 3 (yes, at 3) by drawing in a spiral notebook and including pictures of all the grown-up big boy things he does now that he doesn’t need nummies at night. Another great book for this process is the La Leche League-published book called How Weaning Happens, which I recommend very highly.

Weaning parties can also be really helpful for older kids: You get them a special weaning doll, bake a cake or their favorite food (sushi and watermelon for my boys), and celebrate being done with nursing at night. Songs, cuddles, and rocking will likely replace nursing for several weeks even once you wean; heads up! The need is still there; you have to find what works to supplement it without nursing.

Dr. Jay Gordon is a pediatrician and lactation consultant (the first male lactation consultant in the U.S.) and he has a beautiful article I recommend about night weaning for people who are looking to do it with compassion. It’s still not easy, and your baby will still cry and it will be difficult, but it is worth a read.

I know you are exhausted and again: I can’t tell you to not be. But this time in your daughter’s life is brief and her needs are meaningful. I hope you can find a compassionate way to keep everyone sane and rested and I wish you all the best.

A Former Exhausted Mama

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