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Gentle Strategies for Handling Tantrums while Night Weaning A Toddler

Regardless of what point in your breastfeeding journey you are at, it is very possible, (and dare I say, likely) that your are going to run into some big feelings when you are night weaning a toddler. (Yours and theirs.🙈)

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Let me paint a picture for you... the day you have marked on the calendar has finally come. You've read all of the blog posts about "night weaning a toddler", you have purchased the weaning story books off of Amazon and you even had a special dinner and dessert in preparation for your toddler's first night mommy-milk free.

You breastfed your little one to sleep, reminding them that they can have nursies again when the sun shines, enjoyed a movie on the couch with your partner, and crashed into bed at 11 p.m.

It's 12:13 am and you are now sitting up in bed, groggy, with your 2-year-old protesting your refusal to breastfeed. Your offer of a snuggle is just not cutting it.

What thoughts are running through your head?

Any of these ring a bell?

  • "O M G, you are way too old for this. Stop acting like a baby!"

  • "Do not give in. You will just reinforce their bad behavior"

  • "Ignore it - they are just looking to get attention."

  • "Why?! I did everything right! Why is it always my kid that is so difficult?!"

  • "I cannot handle this."

Those thoughts are then followed by actions. Do you:

  • Walk away and ignore them.

  • Try and distract them with a story, toy, or food.

  • Tell them to stop.

  • Take away something they care about.

  • Remind them of the reward they will get if they don't breastfeed tonight.

  • Scream right back at them., they know just how to push your buttons!

Okay, back to reality! If you are anything like me, you have probably thought those thoughts, and done those actions - but the truth is that none of those are going to serve you and your child well in the moment or long-term and they definitely aren't going to get you any more sleep tonight.

This blog post is pretty comprehensive - so here is a quick road map for where we are headed:

Two Types of Behaviours.

Before we get into how you can mitigate and navigate your toddler's behaviours, you have to understand them.

For all humans, we really have 2 different types of behaviours: Top Down and Bottom Up (as Dr. Mona Delahooke calls them). Each result from a different part of the brain and require different supports for managing.

Bottom Up Behaviors:

These behaviors are instinctual and unintentional. Bottom-up behaviors come from cues in the body and are often stress responses intended to ensure your survival. Like when you run away from a large barking dog running towards you.

As an infant, your toddler only had bottom-up behaviors and when they become stressed, these are the primary behaviors they will have.

Top Down Behaviors:

These behaviors are intentional and deliberate. Like when my kids push a chair over to the pantry and grab the chocolate chip cookies off of the top shelf while I am in the bathroom.

For toddlers, these behaviors are often experiments and are driven by curiosity. The human brain is

a young toddler feeding another toddler an ice cream bar

only beginning to have the ability to have top-down behaviors in toddlerhood.

When you are night weaning a toddler, a challenging top-down behaviour might be when they sneakily slide their hand up your shirt to have a drink after you have said "no". For this to be "top-down" they would be doing this on purpose to test the water and see what you will do. They are calm and maybe even playful. Because they are doing this as an experiment they are using reason and logic and you can also use reason and logic to stop them.

You can playfully talk to their hand "oh, I see what you are doing little fingers! You are trying to get mommy milk into your friend, little mouth! But, little mouth knows that they can have nursies when it's morning time." And then roll them over and give them a big snuggle from behind.

What about those bottom-up behaviors at night time?

Well, this is where things get more complicated. When your toddler is having a behavior that is stress-related, they will not be able to use logic and reasoning to stop that behavior because that area of the brain is offline. Using top-down methods on a bottom-up behavior only makes everything MORE stressful (particularly when you are night weaning a toddler!)

Big picture considerations for night weaning a toddler

Your child is more likely to have bottom-up responses to night weaning when they are already experiencing stress before nighttime.

Think about it. You are about to embark on a big project at work, one you are excited about and you know will challenge you. But, if you have been sick for 2 weeks, your partner is out of the country for a month for work, your neighbor decided to practice the trombone at 2 a.m., and you have a new boss who doesn't like you at all... the "challenging" aspects of that project are going to be exhausting instead of exhilarating and it's likely you are going to struggle to get it completed, let alone done well.

The same is true for your child. Night weaning is a new challenge, and even if they are "ready" for it, other variables could make that challenge stressful instead of manageable.

Your Why For Night Weaning: A Compass

One variable that people often overlook is their "why" for night-weaning. What is the reason that you want to night wean? This is important! It's not about judging if the why is good enough - it's about understanding the needs that are present for you and your child.

Write down your why (I give some great prompts on this podcast episode) and then come up with some strategies that you can meet that need before you night wean. If you go into night weaning a toddler believing that night weaning will be the answer to the struggle you are currently having, you are going to feel immense stress when your toddler doesn't respond the way you hoped. Everything is riding on this!

The stress cycle that can occur when you are night weaning a toddler (mom is afraid child is too needy - mom pulls away when child attempts to breastfeed - child feels separation from mom - child pulls on shirt to breastfeed - rinse & repeat).

It also means that there might be other answers you haven't considered and you are going into the challenge yourself more stressed than you have to be. (And that is a recipe for the Toddler Breastfeeding Stress Cycle. )

Consider Your Toddler's Daytime Needs

Needs for things like nutrition, movement, connection, etc. are important to meet well during the day so that your child has the most capacity at night when the challenge of night weaning is presented.

The little things during the day can add up and they may be making withdrawals from your child's internal resources mentally, emotionally, and physically.

It's all interconnected in their body, and the right amount of stress can quickly become too much at nighttime when a new challenge comes up, even if they seemed okay earlier in the day.

Toddler Bedtime Routines

I am not one to say that a strict bedtime routine is what you need to fix all of your sleep troubles. BUT, if there have been missed needs during the day, this can be a great time to add things in that can help your child start out the night from a place of calm and confidence.

Consider a bedtime snack, connection time with you, sensory input like a warm bath and pick a time to go to bed when your child is sleepy, but not exhausted.

Sleep Environment

Things like the temperature of the air, blue light, and sounds heard at night can all either be adding stressors and increasing the likelihood of bottom-up behaviors, or facilitating rest and increasing your toddler's ability to use logic and reasoning in the middle of the night.

Medical Considerations

It's important to rule out medical reasons why your child may be waking (particularly if they are waking well above the average norm for their age). Talk with your doctor about sleep-disordered breathing or vitamin or mineral deficiencies that could be playing a role. If these issues are present, they will almost always result in melt-downs when you are night weaning a toddler!

Pacing the night weaning process

There is no perfect age or stage to night wean. No guaranteed window of readiness that will ensure your toddler magically stops asking at night and never complains.

Some families wean during the day years before they wean at night (the idea that you have to start weaning by night-weaning is a total myth!) You can also breastfeed for some night wake-ups and not others. It doesn't have to be all or nothing.

BUT - weaning too quickly can put stress on you and your little one that can intensify difficult emotions. Even if you have floppy boobs, and your toddler only ever latches for a few minutes at a time, you could still be producing quite a bit of milk. Dropping your milk production rapidly will also drop levels of happy hormones like oxytocin and dopamine. This can result in post-weaning depression.

Also, your toddler might be getting a lot more nutrition from breastmilk than you realize. Taking away a chunk of their calories can result in a hangry toddler in the middle of the night. Going slow will allow their bodies (and their eating!) to adjust.

In-the-moment strategies for nighttime toddler tantrums

So, you've done what you could and now you are here, at 12:13 am with a toddler screaming and crying, and throwing themselves at your chest with their mouth gaping hoping to latch on from sheer force. What can you do?!

Step 1: Be gentle with yourself

Imagine you have just come home from work and had an awful day. You open the door, drop your bags on the floor, and are ready to simultaneously punch a hole in the wall and burst into tears. You look up and see your partner standing there with a glass of wine and a reassuring look of empathy "Ugh, it looks like you have had a day."

Then imagine you open the door, drop your bags on the floor and you look up and you hear your partner take and exasperated breath as they begin to lecture you "oh my God, are you serious?

You're stressed out again. Can't you get your act together? I, I don't need to be dealing with this today. We have too much going on. I can't handle this." In the first situation, your partner was calm and their mind and body were in a regulated state. They were able to share their calm with you. The evening likely ended with you having a game plan for the next day you felt good about.

In the second, they were stressed out and didn't have the capacity to meet you where you were. That night probably ended in more screaming and tears than either of you wanted. You have the ability to offer your child calm too. Even if things are hard for you. Even if you have a reason to be stressed out too. (I share more about this in my free Toddler Weaning & Extended Breastfeeding Workshop.)

Body-based ways to calm yourself:

  • Take 3-5 slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth making the

woman with eyes closed in a dark room with her face towards to the window taking a deep breath to regulate while she is night weaning a toddler

out breaths longer than the in breaths.

  • Havening - gently rubbing your arms with your hands up and down slowly.

Brain-based ways to calm yourself:

  • Self-compassion: talk to yourself like you were talking to a best friend who was in the situation you are in. "Oh, this is really hard! It makes sense that this is so stressful right now. You really want to be a good mom and you also need sleep. "

  • Remind yourself that your child is still really young and they are doing the best they can too.

Step 2: Ride the waves with them (co-regulation!)

Just like that compassionate look from your partner helped you to feel better, your child needs to know that you are there with them no matter what. Stay close and let them know how much you love them and that you see how hard this is for them.

Dark waves on a lake

The big feelings they are having (and the bottom-up behaviors that are following) are probably really scary for them too. Remind them that these feelings are just like a storm that will pass and you are going to be there right beside them.

Step 3: Check for practical needs

It's possible that some of the "big picture" stuff got missed during the day or at bedtime and there needs to be some adjustments now. Get them a drink of water or food, or turn on a fan if they need it. It's practical and simple, but if they need it, it's going to reduce the stress their body is under and alleviate the intensity of the tantrum.

Step 4: Track the tears

When accepting change, it's normal (and healthy!) for there to be tears. Mad tears will melt into sad tears and eventually, your child will be able to accept that they aren't going to breastfeed right now, and will feel the relief of knowing that they will still be okay. (Isn't accepting disappointment a skill we could all benefit from as humans?) But - be aware that if the tears aren't mad or sad, but seem to come across as if this is a matter of life or death for your child, it's possible that your child is too overwhelmed by the challenge of night weaning and their stress levels are beyond what they will be able to accept tonight.

If this is the case STOP. Breastfeed your child, or do whatever you need to in order to help them calm their body. You are not moving backward in the weaning process. You have learned a very important piece of information - your child is too stressed to do this right now. Go back to the big-picture considerations and see what else you can do to support your little one. Try again in a few weeks and you should see that the tantrums are far less intense and will pass with just a little bit of support. I'm happy to support you in figuring out what changes would be best to make during a virtual consult too.

Best tips for night weaning a toddler:

Honestly, this is my favourite "tip" for navigating night weaning (and it applies to both you and your child) and it's a quote from Emily & Amelia Nagoski's book "Burn Out"

When you think you need more grit, what you really need is help. When you think you need persistence, what you really need is kindness.

They weren't talking about night weaning a toddler (or even parenting for that matter), but they were talking about managing stress. Help & kindness are what you need to navigate night weaning, and they are what your child needs too.


Frequently Asked Questions about tantrums when night weaning a toddler:

What is the right age to night wean?

Ideally, wait until your child is at least 12-18 months old.

Nutritionally speaking, breastmilk should be your child's primary source of nutrition for the first year of life (with complimentary foods being added in at about 6 months of age) and night weaning too early can compromise your milk supply and your child's breastmilk intake. It's true that a child can survive 8 or even 12 hours without breastmilk at a time around 6 months, but just because they can survive it, doesn't mean it's good for them to experience. Night feeds are still meeting needs as long as they are given! Also, the older your child is, the more options you have to meet those needs in other ways. (Also, you never have to night-wean if you don't want to.)

What is the best night weaning method?

Whatever works best for you and your family!

There are a lot of people (and books) out there telling you that you "just" need to do x,y,z and your toddler will wean no problem. But the reality is that there are so many different reasons why your toddler may be waking, so many different ways that your home and family life might be set up, that it is truly impossible to create a one-size fits all approach that works for every family out there. In my course, Own Your Breastfeeding Story, I support you in making your own night-weaning method.

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