Q&A: monster nursing session in the middle of the night

Deb writes:

I have read many times on your site that the baby will eventually sleep through the night, but I am really feeling like my son will not learn unless I do something like CIO (although I've been opposed to it since he was born). 

My 15-month old is an avid nurser, and has been since birth.  I've mostly weaned him during the day because I work and did not want to pump any longer.  I nurse him to sleep though, plus once during the night when he wakes up between 2 an 4.  Which sounds good, but that nursing session usually lasts 2 hours!  I also nurse him when he wakes in the morning between 5:30 and 6:30 am.  If I try to send my husband in, the baby goes crazy, thrashing and screaming, so having my husband tend him is not an option.  It is obvious that even though my son naps doing the day without nursing (usually in a bouncy seat or in a porta-crib that is shaken to relax him), he NEEDS it during the night.  I am about ready to let him cry to teach him to sleep - he is starting to be cranky because he is not getting enough sleep, but I don't want to damage him or instill fear in him...  Other than the sleep issue, he is a GREAT baby.  He walks and talks up a storm.

So, my question is, do you actually know children who were spoiled (as I think my son is) and then eventually outgrew it without any action?  I am afraid that I am now postponing the inevitable by avoiding doing CIO and I want it behind me rather than in front of me.  How exactly does it happen if no action is taken."

The instructor of the newborn care class I took 4 years ago told us a lot of things, but the only thing she said that stuck with me was "'Spoiled' means something went bad from lack of use or attention. Giving too much love or attention to a child is only going to help the child." It's obvious that your son is used to having his needs met. In the long run that's going to be the best thing that could happen to him. It's just now that you need to figure out another plan for this one thing.

And, yes, he'll grow out of it eventually if you keep on as you have been. Maybe not soon, but eventually. There is no 10-year-old in the country who still wakes up and nurses for two hours in the middle of the night.:) If you aren't particularly bugged by his nursing and just think you should want to stop it for philosophical reasons, don't worry about it and just lie to anyone who asks. But if the long 2 am session is making you want to gouge your eyes out with a grapefruit spoon nuts, then you should try to figure out a plan to stop it. You know CIO doesn't actually teach a child how to sleep--teaching means showing someone how to do something and being with him while he's working on it. CIO could make his waking even worse. And there are plenty of other points on the continuum between CIO and "nurse all night long"--you just have to find the point that works for you.

If it were me in your situation, I would keep the nursing to sleep (because it's easy and gets him to sleep with no fuss and is a great way to reconnect at the end of the day) and wouldn't worry about the 5:30 nursing session right now (because it's probably the thing you have the least control over). I'd focus on getting rid of the 2 (two) hour session in the middle of the night. Yowza. I don't think there's any practical way you can do this without having your husband go in to him. And, yes, he is going to go nuts the first few nights he doesn't get you at 2 am. But it's better to have him angry that your husband's there than scared and angry that no one comes when he cries, or clawing at your chest wondering why you won't nurse him now when you normally do.

It sounds like he's gotten used to waking up and nursing then. (Obviously.) More than that, though, is what we need to figure out. Is he hungry? Does he want connection in the middle of the night? What's causing him to wake up then in the first place--is there a consistent noise outside that's rousing him? The only way to figure out which of these things it is is to try them out and see what works.

Despite what some of the experts would tell you, it's entirely possible that he's hungry in the middle of the night. 15-yearmonth-olds expend more energy than, well, anyone. That takes a lot of calories to sustain, so he might just be needing to tank up for the rest of the night. In which case you could try feeding him solid food at night. Crackers, cubes of cheese, etc.--whatever he likes that will fill him up and sit in his stomach for awhile. Even if he rejects food the first couple of nights, keep offering it a few nights after that. I'd be surprised if the solution is as simple as tossing him a few Cheddar Bunnies in the middle of the night, but it might help out, even if all it does is distract him from nursing or confuse him into going back to sleep. If you don't already leave a bottle or sippy of water with him in case he's thirsty, start doing that, too. (Do they market cupholders for cribs?)

He may be waking up because he's scared or wants some connection in the middle of the night. There are a couple of different ways you could go with this. You could leave a CD player on low in his room. You could get one of those crib music thingies that he could turn on himself to hear the music play (and help him practice with it during the day). You could work on getting him to snuggle with a lovey and help get himself back to sleep with the lovey. Or you could go hardcore and put a twin-sized (or larger) bed in his room. Put those flexible rails on all sides so he can't fall out. Then when he wakes up and your husband goes in to him, your husband can just lie down in bed with him to soothe him to sleep. When your son falls back to sleep your husband can roll away and go back to bed as usual. (And if he falls asleep himself he'll at least be in a decent bed instead of in a rocking chair or on the floor.)

The first week of your husband going in to him is going to piss him off royally. But if your husband's got something new for him (food, or lying down in the same bed, etc.) instead of just a lack of breasts, your son may switch gears in a few days and start to accept your husband. Then gradually he will just drop that wake-up because there's no real reason to wake up if he's not getting any milk. (Unless he's super-hungry, in which case you could just start leaving a snack where he can reach it so you get to be out of the loop.)

Your husband's going to have to take the hit for the team for the 2 am wake-up. The first few nights could be extremely rough, so you should probably start on a Friday night (assuming your husband works M-F) so he can nap the next day. But if you're consistent that the 2 am nursing doesn't exist anymore but someone will always be there to comfort your son, he'll figure out that he should just accept your husband in the middle of the night instead of you. (That's a important concept for him to know--someone will be there for him when he asks for help, even if no milk is involved.) And he will gradually stop waking up at that time, so soon your husband will be out of the loop, too.

Good luck. It's so hard to make a change when you know your baby is going to be angry and tantrumy about it. But if you can make it past the first 3-4 nights it'll start to get easier.

Edited to add (thanks to PumpkinMama): Before you start this you should talk to your son about what's going to happen. Tell him that you aren't going to nurse in the middle of the night anymore ("when it's dark out") but if he wakes up Daddy will come to help him, and then you can nurse again when it's light out. Keep talking to him about this for a few days before you start. Then the night before you start, make sure you have a good chat about it before he goes to sleep, and your husband can remind him of it when he goes in to him, and when you nurse him in the morning be sure to reinforce the "now it's morning so we can nurse!" idea. I think this is helpful even with little babies, but a 15-month-old is absolutely old enough to understand and it will help him accept it more easily if he's aware of the plan and knows it's going to happen. At this age they have so much more receptive language than they can indicate, so make use of that.