The 6 steps I took to wean and sleep train my stubborn toddler

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If you’re wondering if there is an easy/gentle/no-tears way to wean a really attached, stubborn, resistant toddler from breastfeeding, co-sleeping and/or needing to be rocked to sleep, I’m going to say…probably not. I can’t speak for everyone obviously (I’m sure there is a small minority out there who probably have access to some kind of magical pixie dust or something) but this is my own experience of how we closed that chapter with my second daughter (Miss E) just two months shy of her 3rd birthday. Heads up: it was painful yes, but the pain was short and the eventual benefits for our whole household trumped the hard parts.

A factor in why we weaned so late is that Miss E has speech delays and is possibly on the autistic spectrum (you can read more detail about that in a previous post HERE) . I sit more on the attachment parenting side of the fence, and I wasn’t comfortable pushing her to be independent before I felt she was ready. Her sleep has always been terrible. At the 2-5 month age, she would only nap for 10-20 minutes at a time and wake all through the night. So out of pure exhaustion, I did give the cry-it-out sleep training method a go at that time. However, she was the kind of baby who just never gave up, and unfortunately I’ll admit I’m the kind of mum that does, so the sleep training never stuck. So we just rode things out with lots of rocking and feeding to sleep, and carrying her for naps in the Ergo carrier.

Her sleep cycles slowly started stretching out towards 2 years of age, however, she still liked to be held and rocked to sleep, and was still waking through the night. She also refused to eat solids until just before she turned 2, so breastmilk was pretty much her sole nutrition up to that point. I thought she would naturally cut back on feeds herself once she started eating but this didn’t turn out to be the case. Even when she was eating well, she would still ask for boob day and night. For her, it was definitely more about the comfort and security rather than the actual nutritive factor of breastmilk. She can get quite anxious and overwhelmed in social situations, so whenever she got overwhelmed or upset, she would ask for milk as a way of calming down.

I kept telling myself to tough it out until her speech and comprehension improved (this is before I realised she had delays), then I could start talking about weaning with her to hopefully initiate a baby-led process. This is what had happened with my first daughter Miss A. I breastfed Miss A until she was 2.5 years old and my milk had dried up during my pregnancy with Miss E. When I realised I wasn’t producing any more milk, I told Miss A “the baby in mummy’s tummy needs the milk now” and she stopped with no drama at all. She was so excited to have a little sister and loved Miss E so much already that she seemed to feel good that she was “helping” the baby. I guess not actually having any milk supply left to argue about also made things easier (and it was also great for me as I didn’t have to go through any engorgement issues that usually come with weaning).

Before weaning, we had also been talking to Miss A for a few months about sleeping in her own room and being a “big girl” and putting herself to sleep without needing to be rocked. So it was that not long after she weaned, she suddenly asked to start sleeping in her own room…and that was it. I knew it wasn’t going to be as easy the second time around since we were done having kids and there wouldn’t be any more babies to follow to use as an excuse, but I didn’t realise how hard it was going to be!

I feel that if Miss E was only asking for milk once or twice a day, I could handle going down the extended breastfeeding route. I personally feel that extended breastfeeding is totally natural and normal and applaud mums who are able to withstand social pressure and feed their kids until 4 or 5 years old. However, in our case, Miss E’s habit of asking all day and night for milk was starting to get problematic. Not only was it awkward to have her pulling at my shirt in public and kick a fuss if I refused her, but I felt it was actually hindering her speech and emotional development. She was asking for it as an automatic response to any change in her environment, if she was upset, if she was bored, if she was hungry, if she was thirsty…basically she was not verbalising what she actually wanted. It was also getting frustrating for me to not even be able to cuddle her without her automatically sticking her hand down my shirt and asking for milk. While I believe it’s natural for kids to ask for it as comfort, I felt like for Miss E, her emotional reliance on it as an almost 3-year-old was actually bordering more on an unhealthy level. Basically, the cons started outweighing the benefits. So, I just got to a point where I decided it was time to slowly start cutting back on feeds.

1.Don’t offer, don’t refuse
We started the slow and steady weaning process by doing the “don’t offer, don’t refuse” approach. This was especially challenging when I knew not offering before we left the house would probably lead to a meltdown later in public when she suddenly realised she had gone an extended period without it (and I really didn’t like feeding a wriggly toddler in public)…but I tried to hold strong as much as I could. She had a great appetite by then so I kept telling myself she wasn’t actually hungry and didn’t actually need it from a nutritive point of view, and just prayed she wouldn’t throw a fit in public later.

2. Distract, distract, distract
This was extremely exhausting at first since she asked for boob all the time, but I worked hard to distract her with things like toys and books and would offer food or cows’/soy milk instead. At over 2 years of age, distraction can definitely work, although no doubt it can be exhausting for the parent to keep doing it all day. I also started refusing to feed her when we were out of the house too, taking little packets of long life cows’ milk to offer her instead, so she started to understand breastfeeding was only at home.

3. Set a bedtime routine or create a new one
We started putting a strict bedtime routine in place. Ours was bath, books, breastfeed, brush teeth, sleep. Eventually the breastfeed got replaced by a cup of cows’ milk or Milo. We also starting giving her a comfort item at night which was a Peppa Pig soft toy.

4. Night wean
I decided to night wean before tackling the daytime ones. I thought it would be easier as I could replace the feeds with rocking her back to sleep in the initial stages, and also because genetically she has really soft teeth and is prone to cavities so night feeding wasn’t great (breastmilk- through latching, not a bottle- tends to not be much of an issue if they have normal teeth though). So after her last feed before bedtime, I would tell her “milk” was going to sleep and to say goodnight to it, and that she could only have it in the morning when the sun got up. In the initial stages, when she woke in the middle of the night, I would rock her back to sleep instead of feeding her to settle her. I also offered water as a drink in case she was genuinely thirsty. It needed a bit of resolve on my part to get out of bed and rock her in the middle of the night (we were still co-sleeping at that point so feeding her back to sleep was so easy!) but honestly she didn’t put up as much a fight as I thought she would with this stage.

5. The room move
I decided to end co-sleeping in our bedroom and move her into sharing a room with Miss A room before doing the sleep training. I just figured if we were going to train her to sleep on her own, it should be in her own bed. It just didn’t make sense to sleep train her in my bed, and then have to move her to her own room later. So I bought lovely new Emma Wiggle bedsheets (she loves Emma) for her new bed and talked to her about how it was her big girl bed now. To ease her in, I still rocked her to sleep and slept beside her so she didn’t kick up much of a fuss. Obviously the fact that she was in a room with her sister helped, as opposed to being completely on her own. Then, when I felt she had really settled into being in her sister’s room, it was time to take the last plunge into cold-turkey weaning and training her to put herself to sleep in her own bed and sleep without us.

6. Finally…the cold turkey
So after a few weeks of cutting back day feeds with distraction, cutting out the night feeds with rocking, making sure she was eating plenty of solids and drinking cows’/soy milk, talking to her about weaning as much as possible (even when I wasn’t sure whether she could understand me), and moving her out of my bedroom…I felt we had reached the maximum point that that slow, gentle, scale-back method could go. If you’re lucky, as you scale things back, you might get a toddler who eventually just loses interest in asking for breastfeeds; however, with a super attached, resistant, routine-loving, emotionally-dependent toddler who would not give up asking for her “milk” in every situation, we reached a point that was as far as we could go before having to go down the cold turkey weaning, conventional cry-it-out sleep training approach.

At nearly 3 years of age, even with her language delay, I felt Miss E would be able to kind of understand what was going on now and understand that Mummy hadn’t abandoned her completely if Daddy was doing the sleep training. Sleep training at this age is definitely different to sleep training a baby. I felt she was just emotionally ready to be able to handle the change…and I was able to handle her crying too and feel alright withholding her “comfort item”. As much as I have loved breastfeeding all the years that I had, I was just really over the persistent requests to feed, and the physical challenges of feeding a wriggly toddler who is doing acrobatics while hitting and scratching you at the same time.

We decided to wean and sleep train at the same time. At that point, my husband was on leave so I knew it was now or never as it meant he could take her at nights for a week or two (he usually works shifts so is unable to do so when he is working). I felt things would definitely be easier if he did the bedtime routine for at least first few days since obviously he doesn’t have boobs for Miss E to argue over, and thankfully he was very willing to accept the challenge.

For the weaning part, I wore a sports bra so she couldn’t access my boobs, and just kept telling her there was no more milk and she had to drink cows’ milk or soy milk instead. It definitely helped that we had gone through a slow process of cutting back on feeds over the weeks before, as she didn’t protest to this change as hard as I thought she would. Obviously she was upset, but not as upset as I imagined she would be. Going cold turkey at that point also meant there wasn’t any confusion over when she could access breastmilk. It was just finished. Gone. The end. No matter what she says or does, it’s not coming back. She caught on quite quickly to that.

That first night of sleep training, obviously there was a lot of crying and screaming in protest to not being rocked or fed completely to sleep. It helped that while this was going down, I was in the bathroom helping Miss A shower and so I couldn’t really hear much (Miss A slept with me in my bedroom for the first week to evade the noise). If you don’t have any other kids, I definitely recommend getting out of the house! You gotta do everything you can to stop yourself from wanting to rush into the room to save your crying kid!

Basically what my husband did with sleep training with Miss E was to rock her and sing to her, but making sure to always put her down awake before she fell asleep (“drowsy but awake” is what the sleep training sites/books say). She would obviously scream and try to get up but he would keep putting her back, telling her she had to lie down and go to sleep. When she worked herself up too much, he would cuddle her or rock her a little to calm her down, but he always put her down before she fell asleep. The first night, I think it took a good hour of crying before she finally fell asleep in exhaustion. My husband slept beside her and every time she woke up in the middle of the night, he would repeat the process. Basically, there wasn’t much sleep going on the first couple of nights!

She would also vomit from crying too much initially, and we would take her to the bathroom and change her without making a fuss then put her straight back to bed. My recommendation before sleep training is to definitely layer the bed with mattress protectors and bedsheets, so you can just take off the dirty layer to reveal the clean layer underneath and are not fussing around with putting clean sheets on in the middle of the night (same goes with toilet training!).

While my husband tackled the sleep training, you would think I would be able to sleep peacefully in my own room, but I couldn’t because I kept waking up everytime Miss E cried, and also because there was the other issue of engorgement. I thought I wasn’t producing much milk at that point but boy, was I wrong! It took 36 hours or so for the engorgement to arrive, but when it did, it was hell. For a few days, I had to sleep with ice packs and hand express in a hot shower while massaging out all the lumps in my boobs, and take ibuprofen. After so many years of breastfeeding two kids, it actually took a good week for my body to get the message it was done and to stop producing milk!

The roughest night was definitely the first night. The crying time shortened on the second, and kept shortening after that. It only took maybe 4 nights before the crying stopped completely. She slowly started waking less in the middle of the night too and when she did, was able to be resettled very quickly with a few pats. Soon, she was happy to just roll around in bed to go to sleep and didn’t need to be rocked until drowsy anymore. After a week when she wasn’t asking for boob as much, I was able to take over from my husband and do the bedtime routine. After another week, she would only wake up once a night towards early morning and could be resettled quickly, so we finally no longer needed to sleep next to her through the time. We put up a sticker chart where she got a sticker in the morning for sleeping on her own and she actually really loved that and was very proud of it. She does like her routines so even though it was hard to establish a new one, once she took to it, she thrived.

It’s been a month now and she still takes forever to roll around and fall asleep at this point, but at least she doesn’t need to be rocked anymore, and also no longer needs us to stay beside her all night. To prove how persistent she is, she actually still asks for breastmilk at least a couple times a day even now, but she knows what the answer will be and is happy to accept a snack or cows’/soy milk instead. Without the option to breastfeed, she has had to learn other ways to cope emotionally with change (fidget/sensory toys are a great help for her), and verbalise what she wants which she has definitely been improving on. I feel this has had such a positive effect on her development, and it’s obviously been a very freeing process for me too. I obviously loved breastfeeding, but I now feel so much less restricted by motherhood, am getting better sleep, and have so much more mental clarity. It was actually 6.5 consecutive years of either being pregnant or breastfeeding for me, so to be able to reclaim my body as my own felt amazing.

They say all kids do things in their own time…well, it’s probably true but some kids do things later than others and it’s a question of whether you have enough patience to get to the end. I felt in our case I got to a point where I definitely felt I had enough of all this and she needed to learn to be independent…so we had to intervene and push that process along. At the end of the day, there is no right or wrong way to raise kids, and you just have to choose what’s best for you and your family. My favourite parenting advice is “it’s not a problem unless it’s a problem for you”. If breastfeeding, rocking, and co-sleeping is not a problem for you even with kids above 2, then keep going and don’t let societal pressures get to you. But if you feel it’s affecting you mentally and emotionally, then don’t feel guilty for weaning or sleep training. You gotta do what you gotta do. We did it. It definitely wasn’t easy or pretty. But it was a short period of suffering for the benefit of a great future. Miss E is now thriving and making great leaps in her development. It was all worth it for us.

Breastfeeding and co-sleeping was honestly such a wonderful chapter in our lives, and I’m glad I stuck that out as long as I did. I always knew I would breastfeed my kids but I could never foresee how passionate I would be about it and how much of an advocate I would be for it. I mean, it’s even spawned its own category on this blog. But all chapters eventually close, and it was just our time. I would like to thank my body for creating life and providing sustenance for a long 6.5 years…it’s been quite a journey with lots of ups and downs, and I’ll only look back fondly at the good times.

2 comments

  1. Wow, you’re so patient! I got trapped in rocking to sleep – it was fun at first but after a while it was unbearable! Like hours of rocking every week… I googled some sleep training methods, decided for the most gentle one I could find (happened to be Susan Ubran’s Hold With Love – I remember the name cause it’s so cute!) and… just did it. And at 6 months no more rocking. Can you believe that happiness?

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    1. Wow glad you found a gentle method that worked at 6 months, Betty..I will have to look into that just to learn more! I can’t believe I lasted that long either..sounds ridiculous to still be rocking a heavy toddler I know but it was difficult for me to follow through with sleep training when I felt she couldn’t understand it yet. Then when we got to a point I felt she was emotionally mature enough to handle it and it became more about me being too chicken to implement it, I realised it was time to bite the bullet!

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