One of our faithful readers has asked a question about weaning, and I thought I would respond with a little bit of my experience. Usually, around 15 months, I get tired. Not just sleepy a bit during the day, but more of a bone deep, mind numbing, I haven't-had-a-long-stretch-of-sleep-in-18-months exhausted. All higher brain functions has ceased. All emotional control starts to fall away, leaving me a grumpy mommy just on the verge of breaking into a seething rage at any moment. Its not a happy sight, ladies.
This is the time that I usually consider the first stage of weaning for me -- night weaning. I know that a toddler at this age does not need to nurse for nutritional reasons. They are eating enough during the day to sustain themselves. They are simply used to the comfort of sucking back to sleep. Since they are sleeping right next to me, it takes more energy to settle them back to sleep in any other way. But when I start to deeply and seriously wear out, it is time for a change.
I would not suggest night weaning before your baby is eating a lot of solids during the day, or before they are able to make it through the night without being hungry. If you notice that baby is busy during the day and consuming most of their calories in the night, start to slow them down and encourage them to eat and nurse more during the day before you attempt to night wean. It will probably take a week or two to get them into better day time eating habits. Once they are eating better during the day, you can start night weaning.
First, let me say that there is a great section on this in Dr. Sears' The Baby Book. He mentions that since the baby is used to being comforted back to sleep, you need to give them a transitional comfort to help them back to sleep. The first stage should be to try to just pat or snuggle baby back to sleep. If baby starts to cry, Dad should get up with baby and walk / sing / snuggle him back to sleep. In this way, the baby is not deprived of comfort, he is just comforted by a different care giver.
This never worked for us, because my husband needs more sleep than I do, and he was working full time while I was staying at home when our babies were this age. This is just a fact about our physical make-ups that we both know. I can get by with less sleep than he can, so I do.
Kris suggested introducing a pacifier. This worked with her middle son and helped him to soothe to sleep and transition from the breast to nothing. This is another great option if you baby is comfort sucking and will take it. For some kids a teddy bear or other softie or blanket might be helpful in comforting babies back to sleep.
Usually, after a week or so, kids get used to their transitional sleep object, and realize they are not going to nurse back to sleep. They start to move from sleep cycle to sleep cycle a bit more smoothly and no longer wake you up as much at night.
For my kids, transitional objects didn't work, so I got up and walked them in the sling or rocked them. Yes, this did mean that my sleep was interrupted more for a few weeks. But I kept the long term goal in mind and kept with it. They would cry for a little bit, and then gradually fall back to sleep for two or three wakings. With both boys, I found that it was the 2 or 3 am waking that was the most difficult. I don't know if they were actually hungry, or just less tired and more willing to fight, but this waking was the most persistent and was the one where they would put up the most fight.
For this waking I followed one of Dr Sears' suggestions, and told them "The nums come back when the sun comes up". This gave them a tangible signal for when they would get to nurse again, and it gave me some way to reassure them that this was not forever. With my oldest son I realized that this was not the best thing to say in a northern climate in June, since the sun comes up at about 3am, but none the less, it was helpful.
For this waking, we had a few days of crying and screaming with my oldest son. I rocked and snuggled him and eventually he fell back to sleep. He learned in about a week that he was not going to get nursed. This was still the waking stage where he had the most trouble falling back to sleep, but after about 2 weeks of nightly sling walks, he did start to fall back to sleep just by snuggling next to me in bed. By the end of the second week, I only had to walk him in the sling a couple of times a week, and by the end of the month we didn't have to used the sling at all.
My second son was more persistent (we have found that this is simply his personality in all things). He fought for about two weeks, and would be awake for up to two hours during this time. I would rock him and read him books with the lights dimmed until he was ready to fall asleep, so that he wouldn't wake up his brother and cause complete chaos. I have a vivid memory of the night he finally realized that mama was not going to give in. We had been reading books, and then he started throwing the books away. I tried rocking him in the chair, and he climbed out. I tried walking him in the sling, and he climbed out. I sat him on the floor. He sat and started at me and screamed for a while. I persisted with telling him "No nums until the sun comes up." He quieted, looked at me for a minute, then collapsed sideways, asleep, on the floor. I left him there, grabbed a blanket and collapsed next to him.
I know, this sounds terrible. But sometimes, my children's wants -- not their actual needs, but their preferred way of operating -- has to come second to my real, actual needs. In this case, my need for real sleep so I could function properly during the day, took preference.
For us, this was the first step to weaning. I waited a few months for this to settle in before I proceeded to daytime weaning.