Have you been nursing your baby to sleep and are looking to find the best way to ease out of this routine? Breastfeeding is an incredibly comforting experience that incorporates bonding via skin-to-skin contact and sleep-inducing hormones that lull your little one into a dreamy state. However, once the newborn days are over, it’s important to teach your baby to fall asleep without relying on breastfeeding.
We’re here to help you in this transition process. In this article, we’ll provide six steps you can take to stop nursing your baby to sleep, including the best time to make this change.
Keep reading for our top tips on how to stop nursing your baby to sleep.
Feeding a Newborn to Sleep
Breastfeeding your baby before they go to bed is an efficient way to feed and relax them simultaneously. Eating makes us sleepy because we experience increases in tryptophan and serotonin1, along with a rise in blood sugar levels, which all contribute to a decrease in energy. So, when you’re a tired parent trying to get your baby to fall asleep, nursing is a great way to tire your baby out.
Effects of Nursing Baby to Sleep
If your baby relies on feeding at bedtime, it could lead to dependency and other problems down the road. We’ll detail a few effects of nursing your baby to sleep.
Nursing to Sleep Can Lead to a Feed-to-Sleep Association
When you turn in at night, you likely have some semblance of a bedtime routine that includes activities like brushing your teeth, putting on pajamas, or reading, and your baby is no different. A consistent bedtime routine tells them it’s time to rest.
So, what is a feed-to-sleep association? Basically, your baby can become reliant on breastfeeding in order to fall asleep, whether it be before naps or at night.
There’s nothing wrong with drawing on the powerful, sleep-inducing effects of nursing to get your little one ready for bed. The problem is that your baby may start to rely on breastfeeding to fall asleep, and might not be able to fall asleep without nursing. This dependency could eventually become a challenge if the mother isn’t available, and the baby needs to take a bottle.
Not only that but weaning your baby off of breastfeeding in general will likely be even more challenging if they’re dependent on nursing before bed. Lastly, if your baby constantly wakes up throughout the night and needs to nurse to fall back asleep, it can be physically and mentally taxing on you as the mother.
Others May Have a Harder Time Putting Your Baby to Sleep
The feed-to-sleep attachment also poses a challenge when it comes to getting your partner involved because the baby relies on only one parent for feeding and bedtime. You may want to introduce a bottle early on if you plan to split these responsibilities between the baby’s parents.
This could also prove difficult if you have a sitter for the baby, which could simultaneously make it harder for you and your partner to get some time away for a date night or to make plans with friends.
Need help? Check out our sanity-saving tips for sleeping while breastfeeding.
Nursing Your Baby to Sleep Can Cause an Emotional Toll
When nobody but Mama will do, parenting can become exhausting really fast (especially at 3:00 a.m. when your baby wakes up for the fifth time that night). The increased physical and emotional demands of exclusively breastfeeding can take a toll on moms who are already dealing with a slurry of hormones and sleep deprivation.
Postpartum depression2, also known as the baby blues, is a common phenomenon among new mothers, so it’s important to reduce stress and anxiety-inducing activities in any way you can. Sharing the responsibility of feeding and bedtime with others can go a long way in setting both the mother and baby up for success.
When to Stop Nursing Baby to Sleep
In the early days, letting your newborn fall asleep at the breast is fine. As time passes, it’s important to pay attention to signs that it’s becoming a problem. If your baby uses your breast as a pacifier, only falls asleep when breastfed, or wakes you up many times a night to nurse, you may consider beginning the weaning process3.
If Your Baby Uses Your Breast as a Pacifier
Research4 has pointed to the comforting benefits of breastfeeding for pain relief in infants.
Comfort nursing is fine from time to time, especially during illness or teething4. However, if your baby frequently comfort sucks — a fluttering suck without swallowing — it’s time to unlatch.
Some babies truly have a higher need to suck, which is important for oral development. If that’s the case, you can try offering a real pacifier instead of your breast.
If Your Baby Won’t Sleep or Nap Without Nursing
Like adults, babies can develop habits when it comes to sleep, but habits are only beneficial if they encourage sleep, not hinder it.
Sure, nursing will help your baby fall asleep quickly, but what happens when they wake up and their human pacifier is gone? They’ll likely resist going to sleep more if they’re not breastfed before naptime or nighttime.
If Your Baby Wants to Nurse All Night
Marathon nursing sessions are common in the early days when newborns are just figuring things out. Add on frequent growth spurts and day/night confusion, and you’ll quickly understand why many parents of newborns often feel exhausted.
Babies have lighter and shorter sleep cycles than adults, so they have multiple opportunities for waking overnight. If your baby has developed a dependency on sucking to sleep, they’ll likely be demanding to nurse every 45 minutes.
How to Stop Nursing Your Baby to Sleep
If your tiny tot relies on nursing to sleep, don’t panic. Let’s talk about how to gradually help your babe learn to fall asleep in different ways.
1. Start with Naps
Many parents find it easier to start weaning their baby from nursing during naptime since they’re less exhausted and more likely to stick to a new plan than in the middle of the night. Once you’ve mastered naptime, it should be easier to start implementing a new routine at bedtime too.
Debbie Gerken, founder of Sleep Like a Baby Consulting explains “To stop nursing a baby to sleep in a gentle way, it is important to gradually reduce that association. Moving the nursing session earlier in the bedtime routine and nursing with a low light on can start to help your baby understand that this is feeding time and not sleeping time. Then, work on getting your baby to sleep once the lights are off and you switch the association to rocking or patting”.
One of the first steps is to establish a daily routine. This doesn’t have to be so rigid that you feed your baby every day at noon and promptly put them down for a nap at 1:00 p.m. Rather, it’s important to pay attention to your little one’s cues and respond promptly when they’re tired or hungry, and a routine can also help create a flow to your day.
Many people love the “Sleep, Eat, Play” approach, which means these activities occur cyclically in the same order. This routine helps to remove the association between feeding and sleeping. In the place of nursing, you can create a naptime routine involving songs, stories, and dim lights in order to cue your baby that it’s time to snooze.
Stephanie Hewitt, founder of Stephanie Hewitt Sleep Consulting discusses the “Sleep, Eat, Play” routine and explains that “establishing an eat, play, and sleep schedule can put the milk feed first in the daily routine which ensures the baby is awake and engaged for a full feed. For the bedtime routine, move the feed to the start of the routine either before or after the bath to give a bit of space between the feed and going to bed”.
2. Find Other Ways to Soothe Your Baby
As a new mom, it can be hard to listen to the cry of your precious newborn. Your first instinct is to put your baby to your breast since you know that will calm them down, regardless of why they may be crying. However, nursing isn’t the only thing that can calm a crying baby.
First made famous by baby sleep expert, Harvey Karp, the 5 S’s approach5 is a way to calm babies. The S’s in this approach include sucking, swaddling, side or stomach (but not when sleeping), shushing, and swinging5. These are methods to soothe your baby without resorting to nursing.
The 5 S’s have helped calm babies after vaccines, so they’re definitely worth a try at home too. Combine one or more of the S’s with a calming bedtime routine, along with an environment conducive to rest. Consider installing blackout curtains, using a humidifier, turning on white noise, and keeping the optimal room temperature for babies in order to create this calming environment.
3. Let Your Partner Put the Baby to Bed Sometimes
Mothers carry babies for nine months so it’s only natural to feel a strong attachment to your child and have a hard time letting others share responsibilities like feeding and bedtime. Getting your little one used to being put down by someone else now will be extremely useful down the road when you want some independence as a mom. This can be a powerful bonding time for your baby’s other parent too.
If nursing is part of your bedtime routine, go ahead, and nurse until the baby is drowsy but not yet asleep. Let your partner or another family member finish with a story or lullaby, and then let them put your baby down in the crib. Your baby may fuss and protest at first, but eventually, they will get the hang of it and may even sleep a little longer.
Trying to be “Super Mom” will only burn you out and increase your risk for postpartum depression. Give yourself (and your partner) permission to share bedtime with your child.
4. Don’t Stimulate Your Baby at Bedtime or Naptime
Have you ever stayed up too late watching something thrilling and then found yourself unable to fall asleep? The same thing can happen to your baby, except overstimulation6 in their little world can be as simple as going out to a crowded restaurant or visiting with company.
Sometimes, stimulating situations can’t be avoided, but whenever possible, try to avoid outings or visitors in the hour before bedtime. This may mean having to change your lifestyle for the time being, such as ordering in food and scheduling visits earlier in the day.
Another source of stimulation that may keep your baby awake longer is playtime. Yep, simply playing peek-a-boo can excite your child enough that they have trouble falling asleep at bedtime. Try keeping playtime a good amount of time before naps and bedtime.
Also, it doesn’t hurt to have wind-down time with dim lights, calming music or a sound machine, a warm bath, and a soothing infant massage.
5. Stop Nursing Before Your Baby Falls Asleep Completely
Babies wake repeatedly in the night and will struggle to fall back asleep if the conditions in which they fell asleep have changed. This means that if your baby falls asleep nursing, they’ll likely want to nurse again to fall back asleep. By teaching your child to fall asleep on their own without nursing, they’ll learn the valuable lesson of self-soothing. This way, your baby will only need to nurse when she’s truly hungry or in pain.
If your baby is attached to your nipple (literally), you’ll need to start by unlatching before they fall asleep. Try gently inserting a finger and breaking the latch once the baby’s sucks become more like tiny flutters and they’re no longer swallowing. If your child starts crying or trying to re-latch, try some of the other soothing techniques mentioned above.
It will take some time to get your baby used to not fully nursing to sleep, but eventually, your baby will understand that eating and sleeping are separate activities.
6. Wean Your Baby Gradually
Fully weaning your baby off of breastfeeding to sleep won’t happen overnight. You’ll likely have to repeat the un-latch, soothe, re-latch, un-latch, soothe cycle over and over for the first few nights or maybe even weeks.
The feed-to-sleep association is one of the strongest to break, but the results will be well worth it. Not only will this help your baby learn to self-soothe, but you’ll also be cutting down on nighttime wakings that aren’t related to hunger.
How to Stop Nursing Your Baby to Sleep Under 4 Months Old
You may be wondering how to start weaning your baby off of nursing to sleep when they’re less than four months old. Since newborn babies sleep a lot (they typically sleep between 12-16 hours7 in a 24-hour period), it’s easy for them to fall asleep while breastfeeding.
While helping your baby to stop nursing to sleep will likely be very difficult during the first couple of months, once your baby is around two months old, you can probably find success. Our biggest recommendation is to separate eating and sleeping in your baby’s bedtime routine, like Hewitt suggested with the “Sleep, Play, Eat” strategy.
How to Stop Nursing Your Baby to Sleep Over 4 Months Old
Helping your baby wean off of nursing before bed is still possible after four months old. If you’re room-sharing with your infant, try switching them to their own bedroom to create a separation between mom and baby. You can also create a calm, dark, and quiet sleep environment with accessories like blackout curtains or a sound machine to help your baby sleep as best as they can.
Our biggest recommendation is to sleep train your baby8, which is when your baby learns to fall asleep — or back asleep — by themselves.
One form of sleep training that you’ve probably heard of is the cry-it-out method in which you don’t go console your child if they’re crying8. Other sleep training methods that parents utilize are the Ferber method, the pick up put down method, the chair method, and bedtime fading8. Finding a sleep training method that works for you and your baby will probably require some trial and error, so have patience as you explore all of your options.
The four-month mark is typically when babies learn how to self-soothe and no longer need nighttime feedings8. Therefore, this is a great time to sleep train and wean your child off of a feed-to-sleep pattern.
Want to know more? How to Gentle Sleep Train Your Baby
Frequently Asked Questions
Will the baby stop nursing to sleep on their own?
Yes, from a developmental perspective, most babies eventually learn to stop nursing to sleep without the intervention of their parents. However, weaning themselves on their own could take months or even years. Historically, children didn’t wean until they were between two and four years old9.
While some families continue to practice extended breastfeeding10 past toddlerhood, most find that older children who breastfeed continue to nurse before bed, but usually unlatch before falling asleep entirely. Many of these families also practice co-sleeping, which can help minimize sleep disruptions when practiced safely.
If you’re not worried about your baby falling asleep while nursing, then you can continue to do so. If and when there comes a time that you feel you’re ready to help your baby gently wean from falling asleep nursing, you can use the gradual approach we explained earlier. Always remember that your parenting journey is yours and doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.
How do I get my toddler to sleep without nursing?
In order to get your toddler to sleep without nursing, our recommendation is sleep training since your child is older and has the capacity to self-soothe8. There are many different sleep training methods that you can try with your toddler.
Is nursing to sleep bad?
No, nursing to sleep isn’t bad. As a matter of fact, it relaxes your little one while giving them nutrients that help them grow1. However, eventually, you’ll want to stop breastfeeding your baby to sleep because it will become physically and emotionally taxing for you as a mother.
Can I still feed my baby before bed?
Yes, you can still feed your baby before bed. In fact, there may even be some benefits thanks to something known as chrononutrition11, which basically means there is a relationship between when you eat and what your circadian rhythm is doing, which affects your health. A 2021 study on chrononutrition states that “A growing body of evidence indicates that aligning food intake to periods of the day when circadian rhythms in metabolic processes are optimised for nutrition may be effective for improving metabolic health11.”
Recent research has revealed that the contents of breast milk change12 throughout the day. Morning milk has higher levels of the stimulating hormone, cortisol, while evening milk has higher levels of sleep-inducing melatonin and tryptophan. These components in breast milk can also help regulate a newborn’s circadian rhythm since babies often have their days and nights reversed.
Additionally, tryptophan13 is an important amino acid for healthy growth and brain development in infants, so getting more of this could be extra helpful for your baby.
Feeding your baby before bed can be an incredible time for bonding and can help prepare your little one for sleep. If you’re trying to break a feed-to-sleep association, you can continue to feed your baby until they’re sleepy but still awake. After feeding, unlatch and help your little one fall asleep in a different way.
Breastfeeding is incredible; you’re literally keeping your baby alive with what you’re producing in your body. Breast milk contains amino acids and hormones that make your baby feel sleepy, not to mention that nursing provides the comforting act of sucking—so it’s no wonder that babies love to nurse to sleep.
However, if your baby will only fall asleep nursing, you may want to consider helping them fall asleep in a different way using the gentle techniques we’ve suggested. Having a baby who can sleep without breastfeeding means that they can fall back asleep without your help, which means you’ll hopefully get some extra sleep as a tired parent.
- Baby Sleeping On My Chest – All You Need to Know
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- When Can You Stop Using A Sleep Sack for Your Baby?
- “Tired After Eating? Here’s Why”. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/tired-after-eating/#:~:text=%E2%80%9COftentimes%2C%20when%20you%27re,to%20a%20decrease%20in%20energy. 2022.
- “Postpartum Depression”. Office on Women’s Health. Last modified February 17, 2021. https://www.womenshealth.gov/mental-health/mental-health-conditions/postpartum-depression.
- “Weaning”. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last modified July 9, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/infantandtoddlernutrition/breastfeeding/weaning.html.
- Shah, Prakeshkumar S., Herbozo, Cecilia., et al. “Breastfeeding or breast milk for procedural pain in neonates”. Cochrane Library. https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD004950.pub3/full. 2012.
- Harrington MD, John W., Logan MD, Stacey., et al. “Effective Analgesia Using Physical Interventions for Infant Immunizations”. American Academy of Pediatrics. https://publications.aap.org/pediatrics/article-abstract/129/5/815/73811/Effective-Analgesia-Using-Physical-Interventions?redirectedFrom=fulltext?autologincheck=redirected. 2012.
- “Signs Your Baby Is Overstimulated”. Texas Health Resources. Webpage accessed July 27, 2023. https://www.texashealth.org/baby-care/Infancy/signs-your-baby-is-overstimulated.
- “Typical sleep behaviour (1) – newborns 0 to 3 months”. Better Health. Last modified March 27, 2023. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/typical-sleep-behaviour-nb-0-3-months.
- “When and How To Sleep Train Your Baby” Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/when-and-how-to-sleep-train-your-baby/. 2021.
- “Weaning from the breast”. National Library of Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2720507/. 2004.
- Cockerham-Colas, Lauren., Geer, Laura., et al. “Exploring and Influencing the Knowledge and Attitudes of Health Professionals Towards Extended Breastfeeding”. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/bfm.2011.0027. 2012.
- Flanagan, Alan., Bechtold, David A., et al. “Chrono-nutrition: From molecular and neuronal mechanisms to human epidemiology and timed feeding patterns”. April 2012. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33222161/.
- Saxbe, Darby., Hahn-Holbrook, Jennifer. “Human breast milk may help babies tell time via circadian signals from mom”. USC Dornsife. https://dornsife.usc.edu/news/stories/breast-milk-helps-babies-tell-circadian-rhythm-from-mom/#:~:text=Day%20milk%2C%20by%20contrast%2C%20has,pack%20a%20special%20immune%20punch. 2019.
- “Tryptophan”. National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus. Webpage accessed July 27, 2023. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002332.htm#:~:text=Tryptophan%20is%20an%20amino%20acid,get%20it%20from%20your%20diet.
Emma is an Editorial Intern for Sleep Advisor. She collaborates with the editor and staff writers to come up with article ideas, create article outlines, and write for the website.