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There’s nothing more magical than watching your angelic newborn slowly drift off to sleep at the breast. These are the sweet memories you’ll hold on to years later when you’re dropping your not so tiny child off at college.
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. After the newborn days are over, it’s important to teach your baby to fall asleep in different ways.
Keep reading for our top tips on how to stop nursing baby to sleep.
Cons of Nursing Baby to Sleep
If your little cherub relies on feeding at bedtime, it could lead to dependency and other problems down the road.
It Could Lead to a Suck-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, donning jammies, or reading. Your babe is no different! A consistent bedtime routine tells her little body that it’s time to rest.
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 when your little one starts to depend on sucking to fall asleep and won’t fall asleep any other way. This dependency could make it extra challenging down the road when it comes time to wean or when your baby consistently wakes and needs to nurse to fall back asleep.
It Could Make it Harder for Others to Feed the Baby
If you’re still in the early newborn phase, it may seem hard to believe that you’d ever need a break from your tiny bundle of joy. But trust us when we say, there will come a day when a date night or little getaway is essential for your health and sanity. And if being latched onto Mommy is the only way your little man will doze off, you’ve got a problem!
This can also pose a challenge when it comes to getting your partner involved, so it’s important to introduce a bottle early on if you plan to share this magical bonding experience.
It Could Increase Your Emotional Toll
When nobody but Mama will do, parenting can become exhausting really fast (especially at 3 AM when your baby wakes for the 5th time that night). The increased physical and emotional demands can really take a toll on Moms who are already dealing with a slurry of hormones and sleep deprivation.
Postpartum depression is becoming increasingly common among new Moms, so it’s important to reduce stress in any way you can. Sharing the responsibility of feeding can go a long way in setting both Mom and baby up for success.
When to Stop Nursing Baby to Sleep
In the early days, letting your babe 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
Do you ever feel like a human pacifier? That’s because, sometimes, you are! Plenty of research 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 teething. However, if your babe 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.
If Your Baby Won't Sleep or Nap Without Nursing
We all have weird habits at bedtime. Maybe you like to sleep with a window open or the television on. Babies can develop habits when it comes to sleep too, but habits are only beneficial if they encourage sleep, not hinder it.
Sure, nursing will help your sweet cherub fall asleep quickly, but what happens when he wakes and his human pacifier is gone? He’ll want to nurse again to help him fall back asleep. And again. And again. You get the picture.
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 parents of newborns look like characters out of some zombie flick.
Babies have lighter and shorter sleep cycles than adults, so they have multiple opportunities for waking overnight. If your babe has developed a dependency on sucking to sleep, she’ll likely be demanding to nurse every 45 minutes…all…night…long.
How to Stop Nursing 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.
Start with Naps
Many parents find it easier to start with 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.
One of the first steps is to establish a daily routine. This doesn’t have to be so rigid that you feed your babe every day at noon and promptly put her down for a nap at 1 PM. It’s important to pay attention to your little one’s cues and respond promptly when he’s tired or hungry. But, it can also help to have a flow to your day.
Many people love the “Sleep, Eat, Play” approach. This helps to remove the association between feeding and sleeping. In its place, you can create a naptime routine involving songs, stories, and dimming lights that cues your babe that it’s time to snooze.
Find Other Ways to Soothe the Baby
As a new Mom, it can be hard to listen to our precious newborn’s cry. Our first instinct is to put our babe to breast to since we know that will calm them down, regardless of the source of the cry. Believe it or not, sucking isn’t the only thing that can calm a crying baby.
First made famous by baby sleep expert, Harvey Karp, the 5’S approach to calming babies has even been published in a research article by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The S’s include sucking, swaddling, side or stomach (but not when sleeping), shushing, and swinging.
These approaches have been proven to help calm babies after vaccines, so they’re definitely worth a try at home too! Combine them with a calming bedtime routine and an environment conducive to rest. Consider installing blackout curtains, using a humidifier, turning on white noise, and keeping the room at an optimal temperature for babies.
Let Your Partner Put Baby to Bed Sometimes
Mothers carry babes for nine months so its only natural to feel a strong attachment 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. This can be a powerful bonding time for partners too!
If nursing is part of your bedtime routine, go ahead, and nurse until baby is drowsy but not yet asleep. Let your partner or another family member finish with a story, lullaby, and putting your little angel down in her crib. She may fuss and protest at first, but eventually, she will get the hang of it and may even sleep a little longer (one can hope).
Trying to be Super Mom will only burn you out and increase your risk for Postpartum Depression. Give yourself (and your partner) the permission to share bedtime for your tiny tot.
Don't Stimulate Baby at Bedtime or Naptime
Have you ever stayed up too late watching something thrilling then found yourself unable to fall asleep? The same thing can happen to your babe, except stimulating in his little world can be as simple as going out to a crowded restaurant or visiting with company.
Sometimes, these things 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, ordering in, and scheduling visits earlier in the day.
Another source of stimulation is playtime! Yep, simply playing peek-a-boo with Daddy can excite your kiddo enough that she has trouble conking out when it comes time to sleep. Try keeping playtime away from naps and bedtime and having a wind-down time with dim lights, calming music or white noise, a warm bath, and a soothing infant massage.
Stop Nursing Before Baby Falls Asleep Completely
Babies wake repeatedly in the night and will struggle to fall back asleep if the conditions have changed. This means that if your baby falls asleep nursing, she’ll want to nurse again to fall back asleep. By teaching her to fall asleep on her own, she’ll learn the valuable lesson of self-soothing so that she’ll only need you when she’s truly hungry or in pain.
If your babe is attached to your nipple (literally), you’ll need to start by unlatching before he falls asleep. Try gently inserting a finger, and breaking the latch once his sucks become more like tiny flutters and he’s no longer swallowing. If he starts crying or trying to re-latch, try some of the other soothing techniques we talked about earlier.
This 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.
Wean the Baby Gradually
Weaning your baby off of breastfeeding fully 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 the first few nights or maybe even weeks. The suck-to-sleep association is one of the strongest to break, but the results will be well worth it!
Not only will this help her learn to self-soothe, but you’ll also be cutting down on nighttime wakings that aren’t related to hunger (yay sleep!).
Frequently Asked Questions
Will the baby stop nursing to sleep on their own?
Yes, from a developmental perspective, most babies do eventually learn to stop nursing to sleep. However, this could take months or even years. Historically, children didn’t wean until they were three or four years old.
While some families continue to practice extended breastfeeding, most find that children continue to nurse before bed, but usually unlatch before falling asleep entirely. Many of these families also practice co-bedding which can help to 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 sucking, you can use the gradual approach we talked about earlier. Always remember that your parenting journey is yours and doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s.
Can I still feed my baby before bed?
Absolutely! In fact, there may even be some benefits thanks to something known as Chrononutrition. Recent research has discovered that the contents of breastmilk change 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.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that is a precursor to the neurotransmitter, serotonin, which makes you feel happy and regulates mood. Ingesting tryptophan early in life is important for proper brain development. These components in breastmilk can also help to regulate a newborn’s circadian rhythm since they often have their days and nights reversed.
Feeding your baby before bed can be an incredible time of bonding and help prepare your little one for sleep. If you’re trying to break a suck-to-sleep association, you can continue to feed until your little one is sleepy but awake. After feeding, unlatch, and help your little one fall asleep in a different way.
Breastfeeding is an incredibly powerful and amazing act. You are literally keeping your little one alive by what you’re making with your body. Breastmilk contains amino acids and hormones that make your baby feel sleepy, not to mention 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 her fall asleep in different ways using the gentle techniques we’ve suggested. Having a baby who can fall asleep without your help means that they can fall back asleep without your help, and that means you’ll be getting some much needed Zzz’s.