When your new baby arrives, you just can’t get enough of them. That soft baby skin, that new baby smell...there’s simply nothing better. But as your love grows for your little one, so does your lack of sleep. You forget what it feels like be fully-rested as you nurse your baby to sleep for the millionth time. You start to wonder if there’s a way to get your baby to sleep without nursing.
Luckily, what you’re going through is normal. Young babies need to nurse and sleep so much that during the newborn stage they go hand in hand. As much as you love every waking second with your child, you both know you need more sleep. Here we’re going to talk about strategies to use to get your baby to sleep without nursing so you can both finally start sleeping better.
When to Stop Nursing a Baby to Sleep
If your baby is still under one month old, then you’ll want to hold a lot of this information in your back pocket until your baby gets a little older.
Although there are ways to begin moving away from a pattern of nursing your baby to sleep during the older newborn stage, your main focus should be on ensuring your baby is getting plenty to eat. In our article, “Newborn Sleep Patterns and Schedules for the First Year,” we discuss how the first 6-8 weeks of your baby’s life will be anything but scheduled. And that’s OK! They will eat and sleep a lot as this is a period of rapid growth. Now is not the time to stress about trying to keep your baby awake after you nurse them - just love on that sweet baby of yours because this period of time goes oh so fast.
As your baby nears the 2-month mark, you can start spending more energy helping your baby learn to fall asleep independently without needing to use you and your boobs as a sleep prop to get some shut-eye.
We know you love your baby more than anything and want to be with them, but you also can’t go on forever running on such little sleep. Which is what will likely happen if you continue to nurse your baby to sleep.
Why You Want to Avoid Nursing Your Baby to Sleep
Moving away from nursing your baby to sleep is not easy. Whether you breastfeed or bottle-feed, watching your baby fade off into sleep nice and full in the comfort of your arms is truly something special. So why would you want to give that up?
The problem is that when babies become accustomed to falling asleep this way, they become dependent on it. Meaning, they will get to the point where they won’t fall asleep until they are nursed or have a bottle even when they’re not hungry. And the longer it goes on, the more difficult it is to take it away from them. Nursing, at this point, has turned into comfort nursing.
What is comfort nursing?
Comfort nursing is when your baby becomes calm and relaxed through breastfeeding. You may find that there is no other way to console them or prepare them for sleep unless you breastfeed. Babies find comfort in sucking and being curled up against you, so nursing is often used in these situations even when the baby isn’t hungry.
To be clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with comfort nursing your baby if that is your parenting preference. We all mother in different ways and there is no right or wrong way. If it’s working for you, that’s wonderful.
But if you are at the point where your baby is waking multiple times a night or you find yourself constantly pulling out your boob because that’s the only thing that will work to calm your little one, you are likely exhausted. We are willing to bet sleep is something you are longing for.
As soon as you start moving away from nursing your baby to sleep, the sooner your baby will start taking quality naps and sleeping longer stretches at night.
So if you’re ready to move away from nursing your baby to sleep and they’re beyond the newborn (0 - 6-week) stage, we highly recommend you start gradually implementing our strategies so that your baby no longer relies on nursing for sleep.
5 Ways to Help Your Baby Learn to Sleep Without Nursing
It may seem like an impossible task, but your baby CAN learn to fall asleep without nursing or without a bottle. It will take some patience and planning on your part, but your baby can make the transition to falling asleep on their own.
1. Follow a Sleep Routine
Just like you likely do, your baby thrives off of routine. They do best when they have cues to let them know what’s coming next. Utilizing a consistent sleep routine every time you put your baby down for bed will help them prepare for sleep.
We show you in-depth how we go about creating a crib routine, and here is a simple outline you can follow to get started:
- Calming bath 45 minutes – 1 hour before bedtime (skip this step for naptime)
- Infant massage
- Diaper and Jammies
- Place your baby in a Dreamland Baby weighted wearable blanket or swaddle
- Turn off the lights and turn on calming music or nature sounds
- Nurse or bottle-feed in a chair in your baby's room
- Rock your baby, while snuggling and singing your favorite lullaby until he/she shows signs of sleepiness.
- Lay baby down awake, but drowsy
If you are struggling to keep your baby awake while they nurse at night, you may want to nurse your baby at the beginning of the sleep routine (but after their bath). Then utilize the Dreamland Baby Swaddle or Sack and calming music to relax your baby until they’re close to sleeping, but still awake. Finding a comforting substitute such as a weighted sleep sack or pacifier can help immensely.
Mom Jessica writes:
"My 6-month-old was still up every hour, only wanting to be held or comfort nursed- screaming to the point of throwing up if I couldn’t. Since putting her in the sleep sack for both nap and bedtimes, she goes to sleep faster, hasn’t been screaming, even fusses less. She naps longer, sleeps better and longer. If she does wake, she just needs a little “shhhhh” and she’s back to sleep. We’ve only had it 5 nights and each night keeps getting better. I am thrilled!"
2. Get Your Baby on a Schedule
Moving your baby into a schedule means their little bodies and brains will move into a rhythm of when to expect food and sleep. For example, if they always go to bed right around 7 o’clock, then they will naturally start to get sleepy close to that time. This will make it much easier for them to fall asleep without needing to nurse.
As part of your schedule, you’ll want to implement a sleep-eat-wake cycle. This means you’ll feed your baby as soon as you get them up in the morning or after a nap, instead of nursing them right before sleep. This way, your baby will no longer associate nursing with sleep.
You can find our recommended sleep schedules at the links below:
3. Don’t Let Your Baby Get Overtired
Babies who are overtired have a very difficult time falling asleep. It sounds counterintuitive, but babies who get overtired get so worked up that they really struggle to calm down enough to fall asleep.
According to The Baby Sleep Site, “Once your baby is overtired, stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline flood your baby’s bloodstream, making it even hard for your baby to relax and calm down.”
So, how do you avoid overtiredness?
Pay careful attention to your baby’s sleepiness cues. Eye rubbing, yawning, clinginess and fussiness are all signs that your baby is ready to sleep. As soon as you see these signs you should wrap your baby in their Dreamland Baby weighted swaddle or sack and start winding them down.
Understanding wake windows that are developmentally appropriate for your baby will help you have an idea of how long a baby your age should be able to stay awake.
4. Lay Your Baby Down Drowsy but Awake
Even though you’ll start following an eat-wake-sleep cycle, you’ll still need to feed your baby one last time before you put them down for the night. The goal here is to keep your baby awake while they nurse.
To do this, you may want to wait to swaddle or put your baby’s weighted sack on until after they finish nursing. Because something like Dreamland Baby relaxes your baby so much, you can finish nursing and then wrap them up. Go ahead and rock them in your arms and sing to them as you carry them to their crib. Keep a close watch on those eyelids of theirs to make sure you lay them down drowsy, but awake. This is the sweet spot for your baby to put themselves asleep independently.
A note on dream feeds: In this article, we go over how and when to implement dream feeds. Dream feeds are completely different and don’t fall in the category of “nursing to sleep.” A dream feed is a way to top your baby off with milk before you head off to bed for the night. Since your baby is half-asleep as they nurse, and you’re the one usually waking them for the dream feed, they won’t associate nursing with falling asleep. Keep doing your dream feeds if they are working for you!
5. Follow a Sleep Training Plan
Everything we’ve listed above are perfect strategies to use with your baby two months and up to help move them away from nursing to sleep into a position where they can put themselves to sleep. The more “pre-work” like this you do, the easier it will be when it comes time for more formal sleep training.
We recommend you sleep train around 4 months of age.
In our Sleep Training Guide, we get helpful advice from sleep consultant Rachel Mitchell of My Sweet Sleeper. She tells us, “Sleep training is the process of teaching your child healthy sleep habits. The goal of sleep training is typically to help your child sleep independently, without the need for someone or something to help them fall asleep and stay asleep.”
Contrary to what you might think, sleep training does not need to be done through a Cry-It-Out method.
For your child who has been comfort nursing, it’s best to choose a gentle approach which is exactly what we talk about in our sleep training article.
The fact is that you can’t just snap your fingers and expect your baby to become a perfect sleeper. It takes work on your part and patience in teaching your baby how to sleep on their own. And full disclosure, it will likely include a few rough nights to get your baby on board. But in the long run, making the choice to not nurse your baby to sleep will mean more sleep for everyone. And that means a lot more smiles and bonding time during the waking hours.
Why do babies nurse to sleep?
Some babies like to nurse as it helps to comfort and soothe them before falling asleep. Nursing may even be considered a sleep aid for your baby and it’s perfectly normal! Nursing has a sedative effect on babies, and some moms find that last feeding at night is a great way to relax at the end of the day. Also, sucking has a calming effect on babies which is why a pacifier also works as a great sleep aid.
While most experts agree that it’s best to put baby to sleep drowsy but awake, nursing can be a hard habit to break when it has helped baby get to sleep those first few months of newborn life. As baby develops and matures, and sleep training looms on the horizon, try not to nurse until baby falls asleep, rather feed them just enough until they’re drowsy. This way, they get the idea that they can fall asleep on their own. While every baby is different, this step is a typical part of sleep training which doesn’t usually start until around 4 months old.
Do babies outgrow nursing to sleep?
Just like most developmental stages like rolling over and crawling, most babies will also outgrow nursing to sleep… eventually. Nursing has a multitude of benefits and most mothers, often times, have to wean themselves from it as well. In time your baby will learn to be independent and show less of an interest in that nighttime feeding. It may require some help from you, however. There are plenty of books to read on breaking the breast feeding habit as well as a variety of sleep training methods that will help your baby learn to get to sleep on their own.
Will my baby sleep worse when I stop nursing it to sleep?
Every baby and family is different and because sleep is such an individual issue, it’s hard to know if your baby will sleep worse, or ever better when you stop nursing. For many, nursing at night is a habit. Many parents find it a nice way to calm down and relax at the end of the day and appreciate how easy it can be to get baby to sleep. However, for those babies who already struggle with sleep, weaning can be a bit trickier. Research has shown that breastfed babies tend to wake up more during the night in those first few months of life but in later infancy, their sleep patterns stabilize, and they fall and stay asleep comparable to non-breastfed babies.
Is it bad to nurse to sleep after a certain age?
Nursing is a personal choice that every parent and family needs to make on their own. Some parents have nursing difficulties at the onset while for others, it comes easy. While there are benefits to both nursing and bottle feeding, there are no hard rules to determine when it is time to stop. Usually, nature will take it’s course and nursing will stop on its own for a multitude of reasons –lack of milk production, baby no longer interest, or mama simply needs a break. Of course if there are any questions or concerns about how to best feed your baby, discuss with your pediatrician or child care provider.
Will I lose my milk if I don't nurse at night?
It’s common for people to stop nursing at night as their baby grows and develops and sleeps for longer stretches of time. This may mean that your baby is eating more during the day and those nighttime feeds become fewer and farther between. Our bodies really are amazing and when these changes take place, typically, your milk supply will adjust without too much fuss. If however, you have any concerns about your milk production, absolutely discuss with your doctor or baby’s pediatrician.
Does nursing while sleeping mean the baby is hungry or tired?
Most parents have a way of understanding their baby’s cries and they are the ones to determine if they’re due to hunger or tiredness. Chances are if your baby is hungry, they won’t fall asleep too easily, nursing or not. The key to the most successful sleep training is putting baby to sleep drowsy and tired, not already asleep.
More tips for sleep training success as well as sleep tips can be found right here on the Dreamland baby blog.