Getting a baby to sleep without nursing may seem like a pipe dream for lots of moms. Here are gentle ways to help your baby sleep and break the breastfeeding-sleep association.
When my daughter was first born, I had a plan in my mind of what I was going to do and how I was going to parent. I thought to myself that I would never allow any sleep crutches and would not let her get used to nursing to sleep. But the day she was born she was so happy on the breast and it made her so tired. She easily became “milk drunk” and could fall asleep so quickly. I even had to actively wake her up while nursing, so my plans quickly fell through.
I remembered this was completely normal, and completely natural as well. So we got into this habit of nursing, sleeping, then waking up and having play time.
A few weeks later I noticed her naps were not great, she was waking up frequently at night, and I knew it was time for a change. Being the behavioral expert and sleep coach, I began putting my own tools to use and started working on getting her to fall asleep without nursing.
Here are my best tried and true tips (with my own girls and countless clients) on how to stop nursing your baby to sleep.
Create a Wind-Down Routine for Naps and Bedtime Routine for the Night.
Newborns and infants thrive off of routines. If a baby knows what to expect, he is less likely to protest the activity and feels safe and confident while doing it. This goes across the board, but especially when it comes to sleep.
Your bedtime routine can include anything. All that matters is that you do the same sequence of events EVERY SINGLE NIGHT (and before every nap). In the newborn period, our routine included a bath, lotion, fresh diaper, pajamas, swaddle, nurse, book, lullaby, into bed. We did that routine every night and sure enough after 2-3 nights, our girls were yawning and rubbing eyes by the time they got out of the bath.
Set up Their Environment for Success
Newborns are notorious for being able to fall asleep anywhere, but around 3-4 months of age is where we start to see a shift in this behavior. They become aware of their environment which ultimately means distracted by their surroundings.
If you want a successful nap, then set them up for success by using blackout curtains and white noise. By blackout curtains, I mean a pitch black Vegas hotel room dark (yes that dark, yes for all naps and overnight). White noise will drown out other sounds happening in the home/sleep space. Make sure it plays throughout the entire sleep period and doesn’t shut off.
Follow Age-Appropriate Awake Windows
This is the biggest issue I see when working with new clients. Their baby is awake for too long, making them over-tired by nap or bedtime. Newborn babies are happy to be awake for about 45-60 minutes before needing a nap, while a 4-month-old baby likes to be awake for about 1.5 hours. These windows increase with age so be mindful that your baby isn’t too overtired.
Utilize the Eat / Play / Sleep Rhythm
When a newborn is used to falling asleep while nursing, it’s usually all they know and haven’t been exposed to another way of falling asleep. What can be helpful to shift the rhythm is start offering a feeding as soon as the baby wakes up from a nap or their night. Feeding them first thing increases the likelihood that they fall asleep eating since they just woke up, and won’t be hungry enough to nurse by the time the next nap comes around.
Be in Control of Nursing
If you are nursing your baby before bed, keep a close eye on their face. As soon as you start to see them falling asleep or their sucking is no longer nutritive, go ahead and unlatch them.
Your baby will either pull off and be content, at which point you can transfer them to the crib, or they will cry and be upset. If they are upset, tell them “if you are falling asleep I will put you in bed, if you want to eat you can finish” and then re-latch them.
You may need to go through this cycle a dozen or more times, but it will become clear to your baby that you are no longer allowing them to fall asleep on the breast.
Make Sure Their Eyes are Open When Placing Them in the Crib
The goal is to put them in bed more awake than completely asleep on the breast. So make sure their eyes are open when being placed in bed and they are aware of where they are when falling asleep.
Gradually Wean from the Amount of Touch
When placing baby in the crib awake, you don’t have to just place them in the middle of the crib and walk away hoping they fall asleep. You can still provide assistance.
Once you lay them down, continue to hover over them, keeping your arms wrapped around them and perhaps your face is close to theirs. You can rub their head, pat their chest, whatever makes them feel comfortable.
If they fall asleep with their full weight being supported by the crib, even though you’re touching them, this is progress and a huge step in the right direction. Gradually reduce the amount of touch or pressure you are given every few nights until you are completely out of their room.
Utilize the Soothing Hierarchy
Once you have placed the baby down for a nap or bedtime and they begin to protest, avoid jumping in and going right back to nursing. See if you can get them back down giving less help than nursing.
Perhaps it is your presence, your voice, a pacifier, head rubbing/chest patting, or rocking that soothes baby back down. If this is the case, again it is a huge step in the right direction because you’ve gotten baby back to sleep without nursing!
Be Strong Mama
This transition away from nursing to sleep can take a while, and that’s okay. There is no rush to do it until you are ready. Remember to stay as calm and neutral as possible since your baby can sense and feel your emotions. Feeling confident and at ease during the transition will help to transfer those feelings to your baby.