How Do I Stop Breastfeeding To Sleep?

Mum question:I have spent the first few months of my daughter’s life feeding her to sleep and it works well but now I’m worried I’ll be doing forever! I am starting back at work in a couple of months so I would like to start gradually changing this habit so that she will be able to sleep when I am not there. Can you suggest how I approach this?

Pinky says: There are some magical chemicals in breast-milk that help babies fall asleep easily, as you have discovered. So, firstly, advice that letting your baby fall asleep on the breast will create ‘bad habits’ or that he will never learn to ‘self settle’ is simply untrue: it is the most natural thing in the world for a relaxed baby and mother to snuggle and doze together as they breastfeed.

However, it is very sensible that you are thinking ahead and wanting to make changes gradually with love, not suddenly by implementing sleep training that involves tears (for both of you – you will miss these delicious snuggles too!). Also, as long as your daughter has some other sleep cues besides breastfeeding, when you return to work, your baby sitter will be able to help her sleep because the carer won’t smell like breastmilk. This means you can still use breastfeeding to help your baby relax and get to sleep when you are with her and need this magic tool, especially during the night when everyone needs to get back to sleep as easily as possible.

 'Baby steps' to making changes

To ‘wean’ your baby off needing to be rocked or fed to sleep, you can use a ‘baby steps’ approach. Firstly, work out a realistic goal, then ‘reverse engineer’ that so you start changing one ‘baby step’ at a time, working towards your ‘goal’.

For instance, start by introducing a more easily discarded cue as you feed your baby to sleep, such as gentle music  (it's available on itunes) or a ‘sleepy song’. Simply swapping one cue for another will be confusing and your baby won’t know what to expect so the idea is to ‘overlay’ the new cue (the music). Play the music on a low volume without making any other changes to your bedtime routine for at least a week.

Regardless of promises on CD labels, it will take your baby 7 to 10 days to ‘condition’ him to any music, and you want a positive association with this new routine. Going too quickly can be stressful to your baby, especially when you have worked so hard to make sleep time a calm and positive experience. 

After a week, keep playing the music, but remove your baby from the breast before he falls asleep, just holding him until he dozes off. If he is upset, pop him back on the breast or rock a little until he settles, then try again.

Tip: as you remove your baby from the breast, press your fingers under his chin and gently hold his mouth closed – he will suck on his tongue a moment and relax, instead of grasping for the breast again.

Once your baby is happily falling asleep in your arms without being fed /rocked to sleep, the next step is to breastfeed him then pop him in his cot drowsy but awake. Keep your hand on him firmly (patting is usually too stimulating) and gently rock him a little if this seems to help.

When baby is settling at this step, you can start moving the bedtime breastfeed back a little and pop him into the cot with his music playing. If he gets upset, always move back a step until he is ready to move forward.

This gentle approach can be used whenever you want to make changes, whatever these are – whether you want to ease off rocking or feeding your baby to sleep or if you have used a dummy and want to discard this. Remember the mantra, ‘gradually with love’ and plan backwards from your goal, then work out baby steps and implement these, one at a time.