How to Stop Nursing Your Baby To Sleep

Tired mother holding her baby

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Nursing a baby until they fall soundly asleep in your arms is one of the most magical moments of early parenthood. However, as your baby grows, they can become reliant on that pre-bedtime feed in order to drop off to sleep. This is referred to as a feed-to-sleep or nursing-to-sleep association and it can result in disrupted sleep for everyone.

The feed-to-sleep association may work well for many families. While others may choose to implement a few changes to optimize their sleep schedules and teach their baby to self soothe. If you're interested in breaking the feed-to-sleep cycle, we've outlined a guide below.

Feeding a Newborn to Sleep

For newborns, falling asleep either during or after being fed is a natural response to a full tummy of warm milk. Studies even show that breastmilk expressed during the evening contains higher levels of naturally occurring sleep-inducing chemicals than in the day. In theory, this biologically supports the idea that milk can be used as a way to wind down.

“Many young infants find nursing very soothing and a great time to bond with mom,” says Sujay Kansagra, MD and director of the Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program at Duke University Medical Center.

As babies in the newborn stage are awake for such a short amount of time–approximately just an hour in the very beginning—feeding can take up two-thirds of that small window. It is typical to nurse a newborn to sleep for the first couple of months of their life, says Susie Menkes, PhD, CPSC, CCBS, a certified pediatric sleep specialist at Healthy Little Sleepers.

What Is a Feed-to-Sleep Association?

As babies get older, they may still fall asleep while nursing. This is normal, says Dr. Menkes. However, if they are only able to go to sleep with the aid of milk, then your baby may have developed a feed-to-sleep association. This is a term that describes the baby’s reliance on receiving milk as a crucial pre-sleep step.

“This means the child associates the process of falling asleep with nursing, and will require nursing every time he or she wakes at night in order to get back to sleep,” explains Dr. Kansagra. He notes that a sleep association occurs once the infant is older than 4 to 6 months of age, at which point they undergo a developmental leap

However, a feed-to-sleep association is still only a problem if the child wakes multiple times a night because they don’t know how to self soothe back to sleep. “In this situation, the infant is often not hungry, just using nursing to soothe to sleep," continues Dr. Kansagra. "It can cause frequent awakenings and disrupted sleep for both infant and mom."

Furthermore, when a baby falls asleep on a parent but then wakes up in their crib, they are likely going to be startled and confused. “They will cry to get that thing that helped them to sleep in the first place,” says Dr. Menkes.

Parents will often respond to their baby crying out or making noises in the night by assuming they need to be fed when they might not. “This becomes a cycle and as a result [the baby] ends up being fed four or six times a night to go back to sleep, and no one is getting any real rest," Dr. Menkes explains.

How to Break the Feed-to-Sleep Habit

Feeding a baby to sleep is an easy pattern to fall into especially when you’re operating on little to no sleep. Unless your baby learns to fall asleep without the aid of milk, you could be setting yourself up for sleepless nights for the foreseeable future. Thankfully, there are ways to break the habit.

  • Feed your baby at the beginning of the bedtime routine
  • Put your baby to bed drowsy but not asleep
  • Don’t go cold-turkey if your baby currently wakes between four to six times a night
  • Don’t panic if your baby falls asleep during a night feed. Establishing a good bedtime routine is the most important step
  • Your baby will likely protest against any new routine, but consistency is key

First, try moving your bedtime feed to before bath time or to a different room instead of the nursery, says Dr. Menkes. “Ideally, the feeding [should not be] the last thing that happens right before sleep,” she says.

While every baby and every family is different, if your baby currently wakes between four and six times a night, Dr. Menkes advises against going cold-turkey on all the nighttime feeds. “I am less concerned with the middle of the night than at the beginning of the night when working on breaking this association,” she says. She also says that it is ideal to put your baby to bed while they are awake but drowsy, though this isn’t as important in the middle of the night.

But be warned, your baby will likely object to this change in their routine via the most powerful communication tool they have—crying. The older they are, the harder they might put up a fight.

While your instinct might be to fix the problem, you can reassure and soothe them without succumbing to feeding them. “The upset you hear is out of mere protest because things are different," says Dr. Menkes.

She maintains that you are not harming them or traumatizing them by refusing to feed them. "You can even be holding your baby and not feeding them, and they will still be upset," she says. "It is OK. The best thing you can do if you are ready to make this change is to be consistent for them. Your consistency builds trust because there will be fewer mixed messages.”

If you would prefer to break the feed to sleep association more gradually, Dr. Menkes recommends feeding while introducing other sleep associations, such as patting or rubbing their back or making reassuring noises. Then you can gradually remove the feeding but continue with the other methods, before gradually removing those also.

Establishing Good Sleep Habits

Of course, the easiest way to break the feed to sleep association is by not forming one at all. “Sleep associations can begin very early in infancy,” says Dr. Kansagra. “The goal even when a child is young is to allow them to fall asleep on their own when drowsy. This helps teach self-soothing skills.”

You can do this by establishing a positive nighttime routine that lasts around 20 to 30 minutes and begins with a feeding, says Dr. Kansagra. “This can be followed by bath and other calming activities, followed by bed. If feeding is done too late, the child is already quite sleepy and it's very common for an infant to fall asleep while feeding.”

Dr. Menkes agrees that a great pre-sleep routine starts with a feed, preferably in a different room to the one they will sleep in. The last step before sleep could be a lullaby or, for older children, a book. “Changing up the order of things can make a world of difference,” she concludes.

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4 Sources
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