Dr. Sarah Mitchell
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How to Stop Nursing to Sleep: Disassociate Nursing and Sleeping

We think that sleep should be this beautiful, natural, instinctual thing that just happens.

The drive to sleep is a biological, physiological process. Our body needs sleep to survive.  The way we sleep it's actually a learned habit. 

Think about yourself. If I said to you tonight you couldn't sleep in your favorite position and I'm gonna take away your pillow, you're gonna toss and turn tonight.  You will be frustrated, but you will learn a new way of falling asleep. Sleep is a learned habit. 

This is what your little person will go through if you feel like you need to change the way they fall asleep because it’s becoming too hard to sustain. 

This unsustainable way of falling asleep might be nursing or feeding to sleep. It could also be using a pacifier, being held, rocked or co sleeping. There is nothing wrong with nursing to sleep in general. It's just that for many of us it becomes hard to maintain.

I loved nursing my son to sleep, he was so peaceful and beautiful, but then when he woke up every couple hours and needed that same sleep association to fall back to sleep… it was hard to keep going like that. 

At the beginning I kind of loved nursing him to sleep repeatedly in the night because it just felt so natural and like I was meeting his needs.  But then it starts to take a toll because it's so hard to sustain that for so many months on end.

There came a time when I decided that the way we were doing things was no longer working for our family because it was too hard to be the only person who could get him to sleep and too exhausting to maintain it.  For him and for me.

When I looked at my son in the morning he had little bags under his eyes. He was tired because he's waking up so much in the night. I realized I had to teach him a new way to fall asleep. We call it sleep training but if you follow me you know that's a term that I hate because we train our pets, we teach our kids.

To be an independent sleeper, a kiddo needs to develop or learn independent self soothing skills.  With these skills your baby can be put down completely awake they hang out in their crib, they do something self-soothing rubbing their head in the mattress, sucking a thumb, something independent that they can do on their own to relax themselves to sleep so they can repeat that in the night when they wake up -- which all humans do. 

All humans wake up in the night, but not all humans need to call for someone to help them go back to sleep. The kids who do that just don't know that they are capable of being self-sufficient just yet. 

If you’re thinking about teaching your baby to sleep, there are 5 Pillars to the Helping Babies Sleep Method for babies 4 months and older that you need to address.  

Pillar 1:  Understanding that the drive to sleep is biological, but the way we sleep is a learned habit.  Understanding that your child would be frustrated when you try and teach them something new or change the way they're going to fall asleep, especially because they're tired at the time that you are trying to do this. 

Pillar 2: Timing:  Putting kids down too soon or too late can really make it harder for them. You can grab our  sleep summary by age cheat sheet to help you with timing here

Pillar 3: Being an Intentional Feeder.  When I bring out the bottle or the breast, am I offering it for fuel rather than to soothe? Am I getting full feedings in? You want to be an intentional feeder: my child comes to the breast or the bottle, drains one side completely, half the other side, takes those three, four, or five, whatever ounces it is depending on your little person's age.  Then you can use your other parenting tools to help them fall asleep or respond to night waking or being fussy in the daytime. 


A baby being breastfed and nursing to sleep

Pillar 4:  Messaging and Being Consistent.  Do you have a nice little naptime and bedtime routine set up to message that it’s sleeping time.  There is research by Dr. Jodi Mindell that shows that a bedtime routine alone can help reduce night waking.  The first thing that you can do if you're nursing to sleep, is creating your consistent bedtime routine: cueing your child that sleep is coming. This should all happen in the space that they're going to be sleeping ideally, so you might come into the room, you hit your little music player, have a lullaby playing cueing that it's time for sleeping, you might dim the lights setting the stage for sleep, you might lie them down on the change pad change their diaper put them into their pajamas, put them in the sleep sack, and then maybe be reading a book.  Having some winding down time together in the space that they're going to be sleeping. Your feeding would be outside of that. It would be before that bedtime routine. It is not associated with sleeping.  

Pillar 5: Responding.  This is what we teach a step by step approach to inside of Helping Babies Sleep School.  If you take away the nursing, how do you help your little one fall asleep or help them develop self soothing skills.   

What Can You Do To Help Transition Away From Nursing to Sleep? 

Let’s say you’re not ready to do the full sleep teaching yet and putting them down completely awake and helping them develop those self-soothing skills, maybe you substitute that breast or bottle with rocking or bouncing. The catch here is that kids have certain expectations from certain people. I have had a lot of moms come through our school and work with me one-on-one who've had these strong nursing to sleep crutches and for a couple of days what we do is we work on just bouncing or rocking to sleep.  In this time the children might still fuss because you're changing what their expectation is of you.  There are often still some tears but you are offering all your attention and help. 

  1. Your ability to nail timing.  Putting down too soon or too late will make it harder for them. 
  2. Their temperament. Some kids are more flexible to change than others, and you might not know what you have yet. Or maybe you do, and that's why you're continuing to nurse back to sleep! Because it just seems like too hard to change. 

A Transitional Object Can Help 

The other thing you can do is start to promote a transitional object. What's the purpose of these?  Many babies have a sucking association with sleep.  So they might start to suck on the little ears of this bunny or they might rub it on their face similar to how they might rub their face against your chest when nursing. There's a lot of sensory things associated with sleeping. You want to be thinking about how can I recreate those to make change less dramatic, per se? How well they accept this is dependent on their personality.  Some kids are more flexible to change than others, some kids will not take to that levee until they realize the boob or the bottle is just no longer available. 

Include Your Partner

It might be too hard for your child to be so close to you and not nursing. You might have your partner work on bouncing or rocking to sleep for some time to help break the nursing to sleep association.  

If you feel like I don't even want to do rocking anymore, I really want to help them develop those self-soothing skills, this is what we teach to babies 4 months and older inside our Helping Babies Sleep School.  For newborns we teach you how to still help them but avoid the transfer to the crib or bassinet which often starts to wear off. 

Our method is much more in-depth, because how long do you let them cry for? How do you know if the cries are normal, right? What's your plan B? What's the worst case scenario? How long should I let this go before I pick them up, or try to sue them, and try again? 

We have all of that available to you if you're looking for more directives and want to implement the five pillars of the Helping Babies Sleep Method in full. 

You can also check out these videos related to Nursing to Sleep and Bottle Fed Kids or Breast Fed Kids & Sleep.

Will bottle-fed kids or breast-fed kids sleep longer sooner?

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