How do I stop breastfeeding my baby 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. .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 too get back to sleep as easily as possible.

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  and ‘sleepy words’. 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.

Pinky McKay is an internationally certified Lactation Consultant and best-selling babycare author. Her new revised version of Sleeping Like a Baby is available in print and audio.

  1. JJ's mum says

    This could not have come at a better timing! I’m trying to wean my 15 month old off his night time feeds but it’s the only thing that’ll put him to sleep!
    He’s bed is side car’ed our bed. I put him in his bed after he falls asleep. But by 1am onwards, he’s back in our bed wanting a feed/comfort nurse and this goes on till 8am and it’s killing me!! I have not rest because he’s constant latched on throughout the night.
    So I tried to wean him off cold turkey by taking him to his cot to CIO (which I HATE doing) but that doesn’t end well because I get upset and so does my husband (and of course my LO too) This happened last night and everyone was in tears at like 3am 🙁

    Thanks for this. I’ll try to do this as I have no clue what I’m doing.

  2. Vanessa says

    Thank you so much for this advice! My son is five weeks old and he either falls asleep at my breast or in my arms. I had started to worry about how to move from this to him falling asleep in his bassinet.

    I no longer feel like I’m doing the wrong thing and setting us both up for stress and tears down the track!

  3. JenV says

    That was a very nice article, and very good advice. However, your baby will do just fine with the really don’t have to wean from the breast to get your baby to go to sleep at daycare. Your milk has wonderful ingredients that will nurture your baby, not only with the nutrients, but with the love that you give while you nurse. Please don’t give that up because you *think* your baby will not sleep without nursing first. Babies are very adaptive, and s/he will adjust to life at daycare without you. My advise is to nurse until your baby doesn’t want to any more (although I know that is not feasible for every one). Good job, Mama, and keep up the good work!

  4. Amy says

    I want to gradually reduce Breastfeeding to sleep for my 15 month old but he breastfeeds to sleep all night long. What can I substitute for music as I don’t want to play music all night?

  5. Rolene says

    I might give that a go too , my 10 month old will only fall asleep when I feed him and I’ll put him in his cot but a few hours later he’s in my bed for the rest of the night , he’s not drinking all night but just wants to suck but won’t have a dummy , I don’t want to stop breast feeding but he’s had teeth since 6 months and he’s a biter (ouch) and he will not have formula at all , I’v tried expressed milk in a bottle and he happy with that but he won’t have it to go to sleep , he’s also baby number 6 and the others were not this fussy

  6. Mumma2one says

    My 17mo is not fully dependant on it anymore she will feed before sleep but lots of the time ESP her arvo sleep she will feed to sleep. We are going be I to work in Jan and she is coming with me, I work in childcare she will be in my room what approach do you think I should take? I haven’t broached the subject that I feed her cos it hadn’t come up. Just wondering if I should make any changes now to make is easier for her. It’s a bit of a conflict in my head cos I don’t want to change anything.

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Pinky McKay's Weaning With Love eBook

Welcome to ‘Weaning with love’. Whether you are choosing to wean from breast to bottle or you are happy to breastfeed until your nursing baby becomes a walking, talking toddler and initiates weaning by him or herself, or something in between, you will find tips to make this process as easy on you and your little one as possible.