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Sleep-training and Breastfeeding? Advice from Babble’s Parental Advisory, by the “From the Hips” experts.

How do I get my nine-month-old to sleep without nursing? I taught my daughter how to nurse lying down so that I could get a little doze in while breastfeeding. However, it has segued into only nursing while we are lying down. I’m not sure how that happened, but nursing has become exclusively a pre-naptime activity, not to mention one that only happens in my bed. Up until now, I didn’t mind, but it is becoming apparent that we need a change. How do I teach her to fall asleep on her own without undue stress? – Rockabye Booby 

Dear Rockabye,

Practically every nursing mother we know has been in your situation. Yes, people suggest avoiding an association between feeding and sleep. And, yes, with work, it can be done. But the fact is, breastfeeding is a damn good way to get your baby to sleep. It’s fast, it’s easy, it’s quiet, and it goes anywhere your boobs do. And as an added bonus (or not, depending), it helps you fall asleep, too. And when you’re feeding around the clock, being able to sleep while you feed (or at least immediately after) is a big help. So it’s no wonder that breastfeeding often becomes the preferred sleep-inducing activity for babies and their mothers.

This is a set-up some can live with indefinitely, but more often than not, somebody (usually the somebody with the boobs) gets sick of it. And it seems you’re at that point. But before we say anything else, let’s just talk a bit about the idea of “undue stress.” Most babies are not overly fond of change. Doing things differently than they’re used to will upset them (at least at first). It may not be possible (in fact, we’d bet on it) to teach your baby to lose the means of falling asleep she’s been used to her entire life without resistance – which translates to crying. Whether the crying is stress, undue stress or just a normal, angry (totally acceptable) initial response to something new is hard to say. If you can accept some temporary dissatisfaction on her part, here are some ways to make the change:

If you want to keep nursing but not nursing to sleep, it’s probably a good idea to try to move the nursing out of bed, at least part of the time. She’ll struggle at first, but chances are as long as she’s still getting the boob, she’ll eventually accept the change of locale.

If you want her to fall asleep without nursing, you’ll need to sub in another sleep-inducing maneuver: rocking, massaging back, darkened room, white-noise machine, music, stuffed doll or “transitional object” of some kind, endless, lilting, repetitive lullabies, or all of the above. Maybe you’ll invent some new mesmerizing trick on the fly. It won’t work at first. She’ll cry. But eventually (and we’re talking days, not hours), she’s likely to realize that she’s not going to get the nipple back just yet and she may as well give up and go to sleep.

In the short term, this will be more trouble in all ways. But you’re aiming for a sleep routine that will ultimately be less work than breastfeeding. If you stick to a plan, you might just cultivate a Pavlovian response and eventually be able to sneak out after a couple bars of “Hush Little Baby” or whatever it is you’re doing. You can also get someone else involved. Breastfed babies do develop non-breastfeeding sleep associations when they’re with others. This at least opens up her repertoire of sleep-associations. Eventually you can attempt to do what the others do. Though mommy and her milk can be hard to resist.

We do not make light of this process. It’s hard. It’s so hard, in fact, that many mothers decide to just forget it and stick with the boob for another month, or year, or whatever it takes. Others go the opposite route and do hard-core sleep-training so they can leave the room during the tears. Either way, change will cause your baby some angst. The question you want to ask yourself is whether it’s worth it. Do you feel better about keeping things the way they are than making her deal with the change? Or vice versa? Is the stress undue, or overdue?

Have a question? Email parentaladvisory@babble.com
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