I have consulted with many mothers who ask me how they can move away from the wonderful practice of breastfeeding their toddler to sleep at night.
Breastfeeding to sleep is a beautiful thing and something that many mothers enjoy doing well into toddlerhood (and sometimes beyond!)
However, some mothers get to the stage where they would prefer their toddler to fall asleep without breastfeeding. Some also decide that they would like to start the process of night weaning, or weaning completely.
This can be a good first step in gentle weaning.
If you feel that you would like to move away from breastfeeding your toddler to sleep, then this guide may be helpful for you. If you would like to discuss gently weaning your toddler in more detail, you can book a weaning consultation with me here.
First of all, before following this guide, it is important that your toddler is at the stage in their development where they can comprehend what you are telling them. Depending on their communication skills, some toddlers will be more comfortable with this process earlier than others.
Secondly, it is worth mentioning that you can stop breastfeeding to sleep at night, but continue for naps during the day.
And perhaps most importantly, before you make these changes make sure that you are truly ready to move away from breastfeeding to sleep. It's OK if you are! But make sure this is your decision, and not a choice you are making due to outside pressure from family, friends or health professionals.
If you ARE ready to gently stop breastfeeding your toddler to sleep at night, then read on...
Start getting your toddler used to you putting a time limit on the occasional feed. This is useful anyway, especially if they have a tendency to want to feed just as you’re trying to leave the house. I think setting a 5 second limit is reasonable: “ok, you can have some milk now, but only for 5 seconds and then we have to put on your shoes and leave to go to the shops…. Alright, mummy is going to count now. 1… 2… 3… 4… 5!
Once you finish counting, encourage your toddler to say “bye-bye” to the milk (or whatever you call it!): “okay, all done. Let’s say bye-bye to the milk for now, and get those shoes on…”
You can also start using this strategy if the feed is going on for a long period of time, and you are ready to move on to the next activity: “alright sweetie, I know you’re enjoying your milk but we need to go do some other things now. Have 5 more seconds and then we will say bye-bye to the milk. 1…2…”
Once your toddler becomes comfortable with the process of the feed ending after you set a time limit, then you can start introducing this at bedtime. Explain during the day that the milk is going to feel tired and need to go to sleep, and that once he has finished his drink, you will cuddle him to sleep instead.
Complete your evening routine as you normally would and then lie down with your toddler in bed. As you start to feed him, explain to him that the milk is very tired and once he has finished his drink, you’re both going to say goodnight to the milk.
Let him continue his drink as usual. Once his sucking starts to slow down and you can tell he is close to sleep, say: “okay my love, it’s time to say goodnight to the milk, because the milk is tired and wants to go to sleep. 5 more seconds, and then we will say goodnight.”
Slowly count to 5 and then tell your toddler to say goodnight, and ask if he would like to have a quick drink from the other side before saying goodnight to that side too.
Let him have a few more sucks on the other side, then tell him it’s time to say goodnight to the milk. Count to 5 again, then say: “that’s enough, no more milk. Let’s say goodnight to the milk and cuddle.”
He may object to begin with. This is normal because this is a new process for him. Be gentle. If he refuses to let go of your nipple, try again: “okay, you’re not ready to say goodnight to the milk yet, that’s okay. Let’s try again in a moment… Alright now, 5 more seconds and then that’s enough, time to say goodnight…”
Try again. And again. If he is getting too upset, just let him fall asleep at the breast and try again the following night. How long this process takes depends a lot on the temperament of the child. It is important that you remain calm and try not to get frustrated. This is a big thing and a huge change for your toddler!
When you get to a point where he comes off happily, cuddle him and tell him that you love him. Cover your breasts to minimise access. Your toddler may reach for them again. If he does, gently stop him and tell him: “shhh, the milk is sleeping now, remember? It’s time for you to go to sleep too. I’m going to cuddle you until you’re asleep.”
Empathise with his feelings which may manifest as anger. Keep yourself calm. Your toddler needs to know that he is still safe in this situation.
Go SLOWLY! This process is only gentle if it is slow and at a pace that your toddler can handle. There is no need to rush this. The process may ebb and flow. Setbacks, due to illness, travel or other changes are OK. Slow and steady wins the race.
Once your toddler is used to not sucking at the breast to fall asleep, you can move that last breastfeed of the day either into a different room, or earlier in your bedtime routine to further separate it from your sleep space.
With the association of falling asleep at the breast replaced with cuddles, if you have always been the one to put your child to sleep, you can now start to experiment with dad cuddling your toddler to sleep instead, if you choose.
Some toddlers will start to have a longer block of sleep at the start of the night, once they are comfortable falling asleep without sucking at the breast. Good luck!
Georgina Dowden is a mother, midwife and lactation consultant (IBCLC).
In her day to day life, she looks after her two beautiful children and also supports other families on their parenting journey.
If you would like to get in touch sleep/settling support, click here:
Home visits for breastfeeding support available if you live in the Northern Rivers of NSW.