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Yes, You Can Wean Your Baby When You're Breastfeeding To Sleep — Here's How

Perhaps the only issue that draws more heated discussion among parenting "experts" than babies and sleep is breastfeeding. Try to talk about how to wean from breastfeeding when you're using it as a tool to help get your baby to sleep and a quick Google search will prove what a tricky topic this can be.

First off, even though my children are 16 and 12 now, I can very distinctly remember being told as a young mom that nursing my babies to sleep was a no-no, and something I'd definitely regret later. I had a very difficult pregnancy with my older son, and he was also extremely difficult to get to sleep... except when I nursed him until he relented. I couldn't imagine how anything that worked so well and felt so natural could be so wrong, so I did it anyway, which, as it turns out, is A-OK, according to Kelly Bonyata, BS, IBCLC.

"Many mothers feel guilty for breastfeeding their baby for comfort or as they drift off to sleep. Breastfeeding your child to sleep and for comfort is not a bad thing to do — in fact, it’s normal, healthy, and developmentally appropriate," Bonyata tells Romper. "Many children, if given the choice, prefer to nurse to sleep through the second year and beyond. I’ve never seen a convincing reason why mothers shouldn’t use this wonderful tool that we’ve been given."

"Breastfeeding is amazing and a wonderful tool to get baby to sleep," agrees Briana Violand, IBCLC, CSC, of Northcoast Lactation and Sleep Services. "Only when mom is ready to wean is it time," she says.

There are some experts, even in this day and age, who still beg to differ. Of course, there's the self-soothing crowd, who are insistent that babies need to learn how to get themselves to sleep. Babies wake often during the night, after all. "When a baby knows how to self-soothe and falls asleep independently, she wakes in the night, checks her surroundings, and finding nothing to be alarmed about, she goes back to sleep without needing our help," says Alice Callahan, Ph.D., the author of The Science of Mom. "The research on sleep training shows that when babies are given a chance to go to sleep on their own, even when that comes with some crying, they learn to self-soothe remarkably quickly."

Research from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard disagrees, however. It's developmentally not possible for infants to self-settle because their brains are just not developed enough to enable them to do so. Did I mention development? It's a developmental thing!

With that myth cleared up — seriously, it has been dogging me for more than a decade now — what happens when you've put this tool to good use like I did, but the time to wean has come? I loved everything about breastfeeding: I loved the sense of closeness with my baby, the feeling of bonding, the feeling of empowerment that I got when I thought about not only having produced this tiny human but serving pretty much as his sole source of nourishment for more than a year. I always had food handy for the baby and never had to worry about packing it or whether it was at the right temperature.

I chose to wean each of my boys when they were around 2 years old; that was the right time for us, and every mom is different. I got lucky, and for me, making the transition from nursing the baby to sleep to getting the baby to sleep on his own wasn't that hard. It can be done: here are some tips from the certified experts, and a few thrown in from a certifiable expert — me.


Make Sure That Your Baby's Bedtime Routine Is On Point

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Before you start weaning, take a look at your bedtime routine. Chances are that as a breastfeeding mom, you may not have focused on a whole bedtime routine much because you had all the magic potion you needed to get your baby to sleep. I can remember feeling almost cocky about this and airplane travel when my kids were little — as long as I could nurse them, they were perfect little angels. Violand says that preparation pays off.

"You want to make sure that you're doing everything you can to set up the ideal sleep environment for your baby," she says. "Make sure the room your baby is sleeping in is very dark. And swaddle the baby — babies are born with a natural startle reflex, and you may not be swaddling them while you're nursing, but when you start weaning them off nursing, you want to prevent those jerky movements that might wake them when they're in the light phase of sleep." Violand says white noise machines can also help emulate the noisiness of the womb.


Go Slowly But Surely — For Yourself

Expert Violand cautions that regardless of whether you've been nursing your baby to sleep or not, the weaning process needs to be conducted on a taper. "I would first recommend a slow, gradual weaning process, which could take anywhere from two to three weeks," she says. "We want to slow her milk production to prevent breast engorgement and/or mastitis."

Violand recommends reducing the number of feedings you're giving your baby at the breast by one every three or four days so that your body gets the signal that it doesn't need to produce as much milk anymore. If you feel uncomfortable during this process, express enough milk to the point that you're comfortable, but not completely empty. "Make sure to give extra focused attention, cuddles, rocking, and love during this process to help baby during this transition," Violand adds.


Go Slowly But Surely — For Your Baby

Your baby needs a taper, too — a relaxation taper. "Try transitioning from breastfeeding your child totally to sleep, to breastfeeding him almost asleep, then to just really relaxed, and then eventually to no breastfeeding at all to go to sleep," suggests Bonyata. "The process may take a long time, or it may not. If you’ll start out taking it as gradually as you possibly can, it will probably work better and you’ll avoid possible problems and frustrations for both you and your baby."

Violand suggests feeding the baby earlier in the bedtime routing, a suggestion that can be used on its own or paired with Bonyata's. Try nursing until the baby is almost asleep, then rock and sing a lullaby, if the reverse has previously been true. Make sure that it is easy to move the baby from where you are to where he'll be sleeping, and Bonyata suggests that something with your scent on it nearby may also be helpful.


Get Your Partner Involved In The Bedtime Routine

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If you have a partner there at home at bedtime, now's the time to get them involved, the experts say. Along with tapering off nursing and moving nursing to earlier in the bedtime routine, your partner can take the last step in the comfort process. Give him or her the baby when he's at his most drowsy, along with a t-shirt you've been wearing, if necessary, so that your smell will still be present as a source of comfort.

Alternately, you can get your partner involved in playing a more prominent role. Pump some breast milk and prepare a bottle, then when it comes to the time in your baby's bedtime routine that you'd normally nurse, give him a cuddle and tell him goodnight, then step out of the room and let your partner feed him the bottle instead. The bottle should be fed up until the baby is almost asleep, and then follow the steps noted above in the relaxation taper.


Swap One Cue For Another

Try to get your baby to associate a different "cue" other than nursing with falling asleep, ideally something someone other than you can replicate in instances where you're not present. Best-selling baby care author Pinky McKay suggests playing gentle music at a low volume while nursing, then after a few days of your baby becoming accustomed to the music gently removing your baby from your breast a few minutes before he's sound asleep. "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," McKay recommends. Keep repeating this, gradually decreasing the amount of time you are breastfeeding and always using the same music, taking it at your baby's pace. Soon, it will be the music he is associating with bedtime, not the breastfeeding.


Remember: It's Only For A Short Time

At the end of the day, as you try these techniques, keep in mind that your baby is only a baby for a very short time. Infancy, and in particular, the amount of time you spend breastfeeding during infancy, can feel like it's going to just last forever... especially on one of those long nights when you feel as though you're going to be the human pacifier for the rest of your life. My boys' pediatrician used to tell me the following when I'd be concerned about their bedwetting: "Do you think they're going to be having problems with bedwetting when they get married?" Her point was that of course it will resolve, and so will any difficulties you may have with weaning... sometimes you just have to be patient.