Effective Strategies To Help Your Baby Fall Asleep Without Feeding

Baby and mum on bed at night having a breastfeed and feeding to sleep when mum would prefer to stop feeding to sleep

Let me begin by saying that there is absolutely nothing wrong with feeding to sleep. Feeding and sleeping go hand in hand when your baby is born, it’s a great way to connect and it’s normal to feed them until they naturally drift off.

Babies are naturally inclined to fall asleep while breastfeeding. This normal behaviour is largely driven by a hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK), which induces feelings of fullness and sleepiness. As soon as your baby begins to suck, CCK is released in their gut, promoting sleepiness. Younger babies tend to have higher levels of CCK, making it more challenging to keep them awake during feeding.

However, what can happen is that a few months down the line, feeding to sleep is the only way your baby knows how to fall asleep and back to sleep. The repeated continuation of this one way of settling (and of course you are going to do whatever is easiest, quickest and gets everyone the most sleep) creates a neural pathway in the brain and they begin to expect it and refuse to accept other ways of settling. Parents feel trapped in this cycle that was once working well but now means that the breastfeeding parent is doing all the settling often for multiple wakes every night and is feeling sleep-deprived.

It is understandable that when the breastfeeding parent is returning to work or parental leave is switching over that parents are looking to make a change away from feeding to sleep and help their baby accept alternative ways of settling. This also allows the breastfeeding more freedom to work late or be out for an evening without worrying that their baby will be unable to fall asleep.

When should you stop feeding to sleep?

You should only stop feeding to sleep when it is no longer working for you or is no longer sustainable. For example, if your baby is constantly waking up throughout the night needing to be fed to fall back to sleep, it can be physically and mentally draining on the parent. When your baby is used to falling asleep in other ways, they tend to start sleeping in longer stretches. Please note, if feeding to sleep is working well for you, there is no need to change anything. Please keep doing it!

Stopping feeding to sleep is also not necessary if you are only doing it because you are worried that your child will not be able to fall asleep at daycare or nursery. It is highly likely that your child will fall asleep in a completely different way at daycare. Most parents are surprised when they are able to fall asleep in a way that they have never done at home.

How to stop feeding your baby to sleep:

Fortunately, there are effective strategies to help your baby fall asleep without relying on feeding, promoting longer sleep stretches and giving everyone a better night’s rest. The exact strategy will very much depend on your baby’s temperament, but the following three steps work well for most babies:

  1. Start with bedtime

Bedtime is the easiest time to fall asleep; it is the end of the day, your body has high sleep pressure and melatonin starts to be released. Sleep associations at bedtime can have a significant impact on expectations and needs through the night. Once babies learn to fall asleep without so much assistance at bedtime, they are likely to have fewer night wakings and will naturally need less support in the middle of the night to get back to sleep.

To stop feeding to sleep at bedtime in a gentle way, you will need to change the order of the bedtime routine. In order for your baby to be awake at the end of the bedtime routine, you will need to move the feed earlier in the routine either before or after the bath and keep the lights on so that your baby understands that this is feeding time not sleeping time. You will then support your baby to sleep after their usual bedtime routine with other settling methods such as cuddling, patting, rocking, walking around or whatever works. Soothing music, dim lighting, a comforter or white noise may also be helpful.

  1. Involve your partner

Now you have moved the bedtime feed to earlier in the routine, getting your little one used to being settled by someone else will be extremely helpful. It is common for babies to find it easier to accept a different settling method when a different person is helping them fall asleep. If your baby is finding this difficult, you can start this process by doing a top up feed at the end of the bedtime routine to help them feel sleepy and then let your partner finish off bedtime with a story or lullaby before cuddling them to sleep. Your baby may fuss and protest at first but eventually with some consistency, they will get the hang of it. This process is not suitable for every temperament and for some babies, having this sort of transition during bedtime is more unsettling for them.

  1. Make further changes step-by-step

Once your baby is falling asleep without feeding, you can start to make gradual changes to how they are falling asleep at bedtime and back to sleep in the night. You will shift from strong sleep associations (with you doing all the work for them) such as feeding or rocking to sleep to simpler sleep associations that do not rely so heavily on you such as cuddling a comforter, white noise, shushing, or stroking.

The idea is to make gradual steps to go from rocking to your child falling asleep in their own sleep space. This could be in their cot or a floorbed. Changing sleep associations does not happen overnight but by making consistent small steps over a period of time. It requires patience and consistency. Stick to your routine and strategies even if progress seems slow. Your baby will eventually learn new sleep associations. When your baby is able to fall asleep more independently at bedtime, they will be much more likely to do this when they wake in the night without a need. Remember, it is normal for babies to wake in the night but this allows them to connect their sleep cycles when they are stirring and just want to be back asleep without relying on you to do this for them every time.

Conclusion

Moving away from feeding to sleep is an achievable goal that can lead to better sleep for both you and your baby. By establishing a consistent bedtime routine and gradually shifting to more independent sleep associations your baby will adapt to the changes and start sleeping for long stretches at night. Remember to be patient and seek support if needed. Many parents that I work with who are looking to move away from feeding to sleep often say that they have tried everything and their baby just screams when they do something different. However, when they set themselves up to win and follow these steps, alongside my support, they are able to change these habits.

I hope you have found this blog helpful. If you’re ready to make changes and start improving your little one’s sleep, please book a free discovery call with me. I would love to find out if we are a good fit for working together.