The first few weeks of your baby’s life can be beautiful. But there’s no denying that, for many new mums, postpartum can be exhausting. Your body will still be recovering from the birth, your baby won’t yet have a stable sleep cycle, and on top of all this, you’ll have to navigate the challenges of breastfeeding.

Some mums nurse their babies to sleep. Nursing comforts newborns, so feeding can be an effective way to encourage them to sleep. But you might wonder if this is sustainable. If your baby won’t drop off without feeding now, what will happen as they grow older? Will they always need feeding right before bed?

What is the Breastfeeding Sleep Association?

Breastfeeding doesn’t just nourish your baby. It comforts them too. In fact, the milk you produce in the evening can contain certain chemicals, such as melatonin, to soothe and induce sleep. So it’s only natural for babies to fall asleep during, or after, breastfeeding. But some babies develop a sort of dependency on feeding, to the extent that they simply cannot, or will not, sleep without feeding first.

This is known as the breastfeeding sleep association – where babies develop a habit that means they can only sleep after nursing.

Why Can the Breastfeeding Sleep Association be Problematic?

This can be problematic for a number of reasons. First of all, it can mean that your baby will cry for milk not necessarily because they’re hungry, but because they’re tired. It can also mean that, if they wake up in the middle of the night, they won’t drop off again without a feeding. And what if you don’t have any milk at this time?

Is Nursing to Sleep a Bad Habit?

Not necessarily! As we said above, your breastmilk comforts your baby as it nourishes them. Plus, day or night, babies almost always fall asleep quickly when they’re feeding. This is due to the combination of the comforting chemicals we mentioned with the comfort they get from just being close to you. The rhythmic action of sucking may also help them drift off.

Some mums find the bond they feel with their baby during feeding to be so profound that they don’t want to break it. The breastfeeding sleep association isn’t always a bad thing.

But some mums find breastfeeding exhausting, so the idea of always having to feed your baby to sleep might feel overwhelming. Also, the breastfeeding sleep association means that other caregivers won’t be able to put your baby to sleep. And eventually, your baby will have to learn to sleep independently. The longer they depend on feeding to sleep, the longer it will take them to learn to sleep of their own accord.

Will My Baby Learn to Fall Asleep Without Feeding?

Eventually, your baby will learn to fall asleep independently. It takes some babies longer than others, but they all get there in the end. If you’re struggling with breastfeeding and an unreliable sleep cycle, have patience – it won’t always be like this.

How to Break Breastfeeding Sleep Association

If your baby’s breastfeeding sleep association is really giving you trouble, then there are some ways you can attempt to break the cycle, such as:

  • Introducing a new routine
  • Making subtle changes
  • Alternating routines

We’ll discuss each of these in more detail below.

Introduce a New Routine

It may sound easier said than done, but aim to stop making breastfeeding the last thing you do before your baby’s bedtime. So feed them earlier if you can, and gradually introduce new habits to replace breastfeeding. Eventually your baby should make positive associations with these habits, which will make them less dependent on breastfeeding for comfort.

A nightly bath-time could work, or perhaps a bedtime story. But you could also keep things simple: Just hold your baby close to you and gently rock them to sleep. If they fall asleep on you without nursing, they’ll eventually realise they can get all the comfort they need without having to feed.

Make Subtle Changes, Slowly

Your baby will need time to adjust to any change to their routine, so consistency is key. And it’s for this reason that you should never go “cold turkey” on nursing before bed.

Aim to make some subtle changes and make them as slowly and as gradually as you can. For example, you could try feeding at the beginning of your baby’s bedtime routine, rather than at the end. Your baby will still get all the comfort they expect form your breastmilk, but it will no longer be the last thing they feel before sleeping. So eventually, they may stop associating your milk with their sleep.

You could also try feeding your baby until they’re sleepy but detaching them from your breast before they fall asleep. You can then continue to comfort them to sleep, such as through cuddling them or gently rocking them. But again, this means they’ll eventually stop associating feeding with sleeping.

Alternate Your Routine

Your baby won’t just associate feeding with sleep. They’ll also associate it with you. They will not have this same association with other caregivers, such as their father.

If you want to break the breastfeeding sleep association, you could try alternating your baby’s bedtime routine with your partner. Because your baby won’t associate nursing with other caregivers, if your partner puts them to sleep, they may not expect feeding.

Over time, alternating your routine like this could break the breastfeeding sleep association cycle. Yet it’s another change you’ll have to introduce gradually. And again, don’t expect instant results. To begin with, your baby may still struggle to drop off before feeding.

This is where combining breastfeeding with pumping can help, as it would mean your partner could feed your baby before bed without you having to be there. You can read our guide to combining breastfeeding with pumping.

Further Support For New Mums

You’ll find many guides on our Real Parenting blog to help you through the early weeks and month’s of your baby’s life:

We also have a range of sustainable baby products. For instance, we have reusable breast pads that will help you stay clean and dry while you’re nursing.

Take a look at our range of comfortable and eco-friendly reusable breast pads.