It’s a serene scene. Your baby, drifted off to dreamland while nursing or taking a bottle. As they get older, rocking them to sleep or giving them a sippy cup before bed makes the bedtime routine feel smooth and peaceful.
But what happens when your sweet sleeping baby becomes a toddler who relies on nursing, rocking, or other sleep crutches to fall asleep? Many parents realize that the habits that once made bedtime easy have now become sleep associations that prevent their child from falling asleep independently.
Breaking the feed to sleep association can be challenging, but doing so sets your child up for better sleep in the long run. This comprehensive guide will explore how sleep associations form, the pros and cons of allowing them, and give science-based tips to break the feed to sleep habit for babies and toddlers.
What is the Feed to Sleep Association?
The feed to sleep association refers to a child’s dependence on nursing or taking a bottle to fall asleep initially at bedtime or after night wakings. It’s one of the most common infant sleep associations.
Feeding is biologically soothing and instantly calms babies by:
- Release of hormones like cholecystokinin and insulin to aid digestion. These have a sedative effect.
- Warm cuddling from caregiver while feeding.
- Sucking motion, which is calming.
- Low lighting while feeding, signaling sleep.
Around 4-6 months of age, babies develop an association between feeling drowsy while feeding and falling asleep. They begin to rely on nursing or taking a bottle to transition into sleep.
While using feeding as a sleep prop can make bedtime easier in the short term, it often causes problems down the road.
The Downsides of Feed to Sleep Associations
Allowing your child to use nursing or a bottle to fall asleep seems harmless at first. But this sleep association can lead to frequent night wakings and difficulty falling back asleep.
Here’s why relying on feeding to sleep can backfire:
- Difficulty self-soothing. Babies don’t learn how to fall asleep independently without the breast or bottle. This makes it harder for them to put themselves back to sleep when they stir between sleep cycles at night.
- Short sleep spans. The feed to sleep association causes some babies to wake more frequently, resulting in short 1-2 hour spans of sleep. Frequent waking is developmentally normal in newborns, but improves with age. Relying on feeding to fall back asleep interferes with babies’ ability to consolidate sleep.
- Increased night feeds. Babies dependent on feeding to sleep often need the breast or bottle multiple times a night, continuing this pattern for longer than needed from a hunger standpoint. Night weaning becomes more challenging.
- Separation anxiety. Babies who are fed back to sleep by rocking or nursing have a strong sleep association with their caregiver’s presence. This can lead to anxiety when the caregiver leaves the room, making self-soothing or independent sleep difficult.
- Less restful sleep. Studies show that babies who fall asleep at the breast or bottle appear to sleep more fitfully and wake more easily compared to babies who fall asleep independently. The feed to sleep association seems to result in lower sleep quality.
- Stress at bedtime. Children who rely on nursing or taking a bottle before bed often become frustrated and struggle at bedtime without this sleep prop. This leads to tears and stress for both parent and child.
- ** cavities.** Falling asleep while drinking milk, formula, or juice allows sugars to pool in the mouth. This coats teeth in acid and raises the risk for tooth decay.
While using feeding to help a baby sleep can be useful in the short term, breaking this sleep association before 1 year of age leads to more restful, independent sleep.
When to Break the Feed to Sleep Habit
Ideally, parents can start establishing independent sleep skills as early as 2-3 months by putting baby down drowsy but awake. This prevents strong sleep associations from forming.
But it’s never too late to break the feed to sleep habit. Here are some guidelines on timing:
- 4-6 months: Proactively work on independent sleep foundations before sleep associations become ingrained. Put baby down drowsy but awake.
- 6-9 months: Separation anxiety and sleep regression make this age more challenging. Take gradual steps like unlatching before sleep and implementing a short pre-bed routine.
- 9-12 months: Developmentally, babies are capable of sleeping through the night without feeds around this age. Use gentle methods to break the sleep association before it becomes more entrenched.
- 12-24 months: Toddlers reliance on nursing or a bottle before bed often intensifies around this age. Holding firm on a consistent bedtime routine and not giving in to demands for “just one more sip” are key.
The earlier parents can guide babies to learn to fall asleep independently, the easier sleep training tends to go if needed. But it’s never too late to help even an older toddler learn to sleep without the breast or bottle.
Gentle Techniques to Break the Feed to Sleep Habit
Making changes to your child’s familiar sleep routine causes some short term struggle. But teaching them to fall asleep without the breast or bottle leads to better sleep for everyone.
Here are some gentle, progressive techniques to try:
Unlatch or remove the bottle before baby is fully asleep. Keep them drowsy but awake upon putting in the crib. Gradually increase time awake in crib before sleep.
Implement a short, consistent pre-bed routine. Bath, pajamas, songs and stories signal sleep is coming without the feed. Add white noise if needed.
Introduce sleep associations like a lovey or pacifier. Offer these alternative sleep props to satisfy the need to suck without nursing.
Rock or walk baby instead of feeding to sleep. Gradually put them down more awake.
Shorten and delay the pre-bed feeding. Keep it 15 minutes, ending 30 minutes before bed. Adding cereal to bottles can help.
Swap the breast or bottle for water or milk in a sippy cup. Use this during the bedtime routine only. Limit sip time.
Have Dad or another caregiver assist at bedtime. Babies protest the change less if mom isn’t present.
Implement “fuss it out” for short periods. Leave baby to fuss briefly in the crib as you decrease physical check-ins. Expand time as tolerated.
Use formal sleep training if needed. For babies 6 months or older who don’t respond to gentler methods, sleep training like Ferber or extinction get results in a few days. Check for safety at intervals but don’t nurse or rock to sleep.
Being gradual and consistent is key. Disrupting the feed to sleep pattern causes temporary frustration but leads to better sleep habits.
Tips to Break the Feed to Sleep Association by Age
The techniques to break the feed to sleep habit differ slightly depending on your child’s age. Here’s an overview of tips tailored to newborns, older babies, and toddlers:
Newborns (0-3 Months)
- Always put baby down drowsy but awake, not fully asleep.
- Don’t immediately respond every time baby fusses. Allow a few minutes for self-soothing.
- Introduce a pacifier for non-hungry sucking. Avoid nursing to sleep if possible.
- Swaddle to prevent startles that wake baby fully.
- Establish a calming pre-bed routine like swaddle, white noise, pacifier.
4-6 Month Old Babies
- Put baby down awake and allow some fussing before intervening.
- Unlatch or remove bottle before baby is sound asleep; keep awake time in crib.
- Add cereal or formula powder to bottle to reduce volume and separate eating from sleep.
- Implement a brief pre-bed routine like book and song.
- Try rocking instead of feeding before placing awake in the crib.
- Introduce lovey or stuffed animal for comfort.
6-12 Month Old Babies
- Keep pre-bed feeding short, ending 30 minutes before bed.
- Allow some fussing before responding to break feed sleep association.
- Put baby in crib wide awake to practice falling asleep independently.
- Implement consistent calming bedtime routine finishing with white noise and lovey.
- Comfort by patting or shushing if crying, but avoid picking up or rocking to sleep.
- Consider formal sleep training if needed.
Toddlers (12-24 Months)
- Eliminate night feedings if waking is habit not hunger.
- Make bedtime boring with no screens, toys or playing.
- Offer water in a sippy cup, not milk, if thirsty at bedtime. Limit to a few sips.
- Withhold feeding for at least 20 minutes after bedtime to break association.
- Use a reward chart for staying in bed without nursing.
- Explain in simple terms that “milk is for morning.”
- Stay firm and consistent despite protests. Independent sleep is a new skill.
Sleep Training as a Last Resort
If gentler techniques fail after a consistent two week effort, formal sleep training is often needed to fully break the feed to sleep association for babies older than 6 months.
The most effective methods are unmodified extinction and graduated extinction (Ferber method). Both teach babies to fall asleep completely independently without the breast or bottle. This results in fewer night wakings and longer stretches of sleep.
Extinction involves putting baby to bed awake then not responding until the designated time in the morning. Checkins are only for safety, with no feeding, rocking, or cuddling. Gradual withdrawal of parental presence allows baby to learn to self soothe.
The Ferber technique follows a similar approach but involves check-ins at progressively longer intervals. For example, every 3 minutes on night one, increasing to 5 then 10 minutes on subsequent nights. Brief check-ins reassure baby without reinforcing the sleep association.
While the short term crying can feel distressing, extinction sleep training leads to dramatically improved sleep for babies, toddlers and parents within 3-5 nights. It breaks the feed to sleep association for good.
Changing habits is hard. When working on breaking the feed to sleep association, regression or backsliding is common. Here’s how to troubleshoot setbacks:
Sleep regression: Babies often start waking more frequently around 4 months or 8-9 months as they pass through mental developmental leaps. Be consistent using your chosen method until it passes.
Illness: When sick, it’s appropriate to respond to comfort baby as much as needed, even if feed to sleep habits resurface temporarily. Get back on track once well.
Teething: The pain can cause night wakings to reemerge. Use appropriate oral pain relief and make exceptions for added comfort during this temporary phase.
Travel or schedule disruption: Maintaining bedtime routine consistency is key. But if the routine must change, accept backsliding and get back on track after disruption passes.
Daytime separation anxiety: Stranger wariness, parental separation anxiety, or distractedness with increased mobility around 8-10 months can all cause nighttime clinginess. Offer extra daytime comfort and consistency at bedtime.
Life stressors: Big adjustments like a new home, sibling, or parent’s return to work can impact sleep. Support your child through challenging periods, but remain patient staying the course.
With empathy and consistency, you can troubleshoot setbacks without losing all progress. Temporary backsliding is normal. Get back on track as soon as possible.
FAQs on Breaking the Feed to Sleep Association
Here are answers to some common questions parents have about breaking the feed to sleep habit:
How long does it take? Typically 1-2 weeks of consistency sees initial improvements, with 2-6 weeks needed to fully break the association. Sleep training may be required for stubborn cases.
What if baby is still hungry before bed? Offer larger daytime bottles or meals and push the pre-bed feeding gradually earlier to reduce this. Add solids if needed.
Do I need to wean from breastfeeding? No, you can break the feed to sleep association without fully weaning. Just be disciplined to not offer the breast for comfort after the set pre-bed feeding time.
What if baby cries hysterically? Some fussing is expected, but respond if crying escalates to hysterical levels. Go slower with your approach or try sleep training.
Won’t this cause emotional damage? Science is clear that sleep training does NOT harm babies emotionally when done responsibly. Following baby’s cues and checking for safety prevents feelings of abandonment.
What if our routine is inconsistent? Consistency is key, especially for bedtime and pre-bed feeding timing. Enlist help from others to allow you to maintain consistency.
How do I deal with exhaustion? Get support from your partner to implement the plan. Rest when baby naps. Know that short term struggle leads to more sleep.
Conclusion: Teaching Baby to Sleep Without Feeding Leads to Better Sleep
Breaking the feed to sleep association requires patience and consistency from parents. But guiding your baby learn to fall asleep independently sets them up for better quality sleep in the short and long term.
Following an age-appropriate gradual plan tailored your child’s needs can make this transition less painful for all. And sometimes formal sleep training is required for stubborn associations.
While allowing baby to suckle to sleep may feel like an easy habit, the negative impacts on sleep quality and quantity add up over time. Establishing healthy sleep habits without sleep props like nursing lays the foundation for truly restful sleep.
The key is persistence through temporary struggle. With commitment to consistency using the techniques above, you can break the feed to sleep association for good and help your baby learn to sleep independently. The short term pain leads to peaceful slumber for all.