How can I get my 14-month-old son to go to sleep without nursing?
January 1, 2012 7:53 PM   Subscribe

LactationFilter: help me decouple nursing and going to sleep for my almost-14-month-old son. Related: Help me keep my sanity!

I have an almost-14-moth-old son who is a bright, happy, wonderful child. We've been breastfeeding and he's turned out to be a champion nurser. He goes to daycare three days a week (will go to five days a week in a couple of weeks) and currently does not take a bottle at all (he gets regular milk in a sippy cup). At home he currently nurses only in conjunction with going to sleep (either down for his one nap a day or going to bed at night, and also if he wakes up overnight). And therein lies the problem.

My husband is unable to get him down to sleep at all. We tried tonight: I went grocery shopping after his bath and my husband tried to do the usual books and winding down bedtime routine. Our son freaked out, screaming until he was coughing and seemed about to vomit. When I got home I tried to sit and rock with him but not nurse and we went down the same path. I eventually nursed him and he was out cold in five minutes. He currently sleeps from about 6 pm to 6 am, but he gets up 1-2 times a night. When I hear him stir I first try to let him settle himself, which has maybe a 25% success rate. I then have been trying to soothe him without picking him up - I usually rub his back and hum softly. That works sometimes, but is not foolproof. Otherwise, I pick him up and nurse him, which almost always works.

The further rub is that he naps at daycare without nursing. They've told me that when he's tired they'll encourage him to lie down and will rub his back to help him fall asleep. We've also had occasional visits from grandmothers and occasionally (once every month or two) use babysitters. They've indicated some fussiness when going to sleep, but also claim that he gets though it fairly quickly. I think he was still taking a bottle the last time we had anyone else attempt it, though.

I have friends with young kids who report the kids almost self-weaning: that is to say, they seem to lose interest in nursing. I have been hoping that would be the case for him, but he doesn't seem to want to drop it in the context of going to sleep.

I feel like the solution is probably a cry-it-out kind of thing, but I would really appreciate any other advice or thoughts. To hear him get to the coughing/gagging point is really awful and I just feel like it's not good for him. At the same time, I would dearly love to have a bedtime routine that did not depend on me, and am also interested in stopping nursing before much longer (and as a side effect of that, would be ever so grateful to get a full night of sleep). In any case, in March I have a couple of out-of-town overnights planned and do not intend to pump, so I would expect that to be the end of my supply.

Anyway, is there a way I can transition out of the dependency between sleep and nursing? Any advice, tips, thoughts? Or can you at least reassure me I'm not traumatizing him for life? I'm mostly joking about the last point, but it was a rough night around here :(

A couple of more details: We have a good bedtime routine of dinner, bath, playtime/books and then nursing. The 6 pm bedtime might seem early, but we get up early around here and he's usually awake by 5:30 or 6 am (which actually works for us, so we're fine with it). I also realize that many children in the world nurse well beyond a year and that there are benefits to doing so, but I am at the point where I would like to be done with it.
posted by handful of rain to Human Relations (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe try shuffling the bedtime routine a bit to separate the nursing and sleep parts. Could you nurse after the bath and before the books? Then maybe your husband could sub in for the stories and cuddle portion of the routine while you are nearby, but not directly involved. He'll have had the soothing experience of the nursing, but has a chance to practice settling himself to sleep even when you are near. And you are absolutely not traumatizing him for life. Every stage takes a little adjusting on both your and the kiddo's part. The fact that you are feeling so much for him and are thinking this through so carefully says tons about what a good parent you are. Hang in there! You'll get through it!
posted by goggie at 8:02 PM on January 1, 2012

Friends who have night-weaned all told me that they let their partners handle all bedtime stuff and night wakings for a week or so. Dad stays in the room with baby if necessary, offering sippy cups of milk/water and cuddles, with mom only going to help if the crying rises to the level of hysteria. Maybe you could do the bedtime nurse for a while but have dad handle all other wakings, and then when that is working, try cutting out the bedtime nursing. If you want to avoid crying it out, he may just not be ready to do this yet. 14 months is right when kids seem to start getting frustrated because they can't quite talk, but know they want to express things, so their little baby fuses are short. But as with all baby phases, things seems to change in just a few weeks, so if it doesn't work right now, try it next month.

Also, I doubt very much that your milk will dry up if you miss one night while you're on your trips unless you unusual supply problems.

I have my own 14 month old that is dependent solely on me for getting to sleep, so I understand how frustrating it can be sometimes!
posted by chiababe at 8:12 PM on January 1, 2012

I bf my kid to go to sleep until he was 2.5. He also went down sans boob at daycare. Dad was able to put him to bed with a bottle but it was a huge to-do.

So I feel you.

Question 1 - is he in a crib or cosleeping? Can husband do what you're doing with a bottle (try different brands?) Or boobie like sippy cup? (Nuby brand.)

And a suggestion - do NOT do this before he starts 5 day a week daycare. Right now he gets naptime boobies 4/7 week and nighttime boobies 7 nights a week. To reduce this to 0 at the same time (ish) is going to be harder. I would wait, let your body (and him) adjust to 5 day a week care and only nighttime boobies.

As far as you and your boobs... IMHO (and remember, I went for 30-something months!), leaving town is the best was to emotionally deal with it. (Bring a hand pump tho... I was surprised to get engorged and needed some relief.) But by leaving town, the guilt/temptation was gone for all parties involved. When I came back 4 or so days later, I wore a bra to bed and gently told him no more boobies. It took a few nights and he just stopped asking. A few more weeks and he stopped grabbing. (Now nearly a year later if he sees me undressing he'll tell me how much he used to like boobies.) But there was never any tears or fight.

Emotionally it was a good thing for me to stop. I got my evenings back. I forgot what an evening was like.

Books to recommend:
Your Nursing Toddler
No Cry Sleep Solution

Good luck!
posted by k8t at 8:17 PM on January 1, 2012 [9 favorites]

PS, my kid never showed any interest in self-weaning. Remember that boobies, at toddler age, are less about nutrition and more about attachment. He wants you and that good feeling.
posted by k8t at 8:20 PM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think letting Dad handle bedtimes (with you being OUT of the house for a good long period) may be the way to go. Your overnight trips might do the trick. He obviously has the skills to put himself to sleep without you -- he just knows what he prefers and sounds very persistent (which is a great life skill!)

And as anecdata, my daughter once worked herself up into a projectile-puking fury at bedtime when I didn't go right into her (she was a toddler and I was giving her a few minutes to try and settle down -- like a mere 10). It's terrifying to hear them get that I feel you. But she was OK and so is you son.

There are a million fierce opinions about young children and sleeping. Having had two VERY DIFFERENT children, with very different habits and personalities go through early childhood I am fairly "Unitarian" on the approaches to the subject -- there is no one "right" answer. The Weissbluth Healthy Sleep Habits/Happy Child worked well for us. I've had friends who loved the No Cry Sleep Solution.

The upshot is give yourself a break -- you sound like you're doing remarkably well, extremely thoughtful, and causing no trauma. This too will pass.
posted by pantarei70 at 8:35 PM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

One of my friends went to a hotel in town for two nights. She was home during the day, just went to the hotel at night, so she wasn't in the house at all. Also she ordered room service and a massage. I think part 2 is the key part of this plan.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:51 PM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks, guys. This all helps a lot...I feel a lot less like I made some big parenting 101 screwup and am at a point that no one else ever reaches. I've really wanted to try to do not what's best for me, but what's best for him, which is why I'm feeling bad about pushing him to give it up before he's "ready". I think we are going to try another me-out-of-the-house bedtime later this week and see how it goes. We might really wind up pushing the whole issue out for another month and trying again once he's fulltime daycare and a bit older.

I would love to see the advice and responses keep coming, though. And to answer the question above: he sleeps in his own crib in his own room (we have never done the cosleeping thing).
posted by handful of rain at 9:05 PM on January 1, 2012

I'm an aunt and was the primary caregiver for my nephew while his mother worked. She worked retail and had different hours everyday. The nights that I had to put him to bed, I used a bottle (breast milk) - our routine was bath, story, bottle, slight rocking/walking. When she stopped nursing, it was bath, story, snack (small amount of toddler baby food) and longer rocking/walking. He would only drink breast milk, we tried every kind of milk there was but he only wanted mommy milk. He still only tolerates milk.

It was definitely more difficult to get him down if he knew his mother as nearby. Sweet, wonderful, happy baby boy turned into Satan's screaming spawn if he knew mommy was nearby
posted by shoesietart at 9:18 PM on January 1, 2012

I very firmly believe that the nursing relationship is just like any other relationship in that there are TWO people involved in it who both have needs to be met. Of course the baby is the needier partner, but try not to feel guilty for doing something that is good for you too!
posted by chiababe at 9:53 PM on January 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

I've really wanted to try to do not what's best for me, but what's best for him

What's best for you is often what's best for him -- wait, did that come out right? In other words: it's OK to put yourself first, because you need to take care of yourself as much as you need to take care of him. Taking care of yourself is taking care of him.
posted by incessant at 10:24 PM on January 1, 2012

I have a few suggestions. First, what you really want to do is break him of the habit of falling asleep on the breast. So, you can still nurse him at bed time, but just as he's dozing off, use your finger to break his grip. He'll probably lodge a protest. Try to soothe him without going back to nursing, but if you have to nurse again to calm him down, go ahead. This time, too, get him off the breast before he's right out asleep. It might be a bit of a battle, but eventually you should be able to get him to feel comfortable going to sleep in your arms, but not on the breast. I did this with my daughter and I think it probably took a couple weeks. A couple long, terrible weeks. I tried really hard not to turn it into a battle, and to not let her get totally worked up when I took her off the breast. Basically, you kind of want him at the point where he's awake enough to notice he's no longer nursing, but too sleepy to protest.

I wasn't looking to wean when I did this, just to get her to be able to fall asleep without nursing, so that when she woke in the night she could self-soothe without me. (Like everything, it was a mixed success.) We took a bath together every evening, and so I just shifted the evening nursing to the bath. At that point (she was the same age as your son) the only time she nursed was in the bath. So there was a strong situational relationship. When I'd decided I was ready to wean, I just didn't get in the bath with her one night. She looked kind of puzzled, but honestly made no fuss at all. The next night she had a babysitter (she never had a problem going to sleep for a sitter) and the third night everything was fine. It remains the only parenting thing that ever went easy for me. So, that's my second suggestion: it doesn't have to be the bath, but if you aren't ready to wean immediately, tie nursing to a really specific time and place away from his bedroom and falling asleep.

The third suggestion is to go with what works. Sounds like babysitters get him to sleep. You don't have to leave the house for the whole night, you could just hire a sitter for bed time duty every night for a week, say. Then, maybe your husband could take over bed time for another couple weeks. Just long enough to really interrupt the routine, and develop new habits.
posted by looli at 10:34 PM on January 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, you're not traumatizing him! And don't feel guilty about weaning. I reached a point where I hated nursing. I was a seething body of anger and resentment every single time I had to breastfeed my daughter. But I kept going because I felt guilty wanting to wean her before she was two. Then I felt guilty for all the anger and bile I figured was radiating from me the whole time. I made myself a deal that I would breastfeed one more week and if at the end of the week I was still unhappy, I'd quit. Within a couple days I was fine with it and ended up nursing for about three more months. But then at that point I felt able to give it up pretty much guilt-free.

It really is just about comfort for him at this point and there are so many ways you can offer comfort and show love besides nursing. Be guilt free!
posted by looli at 10:40 PM on January 1, 2012

Sounds like you might be interested in reading over AskMoxie's theory of "tension increasers" and the comments on those posts (here's one and here's another) for some ideas how to handle this: "I think there are a minimum of two kinds of people, hence babies: Those who release tension by crying, and those who increase tension by crying. Which is why some babies seem to need to cry to be able to fall asleep, while others escalate more and more if you let them cry at all."

You could also look through her posts tagged "sleep" and "weaning". I like her advice, it's gentle and thoughtful, and often provides insight I hadn't considered before.

The way we've done this with our kids is that my husband handles bedtimes - you're already thinking on that track - as well as letting him try to settle himself and not responding with nursing immediately. The advice above is stuff we've done as well - making the last nursing session earlier, before bathtime; nursing until drowsy and then unlatching and rocking to sleep, or handing off to daddy to put to sleep. And yes, bring a pump while you go away overnight - don't be surprised if your breasts get engorged, even though you might think you're close to drying up/weaning; this same thing happened to me and it was painful - all I could do was take hot showers and try to hand express to relieve the pressure, which was awkward and only partly worked!
posted by flex at 10:42 PM on January 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Don't beat yourself up! I feel your pain, and can totally relate. I was in your shoes just 6 months ago, with my 2 year old. The situation was remarkably similar - at daycare and with babysitters he would go to sleep without any problems. With parents - it had to be me, and it had to be with the boob. Actually I went through pretty much the same thing with my first son too, but he was easier to wean because he used a pacifier to sleep, so I weaned him from the boob to the pacifier for falling-asleep comfort. But my second son never took a pacifier, so I ended up where you are now.

The right answer is what works for you, but in my opinion k8t has an excellent suggestion - I think going out to the supermarket is not enough, he KNOWS you are coming back and will hold out. Generally though, the fast way is cry it out, and the slow way is to do a gradual transition using something like No Cry Sleep Solution. How much time you want to put into this, versus whether you can handle the mental pain of doing cry it out, is your decision. With both my sons, when I decided to wean I did it cold turkey just like k8t describes.
posted by Joh at 11:14 PM on January 1, 2012

My daughter isn't in daycare, but we did the 'Pantley pull off' which is the using your finger to break the suction thing described above. I did that, on an off, for a while and it caught on after a few months. In the meantime my partner put her down for naps whenever he could (which was all the time after 12 months) and I followed those patterns at home, just occasionally with boob. Now my daughter is two and a half and rarely nurses to sleep, only occasionally has it as part of a bedtime routine, and it had been that way for probably coming up on twelve months.

To sum up: break the latch early in going to sleep process (ideally just as it is happening - too early and you may get a tension increasing bedtime disaster, too late and it may as well not happen), persevere and get dad involved in napping at the very least. Even if he isn't doing everything, he needs to be involved and present and confident that he can do it.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:22 AM on January 2, 2012

Response by poster: I just wanted to thank everyone again for the responses. I'm really grateful for the advice and just the general support from the random internet folks :) I think I see what the path needs to be. I'll talk to my husband tonight and get him on board with some changes to our routine, and we'll probably also eventually plan for me to be out of the house in the evenings to give him a chance to get bedtimes without me working. And I think "this too shall pass" is right...and then we'll be on to the next toddler adventure! And I'll be back to ask for more advice :)
posted by handful of rain at 10:45 AM on January 2, 2012

Also, do take the long view: There are no 5-year-olds who still nurse to sleep, and this too shall pass. I'd bet it doesn't last to the end of this year.

My younger kid kicked me out of his bed when he was 4: "Mommy, you go to the big bed now. I want to sleep."

I was relieved, but there was a lot of sadness in there too. (Not bf'ing at the time, I just liked cuddling him to sleep because I'd missed him over the day.)
posted by wenat at 11:08 AM on January 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

We've had some luck with changing routines when ours has had a cold. Something where the routine is already off-kilter seems to allow us to make changes. The most recent was "no bottles during night wakeups." But, ours is only 1 and no longer breastfed so YMMV.
posted by amanda at 3:29 PM on January 2, 2012

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