Breastfeeding is a wonderful choice for many mothers, but, sometimes, nursing sessions become soothing sessions—and babies rely on this soothing activity to fall asleep. That's what happened with Lisa, a mom of three, and her youngest child, 6-month-old Lila. Lisa was nursing Lila day and night, and it was taking over an hour to help her get to sleep each time. Lila had thoroughly made the association between nursing and sleeping; she would wake up at night to eat during sleep transitions because she had learned that the only way she could fall asleep was by being fed to sleep. Lisa, understandably, was exhausted and needed a plan to help Lila break the feed-to-sleep association and sleep through the night.
The first thing we needed to do was determine if Lila was truly hungry and having a real feed, or simply nursing because she was tired or bored. I asked Lisa to keep a log of how long the baby was nursing in every feeding session. Then, we could compare what a typical feeding length was with sessions that were simply for soothing. We found that there was a significant difference between the nursing sessions—soothing sessions for Lila (which could happen as frequently as five times a night!) were often 5 minutes or less, while her actual feeding sessions averaged 15 minutes.
At six months of age, most babies feed every 3 to 4 hours, with the first nursing session coming when the baby wakes up in the morning. Most 6-month-old babies should also be able to sleep through the night withought a feeding—although my rule of thumb is that a baby be "topped off" before she goes to sleep. The key is that Lisa, and many other breastfeeding moms, needed to break the pattern of allowing her baby to actually fall asleep at the breast. Lisa needed to break her latch and stop nursing when she saw that Lila was nodding off and get her into her crib while she was sleepy but still awake. Doing so would help teach Lila to be an independent sleeper.
Over the next few weeks, we implemented other changes as well. Lisa began regulating the length and timing of Lila's feeding sessions, based on the log she had been keeping. Lisa had jotted down how long each feeding lasted, and so we looked to see what Lila's "typical" nursing session was like and made that our base line as to how long a real feed would take. Any feed that was significantly less was deemed to be a comfort-to-sleep session. This allowed Lisa to determine which feeds were not necessary.It was also important that Lisa wean Lila off of night nursing. Once we knew what feedings were real feedings, we started to minimize the length of the feeding by one minute each night. We also only focused on weaning her off of one night feeding at a time. Three weeks later, Lisa was thrilled to report that Lila had slept through the night.
It's easy for a baby to become dependent on the comfort of nursing to fall asleep. However, when a baby learns how to comfort herself and fall asleep on her own, the benefits are much greater for the baby and the entire family.