Embracing Motherhood How to Establish a Bedtime Routine with a Baby (or What to Do When Your Baby Won't Nurse to Sleep Anymore)

Establishing a Bedtime Routine with a Baby Who is Used to Nursing to Sleep

I usually just like to nurse my babies to sleep, but at some point this starts to not work, and instead of panicking and thinking that the world as you know it is over (like I may or may not have done), just know that this probably means your child is ready for a bedtime routine.

Julian, My 4th Child

Julian (my fourth and the recent inspiration for this article) didn’t all of a sudden stop nursing to sleep one night. It was a gradual progression that began when he was about 15 months old.

At this time, our nightly nursing sessions were getting longer and longer, and I remember one night after flipping him from side to side and nursing him for like an hour, and he just looked up at me and said, “Hi!”

I was dumbfounded, I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t have a plan.

All I knew was that I couldn’t let him keep nursing, and I didn’t want to just let him stay up later. He was tired. I needed to do something. (Also, I was starting to experience what I later learned was nursing aversion…more about that here.)

1. The First Time I Put Him to Bed Awake

Feeling like I was out of options, I decided to just lay him down and see what happened. When I placed him in his crib, he SCREAMED bloody murder. I knew that he wasn’t sick, teething, hungry, or needing to poop, and I also knew that he was tired, so I expertly tucked him in, whispered, “Nigh-night, I love you!” and closed the closet door (where he sleeps). As I sat back on the rocking chair to see what would happen, my mind felt blank. Usually I go into these situations with a plan, but I just felt helpless as I listened to him wail.

Then, a miracle happened. After about 90 seconds of crying…it stopped.

I sat there waiting for awhile until I was sure he was settled in, and then I went out to the living room to enjoy some much needed alone time with my husband. 🙂 He didn’t make a peep until he woke up for his usual 12 am and 3 am nighttime wakings. When I nursed him at these times, he went right back to bed.

With every child, I have always been determined to never let them “cry it out”, but inevitably, a few tears are usually shed during this transitional phase.

2. New Bedtime Routine: Reading Stories

The whole “nursing and nursing and nursing, hoping he would fall asleep, and then putting him down awake if he popped off the breast” became our new bedtime routine for about three months.

Finally, when the nursing aversion made it practically impossible for me to nurse one second longer, I knew that I would need to get him going with a bedtime story routine as soon as possible. The first night I tried it, it was super successful!

When I remembered how well bedtime stories had worked for all of our other children, I kicked myself for not starting this routine sooner!

Even if he was nursing to sleep some nights, on the nights that he didn’t fall asleep nursing, we could have read some stories and made this transition even easier. But alas, it is so hard to change!

3. Setting the Scene for a Successful Bedtime Routine

By getting everything prepared ahead of time so that the environment can be the same every night, it will make the nightly routine that much easier. This is what has worked for me. You will have to find what works for you, but this might be a place to start.

  • Rocking Chair: I have a nice comfy rocking chair in the corner of our room that I always nurse him in before putting him to bed in his crib.
  • Books: Next to the rocking chair, I put a stack of his favorite books.
  • Salt Lamp: I love the reddish glow of this dimmer lamp, plus it purifies the air by releasing negative ions!
  • Sippy Cup of Milk: I love using sippy cups with handles like this so that my babies can hold on to them and feed themselves. I fill it up with raw milk, but you could also use water or a glass sippy cup like this.
  • Silky: Every night, Julian sleeps with this special silky that I hand made for him. I’ve always wrapped him up in it while we’re nursing, and I tuck it over his legs while we read bedtime stories.
  • Fan: I like the white noise of a fan. It’s helpful to have a sound buffer since he sleeps only a few feet from our bed.

4. Julian’s Bedtime Routine

Children love and crave routines, especially with something that predictably happens every day…like bedtime. Each activity precipitates the next, and it makes the entire process predictable, fun, and easy.

  1. Big Kids’ Bedtime Routine: I’ve been wanting to write a blog about this for quite some time, but basically, we get our pajamas on, wrestle, cuddle, have family time, eat a snack, brush our teeth, and then begin a series of reading everyone stories and tucking them in. Julian has always tagged along with one of us during this process until I’ve been ready to nurse him to sleep.
  2. The Rocking Chair: When we were just starting to wean, if he would try to wiggle into a nursing position, I would nurse him briefly (or distract him with one of his favorite books), and then sit him on my lap. After that, I cover him up with his silky, give him his sippy cup of milk, and get ready to read.
  3. Reading Books: Sometimes I’ll read a whole stack of books, but if he’s really tired, I like to stick with just three. Before I read the last book, I say, “After this book we’re going nigh-night.”
  4. Sing a Song: Once he realizes he’s going to bed, he sometimes starts to cry so I try to distract him with a song and maybe even a little dance/spin move. (For some reason, I started singing him, “Boom, boom goes the little green frog one day, boom, boom goes the little green froggie, pee-i-pickle-i-pee-i-pickle-i, boom, boom goes the little green froggie.” With each child, a different song has emerged.)
  5. Drop and Run: If I can lay him down, cover him up with his silkies, get out of the room, and shut the door in less than 1.5 seconds, then there is a much better chance he won’t cry!
  6. Milk Cup: Julian and Elliot never did get into pacifiers like Ruby and Ophelia did, but Julian has really liked taking his milk cup to bed with him. It’s got a child safety top, so it usually doesn’t spill unless he sucks on it, but if it does, I’ll just wash the sheets.
  7. Wake Up Time: When Julian wakes up in the morning or from naps, sometimes I like to let him linger in bed, especially if he’s still laying down and stretching. I will sit by his bedside, rub his head, sing him songs, make funny faces, or whatever. I also like to let him play in his bed sometimes during the day. This helps him to become familiar with his little space during a time where he isn’t focused on going to sleep.

5. What if He Cries?

  • If He Cries Right Away: Sometimes he screams and cries really loudly when I first lay him down. My first instinct is to just pick him up and comfort him, but I want to give him a chance to fall asleep on his own. He usually never cries for longer than 15-30 seconds. The first few times we went through this routine, I think he cried for more like a minute or two.
  • If He Cries After Being Quiet: When babies try learning how to fall asleep on their own at first, they may be quiet at first, but then get frustrated if they don’t fall asleep right away. What I do here really depends on the nature of the cry, past behaviors, personality, how our day has been going, etc. Typically, I like to give him a minute or two to see if he’ll settle down on his own. If he starts happily babbling, I know he’ll be okay, but if his cry escalates, I will get him and quickly go through our bedtime routine again.
  • If He Wakes In the Night: When we were first weaning, I would still nurse him in the night with gradually shorter sessions. That worked pretty well at first, but then he got frustrated by the short nursing sessions, and so one night I just stopped altogether. Now, when he wakes in the night, I quickly go through our bedtime routine and lay him back down. If he cries for a long time, I’ll get him up and go through the routine again.
  • Naptime: Since I’ve been doing this routine, he’s been up pretty early every day and has needed nice long naps. (*Before I started this routine, sometimes he would fall fall back asleep after our morning nurse and then be able to go through the rest of the day without a nap.) I go through the same routine at naps as I do at night. I wait to put him down until he shows signs of being tired (gets really clingy, cuddly, and says nigh-night after I do), and then we go through our routine. Many times I can hear him talking or singing quietly for quite a bit of time, but if he’s not crying, I leave him in there. Many of our children have been in a transition out of naptimes, and if they were awake for awhile and then started to get fussy, I would get them up. So far, Julian has always fallen asleep.
  • Laying Little Babies Down Awake: In my experience, it’s always easy to lay a little baby down when they are awake yet sleepy and let them fall asleep on their own. “Experts” say that this will help to train them to fall asleep when they are older, but this has never been the case for me! Things like teething and illness usually mess up even the best of sleepers 🙂

In Conclusion

Every baby is different, but after having four, I’ve started to notice some patterns. Even though babies are ready for a bedtime routine at different ages, they all eventually crave one. By establishing a good bedtime routine from a young age, it will make bedtime that much easier as they get older. Our two older kids sleep soooooo good and do sooooo well at bedtime. Sometimes these baby/toddler years of sleep seem like they will be endless, but babies who learn good sleep habits eventually turn into young children who have good sleep habits as well.

Sweet dreams!

*You might also like my article about nursing aversion and weaning tips and my 15 month old who still wasn’t sleeping through the night.