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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.

Why Can't I Stand Nursing Anymore? A Tale of Nursing Aversion

How Nursing Aversion Led to the Weaning of my 15 Month Old

I was bombarded by a range of emotions when breastfeeding, one of my favorite things in the world, started to make me recoil. I thought something was wrong with me, I thought I was failing motherhood in some way, and I started slipping into a pit of depression because of it. After much research, including reading about other mother’s stories, I realized that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t failing as a mother, that my feelings of revulsion were the result of my changing hormones, and that there was something that I could do.

Tips for Weaning

If it wasn’t for the nursing aversion, I was hoping to nurse Julian until he was at least two years of age and/or let him self wean, but alas, that did not happen. Reading through my story may resonate with you as you are on your own journey, but you also might just be looking for some quick weaning tips, so I’ll give you those right away. 🙂

  • Gradual weaning. Sure, you can go cold turkey, but with risks of mastitis and lots of tears, I advise a more gradual approach.
  • Get through the night. Save night weaning for last. If your little one gets over tired, all he/she will want to do is nurse anyways, so just get through the nights at first.
  • Don’t offer, don’t refuse. If your child wants to nurse, let him, but don’t offer it.
  • Distract, distract, distract. Keep your child busy, busy, busy with his/her favorite activities.
  • Replace nursing with milk. If you haven’t already, start sippy cups of milk. We like using raw whole cow’s milk, but use what works for you.
  • Give plenty of food. Make sure your child is getting a nourishing diet so that he/she doesn’t need to breastfeed for the calories. Milk is high in fat and protein, so keep that in mind too.
  • Find other ways to bond. If your child loves nursing for the closeness and cuddles, make sure you’re providing plenty of other opportunities for physical closeness. My favorite is reading. We can cuddle up and be close and the book provides a nice distraction! (Check out my blog about reading with babies here and my favorite books for babies here.)
  • Nurse as long as you can. When my nursing aversion was in full effect, I could only nurse for about a minute. I would literally count to 60, and then say, “Ok, that’s enough.”
  • Tea tree oil. When Julian started catching on that I didn’t want him to nurse, it was like it made him want it even more! So, I put a bit of tea tree oil on my nipples, and one taste of that and he was like, “NO WAY!” Yes, it felt kind of mean, but I was getting pretty desperate at this point.
  • New bed time routine. If you’ve always nursed your little one to sleep, you’ll need to start a new routine. Having a sippy cup of milk, a silky, reading three books, and singing a song became our new routine. Did he cry a bit at first? Yes, but never longer than a minute or two. (Read more about setting up a bedtime routine for babies here.) *Some people have success with Daddy taking over the bedtime routine and nighttime wakings, but with me being a stay at home mom and Daddy working, we never got to this point.
  • Nighttime weaning. Getting them to bed is the hardest, after that, maybe you’ll get lucky and there won’t be any night time waking! (Ha, yeah right!) But if there is, you have to use your best judgement to get through the nights. Can you nurse long enough to get through it or are you so completely over it that you’re about to lose your mind? If the latter is the case, then maybe a few tears will need to be shed until the transition is over. I hate, hate, hate the idea of “cry it out”, but inevitably, all of my children have cried a little bit during this transition period…not hours and hours of “cry until you puke” crying, but protest cries only after all of their needs were met.
  • Know that “This too shall pass”. When you’re in the thick of a situation, it may seem like it will never ever ever end, but rest assured that there will be an end to this.

My Story

If you’re experiencing nursing aversion due to fluctuating hormones (due to pregnancy or the return of your period), I hope that by reading through my story, you will know that you are not alone! I was feeling so miserable and so guilty, and once I started learning that nursing aversion was actually a thing, I almost wept with relief. So here is my story: the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.

The Moment It Happened

The gradual annoyances with nursing that I started to feel when Julian was 15 months old were nothing compared to the moment that nursing aversion hit me with full force. Julian was 18 months and it was the middle of the night. He woke up to feed (like he would about two times every night), and I laid him down in bed beside me, ready to close my eyes and fall asleep as he nursed. But as soon as he latched on, my eyes popped open, and I bolted upright into a sitting position completely overcome with a feeling of utter revulsion. I looked at him intensely trying to figure out what was going on thinking that maybe he got a bad latch or something.

But alas, his eyes were closed and he was sucking away with a perfectly normal latch. Regardless, it just felt different. It was as if he was lightly flicking the tip of my nipple with his tongue instead of getting the deep latch that he usually did. It felt weird.

I tried to fight this intense urge to just push him off of me.

Instead, I flung my legs over the side of the bed and tried to get him to detach on his own (like he usually does when he’s done nursing and ready for sleep again). I got lucky and was able to gently pull him away and lay his sleeping body into his crib.

He didn’t wake up the rest of the night (thankfully), but I was worried about what it would feel like the next time we nursed. Usually, I nurse him every morning when he first wakes up. It’s always a fun way to cuddle, bond, and start our day. So the next morning, I got in my nursing chair (hoping the night before was just a fluke), wrapped him up in his silky, got my phone ready in case he fell asleep again so I could browse, and settled in to nurse.

The second he latched on, that revolting feeling took over, and it took every ounce of my willpower to not immediately rip him off from my body. Once again, I was sure his latch had to be off. He had tongue tie surgery at 6 weeks old, but we never fully got rid of it, and nursing did always kind of hurt a little bit. Or maybe with all of his new teeth that came in, his mouth was just different…

I kept nursing him as I tried to figure out this weird feeling. It wasn’t pleasure, and it wasn’t pain, it was just weird. If you could translate nails on a chalkboard into a physical sensation, that is the best way I can describe it. The feeling of wanting to make it stop was some kind of primal urge like when you get an itch and find yourself scratching it without even thinking.

This Has Happened Before…

Then, I remembered feeling the EXACT SAME WAY with Elliot when he was 18 months old. He went through the same thing where nursing didn’t put him to sleep anymore, and he just wanted to nurse more and more and longer and longer, getting more aggressive and grabby with each nursing session.

I remember the weird feeling from nursing Elliot got so bad that pain became a welcome distraction. I would dig my nails into my arm or bite myself as I nursed just so that I could continue. When my husband noticed I was drawing blood, he was like, ‘Something has to change’.

I wondered what was wrong with me. Why would I feel this way? What was I doing wrong? What was going on???

What is Nursing Aversion?

First of all, nursing aversion is not feeling “over-touched”. You know that feeling when everyone needs you at once and you feel like you’re standing on a little chair trying keep snakes away with a little stick? Well, it’s not that.

It’s not a choice. It’s not a failure. It’s a primal and physical reaction based primarily on fluctuating hormones due to pregnancy, tandem feeding, or menstruation.

Abby Theuring (The Badass Breastfeeder) explains how it made her feel.

“I was overcome with a physical [sensation] in my nipple of stinging, prickling and buzzing and a creepy crawly feeling all over my body; an emotional feeling of disgust mixed with fear mixed with irritation mixed with the heebeegeebees.”

On the La Leche site, Barbara from Minnesota gives her definition of nursing aversion.

“The best I can do is to say it felt like bugs were crawling all over my body, and I couldn’t brush them off. It started out difficult and annoying, and soon became intolerable. People used to ask me, ‘Does it hurt?’ And I’d think, ‘I wish!’ Pain, I could deal with. This was so beyond pain. It was just icky. Really icky.”

I like Kate’s definition of nursing aversion.

“The toe-curling, blood-boiling, rip-your-hair-out, bite-the-back-of-your-hand and want-to-go-running-down-the-street-screaming feeling that you may get when your toddler asks for the boobies (again).”

My Definition of Nursing Aversion

After much curiosity and research (there’s not much information out there about this), this is my perspective on nursing aversion.

During birth, we are completely flooded with oxytocin which helps us to bond with and breastfeed our babies. Whenever I nursed, I could feel the flood of this love hormone surging through me. I loved nursing (once we got all of the kinks worked out), and I always looked forward to this special time with my babies.

Many people talk about nursing aversion occurring during pregnancy. (La Leche League also calls it breastfeeding agitation and explains how it effects nearly one-third of women during pregnancy.) And although Ruby and Ophelia self weaned during my pregnancies with Elliot and Julian, I never experienced nursing aversion. Yes, nursing became a bit more painful during pregnancy, my milk changed, and they really seemed to lose interest, but it was NOTHING like what I’m experiencing now.

At any rate, as Julian and Elliot became older and my period returned, I believe that oxytocin was released in gradually diminishing levels during our breastfeeding sessions until it just wasn’t there anymore. Without oxytocin, prolactin isn’t released either and this is what stimulates let down. Without oxytocin or prolactin, the body starts to halt the production of milk, and this is what I imagine usually leads to weaning. As my body began to produce less and less milk, this is probably what caused Elliot and Julian to get progressively more grabby with longer nursing sessions as they desperately tried to hold on to one of their primary mode of comfort.

The Guilt

With Elliot, and now with Julian, I felt like breastfeeding was the best thing I could give to them. It was so nourishing, it was bonding, and they LOVED it.

How could this thing that was so nourishing, bonding, and wonderful make me recoil so intensely?

With Elliot, I weaned him quickly because the gradual weaning seemed to just make him want to nurse more and more and more. I didn’t like he results of that at all. To this day (he’s 5 now), I think he has suffered from it. He always has these fears of me abandoning him and always needs lots of extra cuddles.

Now, with Julian, I didn’t know what to do, so of course I did everything wrong at first. 🙂

Weaning By Quitting Cold Turkey

The revolting feelings I had nursing Julian were so intense that I just didn’t think I could handle one more nursing session. He was drinking plenty of milk and eating lots of solid food, and I felt like it would be best to just quit cold turkey.

That night, I put my salt light lamp by my rocking chair, set up a stack of books, and got a sippy cup of milk ready for our new bedtime routine. As I sat in the rocking chair, he arched to nurse, but I pulled him into a sitting position, read three books while he sipped on his milk, and laid him down. He cried for about 15 seconds (like he usually would after I would lay him down if nursing didn’t put him to sleep), and he was quiet. “Well that was easy!” I gloated to myself.

When I thought about our two upcoming nighttime feedings though, my heart sank. I had no idea what to do. My husband and I talked about it, and I said I was going to try a sippy cup and books (I even had a bottle on hand). During his first waking, I tried giving him the sippy cup, and he HATED it. He pushed it away and tried desperately to nurse. Knowing how it would feel, I just couldn’t bring myself do it, and I laid him in bed.

He screamed for about 5 minutes. I couldn’t stand it! My heart was breaking for him.

Just when I was about to get him, he stopped crying. As I finally drifted off to sleep 3o minutes later however, he woke up again…crying for me. I tried the sippy cup again, and put him back to bed crying. This happened a few more times, and it was awful, but somehow we made it through the night.

Weaning with More of a Gradual Release

The next day, I was determined to be vigilant about not nursing (because of what we had gone through the night before). While I was talking to my sister Lisa about everything, I started getting my breast pump ready. I have this one super boob that produces the bulk of the milk, and it was super duper full at the time.

When Julian saw what I was doing he bee-lined for me. I felt like if I were to nurse him, everything we went through the night before would have been for nothing, but I just couldn’t refuse him, and so he nursed. My engorged breast was so full that nursing was actually a relief, and I barely noticed the weird feeling that I could tell was just lingering under the surface.

I knew he didn’t drain me all the way and that we would probably need to nurse again later. “Maybe a gradual release would be a better way to go about this after all?” I wondered. (Ummm…yes!) I decided that I wouldn’t nurse him to sleep, I would try not to nurse him during the day (don’t offer, don’t refuse), and that I would nurse him (for as long as I could, even if it was just a minute or two) when he woke up in the middle of the night.

A New Problem Emerges…Mastitis

My right breast still felt pretty full at bedtime that night, so I nursed him quickly and then transitioned into our new bedtime routine of reading books. He went to bed that night without making a peep. Even after I nursed him, my right breast was feeling pretty sore, but I didn’t think anything of it.

Then, in the middle of the night, I woke up in intense pain. My right breast was throbbing, and I felt awful. I could feel myself burning up with fever, but I was shivering and shaking. I felt like I might be sick, but I just took some ibuprofen, put an electric hot pad on my breast, and somehow went back to sleep again.

When Julian woke in the night to nurse, I massaged my sore breast and realized that there were some major obstacles buried deep in there. Plugged ducts…masititis…oh no!

The details of my recovery from mastisis would best be saved for another post, but just know that it was awful. I had to nurse him like crazy to get rid of the lumps…and every time I did it was so painful that the nails on a chalkboard took a backseat! But at least in all of this, we established a new bedtime routine that didn’t involve me nursing him to sleep.

Where We Are Now

Overall, gradually weaning has been an easier and more gentle method for Julian (although I personally would have preferred cold turkey). I had to nurse him a lot at first to help me get over the mastitis, but once that was done, I was able to go back to “don’t offer, don’t refuse”.

I tried really hard to keep us busy and to keep him distracted so that he wouldn’t think about nursing. When he did want to nurse, I wouldn’t get the silky or even get very comfortable, I would just pop him on the breast and let him nurse for about as long as I could tolerate it (maybe a minute or so). On one of the first days, I put some tea tree oil on my nipples when he wouldn’t leave me alone, and it was VERY effective at keeping him away! At night, if he leaned down to nurse, I would nurse him quickly before going into our new bedtime routine.

Now, when he wakes up to nurse in the night (usually twice), I let him nurse for about 1-2 minutes, and then I put him back to bed. Sometimes he cries for about 15-30 seconds, sometimes he babbles the ABCs, and sometimes he’s just quiet. If he cries for a longer period of time (or if he’s quiet for a bit and then cries again), I repeat the process. Occasionally, if I’m worried that he might be genuinely hungry for some food, I’ve taken him into the kitchen to cook up his favorite food – dippy eggs and toast.

*3 Months Later: Now that three months have gone by, I wanted to give an update. At 21 months, Julian goes to sleep after his bedtime routine every night without a peep, and most nights, he sleeps right through the night (unless he’s feeling sick). If he does wake up, I give him a sippy cup of milk and either go through the bedtime routine again or just rock and cuddle him until he falls back asleep. As we finished our gradual weaning, I would always make sure to stuff him full of food before he went to bed and he just started sleeping through the night. Yay! After about 3-4 weeks of not nursing, he stopped lifting up my shirt (although now he is obsessed with my belly button…and his own for that matter) and seemed to gradually just forget about it.

Julian (18 Months) and I Hanging Out and Happy!

Julian (18 Months) and I Hanging Out and Happy!

In Conclusion

I wrote this blog to help me understand what I was feeling when breastfeeding gradually became less enjoyable and then suddenly repulsed me. I learned a lot from reading about other mother’s stories, and I hope that by sharing my story, I can help other mothers realize the same thing.

All in all, I think that nursing aversion is nature’s way of saying, “It’s time to move on.” This mama dog trying to wean her puppies is a really good visualization of this. 🙂