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Toddler Weaning and Sleep Problems

The Milk is Gone, the Comfort Sucking Remains

By Amalah

Hello Amy!

I’ve been reading your blog since your pre-Noah hilarious-microwave-cookbook-commentary days. I think someone linked to it in their AOL instant messenger status. I am on old person!

Anyway, I’ve been through the archives and you’ve given sound advice on gently weaning toddlers but not exactly on what I’m dealing with. My 25 month old has never been an easy sleeper and I’ve been nursing him to sleep since forever. At this point he usually nurses three times a day – when he wakes up, at nap time, and at bedtime. While it’s been frustrating at times to be his go-to sleep aid and endure the judgement of my extended family, I’ve mostly enjoyed our “snuggles,” as he calls nursing. I gaze into his eyes/totally zone out on podcasts and audio books. It usually takes about 10-30 minutes of nursing to get him down and in the mornings he will nurse for 45 minutes if I let him. I doubt he’s getting much milk anymore as I can hardly express anything – it’s just comfort.

The issue is my nipples are suddenly not wanting to be touched and the sensation of nursing is like chewing aluminum foil – I don’t want to do it. (Not pregnant BTW.) This has been happening on and off for a few months but now this aversion seems to be here to stay and I’m most sensitive at bedtime. I’m perfectly willing to spend the time cuddling my child, my body is just suddenly recoiling from his latch and I get a rage-y feeling which is not how I want to feel as I’m putting my child to bed. So I deal with it for as long as I can and then unlatch him and the screaming begins. He won’t just lie down with me or sit on my lap and even if he was almost asleep, he just can’t seem to relax without the boob in his mouth. He’s in a big floor bed due to climbing and he won’t stay in bed and screams at the door – not just fussing but totally ramped up five alarm cries. (FYI Ferber did not work for this child. We never made it past a few minutes between checks because he would cry to gag/puke levels and just never settled on his own. Also I’m a total softie.)

I need strategies for helping him fall asleep without nursing. I want to be consistent so he knows what to expect. My husband has stepped in a few times at bedtime and he will eventually be rocked to sleep but only after 2+ hours of crying, screaming for mama and trying to push daddy out of his room saying no no no. It’s traumatic for everyone. Do I go cold turkey and let dad take over at bedtime? Do I set a 5 minute nursing limit and hope over time he learns to accept it? Right now we nurse in his bed. Should I re-introduce the rocking chair if that will help him relax? Is it bad to take him downstairs to calm him down with some books and quiet toys before trying to put him down again?

When he wakes in the middle of the night (3 times a week?), sometimes he falls asleep on his own and if not my husband can usually get him back to sleep by just sitting with him in bed for a few minutes.

I’m hoping weaning him will improve his sleep overall. A really good night of sleep for him is 9 hours (8pm-5am or 6am if I’m lucky) and then a 2 to 3 hour nap at noon.

I am so tired and apparently so are my boobs.

Thank you!

My advice is to start backwards: Wean him off the non-sleeping session first. Typically (AHAHAHAAAA) the morning feeding is the “easiest” to eliminate, since you can get him up and out of bed and quickly distracted with breakfast, toys, whatever. It’s tough to say goodbye to the morning cuddles (not to mention the extra time dozing/staring into space), but if you’re serious about losing the nursing-as-comfort-slash-sleep-crutch, this is the session to start with. Starting with the bedtime session is TOUGH, as you’ve seen, and 2+ hours of crying and screaming every night is definitely NOT the conclusion we want to an otherwise happy, successful breastfeeding relationship.

I know, I know. It’s worse for your nipples at night. Although maybe if you haven’t started the day as a human pacifier for 45 minutes, the sensitivity won’t be as severe? If you can’t skip the morning session cold turkey, absolutely unlatch him as soon as it’s clear he no longer drinking. “Milk is all gone, time for breakfast/playtime/Elmo!” If he cries, treat it the way you’d treat any toddler tantrum: Ignore and continue to do whatever you need to do to get the day started. Once he stops crying or lets you distract him with food or getting dressed, heap tons of praise and positive attention on him.

Once you’ve successfully eliminated the morning session, work on the naptime one. You can tell him that “snuggles” are not for daytime anymore, and but “cuddles” are okay….cuddles meaning your shirt stays on, he gets a lovey and maybe a location swap to a rocking chair for a set amount of time before he needs to lie down for a nap. This absolutely might bork up his nap, yes. His “nap” might become more of a “quiet time in your room” thing for awhile. Breaking sleep crutches is NOT FUN (which is why I spend an inordinate amount of time trying to help people from letting them develop in the first place), but that’s another reason to work backwards from the bedtime session. It’s one thing to deal with a tantrum in the morning or a missed nap; it’s another to screw up the Main Event of bedtime/sleeping through the night before you absolutely have to.

Do whatever you can during the day to find other comfort items/actions to replace the boob-in-mouth. Loveys, a fun little tent/fort he can curl up in with books and a blanket, etc. And yes, when you ARE ready to eliminate the bedtime feeding, enlist your husband and some strict time limits once he stops swallowing. I’m usually firmly in the “don’t offer/don’t refuse” camp of weaning, but like Ferber, I’m sensing that might not work with your kid, especially since you’re on an (understandably!) tight timeline to eliminate physical misery.

Which: Speaking of that. Have you tried reintroducing any of the nipple comforting/soothing products from the early days of breastfeeding? Smearing some lanolin on before he nurses, or wearing a nipple shield? Sticking some Soothie gel pads in your bra, in the hours leading up to bedtime?  It doesn’t sound like you’re dealing with cracking or physical damage or anything — it’s most likely a hormonal response to having very little milk left and your production is like, “nope, we’re out” no matter how long he’s stimulating/sucking.

(THAT SAID: I wouldn’t rule out something like thrush, by the way. Probably unlikely but what you’re describing DOES sound a little similar — kind of an internal burning that absolutely triggers a toe-curling rage-stroke at the thought of having to latch again. Check his mouth for white spots, and get some Gentian Violet from a Whole Foods/health store/Amazon if you think it’s a possibility.)

I actually feel like you should try a nipple shield (or goopy greasy lanolin) ANYWAY just to make nursing feel “different” to him. See if either option maybe lessens his interest in hanging around there long after the milk is gone. He might protest but at least then you’re not outright refusing him, and maybe…just maybe…he’ll let you institute a strict five-minute time limit with a little less sturm und drang, or decide to skip it entirely.

Published October 16, 2015. Last updated March 14, 2018.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Amy Renee

    October 16, 2015 at 9:58 am

    I had a friend who’s last desperate weaning attempt for an older child was to put band-aids over her nipples and tell her older child that “Mommy has ouchies, so no milkies, just cuddles”. He patted her and kissed her boo-boos, then rocked in her lap and cried a little but finally went to sleep.

    Have you ever been not home for bedtime? What does your husband do those days? Can you just be gone for bedtime, or even leave him for a whole weekend with daddy (maybe bring in a grandma for reinforcement/backup?)

    • Kim too

      November 2, 2015 at 1:14 pm

      I’d be going this route.  Extended bf’ing is great, but only when it works for both parties, and it isn’t working anymore.  I don’t see the need to hurt yourself or break out nipple shields – it’s just time to be done.

  • Lexi

    October 16, 2015 at 10:47 am

    I have a 24 month old that is also a major nursing lover and to end the nighttime nursing and the nursing to sleep we got one of those sleep to wake clocks where the sun goes down and told her that when the suns asleep, milk is asleep. It took a few days of crying after the sun went down but she understands it now and can easily check for herself if the sun is awake or not. It really gave me control over when the nursing ends and starts. I let her nurse for about 15 mins and then the sun goes to sleep and she will have cuddles as she falls asleep. It works well for both naps and bedtime but I’m sure you could also use it to shorten the morning session. Good luck!!

  • Elle

    October 16, 2015 at 2:45 pm

    Girl. I WAS YOU TWO WEEKS AGO. Same deal–nursing a two-year-old to sleep with a nails-on-a-chalkboard nursing session, but it was taking him over an hour to get down and I. Just. Couldn’t. Do. It. Anymore.

    First step was cutting out middle-of-the-night nursing like the poster above did–I just told him by breasts were tired and they needed to rest until morning, just like we did. I gave him straw water bottle to use in the middle of the night since he seems to get particularly thirsty in the middle of the night.

    Next was getting him to fall asleep on his own. We actually just went with a basic Ferber method. We did our bedtime routine–story, boob, and talking about his day–in a chair, then I said ok, it’s time to finish nursing and rest in bed now. Then I put him in bed and adjusted everything to his liking–snuggle with a favorite stuffed animal, blanket on, water bottle handy. The first night we went in about three or four times and lots of tears, and he finally went down after about half an hour or 45 minutes. By the third night he happily crawled into bed and hasn’t cried at all.

    Throughout the whole thing I was astounded at how…reasonable my son was about everything. If I gave him a day or so of lead time and gently but firmly explained how things were going to work, he was generally fine with it. It was a HUGE revelation. I have generally been great about establishing healthy boundaries around everything except nighttime parenting and nursing, and just knowing that my child understood and trusted me, and that there was mutual respect between us, was a major breakthrough in dealing with this.

  • Elizabeth

    October 17, 2015 at 12:39 am

    Oh man he sounds just like my son. What worked for us was switching out the nursing for rocking and me singing to him. In the beginning I had to hold him facing away from me because facing toward me was way too tempting. He cry and it was not peaceful AT ALL in the beginning. I found rocking quickly at first to distract him and then slowing down as he chilled out helped. At first I rocked and sang until he was asleep and then I started putting a time limit on it so he was laying down sleepy but awake. It took a long time (weeks) but it did work for us.

  • MR

    October 19, 2015 at 12:25 pm

    I’m sorry. That sucks. Just tell him that it hurts mommy, and you can’t, and that you can just cuddle. It will be a crappy few days until he understands, but he WILL understand. Hang in there!

  • Joanna

    October 19, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    OP here! Thanks for the advice and comments. I think phasing out the daytime feeds first is a good strategy. I’ve done some more reading and I think I may have nursing aversion/agitation which I hadn’t heard of before. I think it’s the body’s way of trying to wean and it includes feelings of rage and anxiety and yucky skin crawling sensations. Fun! I joined a FB support group but the advice there seems more about pushing through the aversion to continue extended bfing so I’m glad to have some ideas here about how to pursue gentle weaning. I’ll give it a try and report back. If we have a second I’ll definitely try to avoid the nursing to sleep crutch beyond the early months! Also crossing my fingers for one of those magical babies that sleep. (If the nurses say “oh I’ve never seen such an alert newborn” next time around I think I’ll ask them to swap for a different one… sort of kidding) My son never took a bottle or a paci or a lovey so it’s just been me. He does like to rock so I hope that will help us transition. Thanks everyone!

  • Maree

    October 20, 2015 at 1:53 am

    Hi Joanna,
    Hugs to you. I see that you have found your solution but I just wanted to mention D-MER (dysphoric milk ejection reflex) which a friend of mine had. Might be something to look into?? I also had the thought that it would be unusual for a woman feeding this regularly to be ‘losing’ their milk without a contributing reason. Normally by this stage of nursing supply is demand driven. A midwife might be able to give you advice. As for changing things next time – I have followed a similar pattern with my (4) kids. It is soooo much easier in the early stages and the way I see it at some point most mothers have to deal with the teach to sleep thing I just do it a little later – it doesn’t seem to take any longer or involve any more tears than my friends who do it with 4 month olds but I get the nice benefits in the meantime. Might be faulty thinking though as I too am a softie 🙂

  • AmyM

    October 20, 2015 at 7:18 pm

    I had the exact same thing. LO would latch and I just wanted to smack him off. I’m pretty sure there was little to no milk left. I would tell him that only one side worked, then would shorten that time a bit at a time. His final weaning at night happened over a weekend where I just wasn’t available to put him to bed. It broke the pattern enough to help transition him. The morning was our last session to go actually. It got replaced by Daddy bringing up a snack cup of dry cereal and a sippy of milk, with some cartoons on the tv. I really do miss our morning snuggles but my boobs are happier. Good luck to you!

  • B

    October 21, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    This is also me. My little girl just turned two and I have been having the nails on the chalkboard reaction for over a month now and we also nurse to sleep. Poor sleepers unite. I have successfully (sort of, in the fact that she does eventually sleep) transitioned to sippy with milk at bedtime, because I knew she would eventually sleep. Unlike nap, where if she doesn’t get nursed to sleep there is no nap. I am planning on someday soon, when I’m brave, trying the sippy w milk at nap time, once she’s used to the idea from bedtime. Just a slightly different order, because damn…. more than one or two days in a row with no nap does not make mama her best self.

  • Joanna

    January 2, 2016 at 2:23 pm

    OP again with an update – we stopped the morning session and after a few failed naps (which make bed time harder) we decided to instead drop the bed time nursing next. My husband managed to get him down and after about three nights of dad only, I could also get him down at night without him crying to nurse. I just told him milk was only for nap time and we stuck with a book, rock, bed routine. Cutting down to just the nap nursing session really helped my nursing aversion and it felt less urgent to totally wean. Two months later I decided to try to drop that last session (as an Xmas gift to myself). I told him the milk was all gone and we stuck with the now established bed time routine and it works. A sometimes adorable/irritating side effect of weaning is that he likes to check in with my “milkers” – shoving his head inside my shirt and wistfully saying hi milkers, how are you/i miss you.
    Okay I’ll wrap up but I was surprised by how few tears there were – he genuinely cried maybe once when I reminded him milk was all gone? Having dad at bedtime caused a complete meltdown at 23 months but went okay a few months later – I guess he was just more ready than I realized. Asking for help gave me resolve to try something and risk disrupting our sleep – thanks for the advice! I’m not sure I can describe the relief of waking up and knowing after 2+ years that no one needs my boobs today!