Sleep training is a very emotive topic, some people are horrified by it and some people feel it’s the only way to cope. I am of the latter camp. After I had my first baby, I had postnatal depression and struggled to bond with him. I was certain that if I could just sleep, I would have a better chance of recovery. Because I was exclusively breastfeeding, the only way I was going to get a full nights sleep was if the baby did. I did a lot of research before I started but there wasn’t much on sleep training a breastfed baby, so I thought I’d share what I learnt when I did it.
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Can you sleep train a breastfed baby?
People often question weather it’s actually possible to sleep train a breastfed baby. The answer is a definite yes. I’ve sleep trained two exclusively breast babies with great success. Breastfed babies are often fed to sleep and this can contribute to reason parents are considering sleep training in the first place.
There is also a suggestion that breast milk is digested more quickly than formula, so breastfed babies need feeding more often in the night. Weather or not this is true, once babies reach a certain age and weight, they are capable of going through the night without a feed, weather that feed is breast milk or formula. It is useful to prepare them for this by reducing the volume of milk they drink in the night, which we’ll discuss more later.
At what age can you sleep train a breastfed baby?
Most guidelines suggest sleep training from six months, with some suggesting from 4 months and this is really no different weather you’re breast feeding or formula feeding. Personally, I sleep trained both of my breastfed babies at 5 months, because I just couldn’t cope with the lack of sleep any longer.
Some parents prefer to wait until their baby is eating a reasonable amount of solids, as they feel more comfortable with them not feeding all night. Personally I would always want to get sleep training done before babies start speaking, hearing your little one call you by name is much harder to deal with.
How long does it take to sleep train a baby?
In my experience, the actual sleep training at night part was very quick, both of my babies slept through on the second night. Nap times took longer. My first baby had become hugely resistant to napping and it took a few weeks of consistent training before he would reliably nap. My daughter would already nap fairly well, all be it swaddled with a dummy, so she was napping well in a few days. For me, the part of sleep training that took the most time was preparing for it, which I’ll explain next.
How do you prepare to sleep train a breastfed baby?
For me, preparation was key to successful sleep training and that preparation took several forms. We set a date that we wanted to start on and worked towards it. We kept in mind that if the baby was unwell at that time, we’d need to change it as it isn’t fair to sleep train a baby who’s ill. I would also recommend planning your sleep training well away from any scheduled vaccinations.
We began by preparing the room. In both cases we moved our babies into their own rooms to sleep train them. This isn’t essential but it worked well for us. I purchased black out blinds for the room, I went with the type where you stick Velcro to your window frame and stick the black out material to it* but lots of people like the suction cup blinds* which we just used for holidays. Removing light from the sleep equation helped create a consistent sleep environment whatever the time of day.
Another important thing we did was clear our schedule for a few weeks so that we could prioritise sleep. I intentionally didn’t sign up for any baby classes or commit to meeting friends so that there would be no pressure to compromise nap times. With our second, we also arranged for our older child to sleep at his Grandparents house for a couple nights so we didn’t have to worry about him being disturbed.
The other thing you might want to do is get some treats in for yourself. If you’re expecting to struggle with the process then a few chocolates/crisps/bottles of gin might help!
Getting a Routine in Place
We already had consistent bedtime routines for both of them but if you don’t I would advise getting this in place before you start sleep training. Introducing cues that it will be sleep time soon can really help. For us, we did bath (which helps with sleep in itself), story, feed, a song, then into bed saying “sleepy time now, sweet dreams, see you in the morning” (which we still say now despite them being 7 and 9!). Essentially, it doesn’t matter too much what your routine is as long as you have one. We also introduced a pre nap routine with our second, just a story and a song, but this didn’t happen until we started sleep training with our oldest because the only way to get him to nap was in the car.
Reducing the amount of milk your baby drinks in the night
The key thing you need to do when preparing to sleep train a breastfed baby is reducing the amount of milk they drink in the night. With a formula fed baby this is easy but when you’re sleep training a breastfed baby, it’s a bit more complicated. What we did was time how long we were feeding for at each night feed. Then, starting at the length of the longest feed, we reduced it, initially by two minutes each night, then by 1, until we were at 3 minutes.
How long this will take will depend on how long your baby is breastfeeding for to start with but ours were both around two weeks. If your baby usually feeds back to sleep this can be a tricky stage but I found if I unlatched them then held them until they were asleep I could manage it.
By doing this, I knew that by the time we started sleep training, they were drinking only a tiny bit of milk each night and their bodies wouldn’t miss it. I made no attempt to reduce the number of breastfeeds they had, purely because in my experience there was zero chance of them going back to sleep without a breastfeed but if your child is different then by all means give it a go.
Our Sleep Training schedule
Both of our babies were 5 months when we sleep trained them so we used the same schedule. If your baby is a different age I’d suggest you check out the recommended sleep schedule for those ages. Our schedule for sleep training a breastfed baby went like this:
6am Awake and breastfeed
8.30am morning nap
10.30am awake and breastfeed
12.45pm Main nap
3pm awake and breastfeed
4.30 Mini nap (helps to avoid over tiredness at bedtime)
5pm awake and breastfeed
The Sleep Training Method we used
Our method was a bit of a hotch potch of methods I’d read in numerous sleep training books. It’s probably best described as a slightly gentler version of the cry it out sleep training style, adapted for a breastfed baby.
Once all the preparation was complete and we reached the big day, we started at bedtime as this is usually easier than nap time. The aim is to put the baby in bed sleepy but awake, and then leave them to sleep. If they cry, you wait ten minutes and then go in and soothe them for a few minutes but without picking them up. You then leave and if they cry again, you go in after 5 minutes and soothe them, again with no picking up and then continue at 5 minute intervals until they eventually go to sleep.
Sounds like a simple step by step plan right? In reality it will be much messier. For example, my first would never go back to sleep just by being soothed in the cot so I had to adjust my plan and leave once he’d stopped proper crying and was just moaning. My second seemed to get more upset when I came in so we found longer gaps worked better for her.
Some babies will cry themselves sick and you’ll have to decide if you just change their sheets and carry on or if that’s too much for you. Sometimes, your instincts might tell you that, despite your preparation, your baby isn’t in the best place to do it right then and you’ll have to decide if that instinct is right or if you’re just not comfortable doing it.
For most babies, nap times are harder. You use the same intervals to check on them if they are crying and continue until the end of the scheduled nap, then you get them up, weather they’ve slept of not. The key is to keep at it and stick to a consistent routine. Make sure you don’t let them sleep in the car or buggy or you’ll ruin your chances of getting them to sleep at home.
Our experience of sleep training our first baby
Come bedtime, we did our usual bedtime routine but chatted and ticked our baby while we fed him to keep him awake. We then sang our song, said our special words and put him in his cot in the advised “sleepy but awake” state and waited for the crying to start. But it didn’t. He went to sleep. Now we’d tried this magical “Sleepy but awake” thing before with no success so weren’t expecting him to go to sleep but go to sleep he did. Maybe it was a fluke, maybe he sensed out determination, who knows. He slept until about 1am, then started to grumble. As it wasn’t proper crying, we didn’t go in. The grumbling carried on, on and off until about 4am, then he slept soundly until 6.15. As you can imagine, we were over the moon. The next night, he slept right through without a sound.
Nap times were more complicated. We had reached the point where he cried if he even suspected I was trying to get him to sleep. He would cry himself to sleep while I rocked him, resisting to the very last. He cried all through the morning nap but did settle fairly quickly for the second. For the next few days most naps involved a bit of grizzling and then sleep and within a few weeks he was going straight off for all of his naps apart from the short late afternoon one which we decided to drop.
Our experience of sleep training our second baby
Our second experience of sleep training a breastfed baby was complicated by the fact she had a dummy. Having had so much trouble with our first colicky baby who refused to nap, we had resolved to try swaddling and a dummy this time round. They worked and she was much more willing to nap, but by 5 months they were creating their own problems. Every night she would wriggle her way out of the swaddle and then cry because she could move too much. She was also losing the dummy, on average 10 times a night, and wouldn’t sleep until I put it back in. If I didn’t put it back in quick enough, she would demand a breastfed before she would sleep again. We decided to go cold turkey, take away the dummy and the swaddle and sleep train at the same time.
Given all of this, we were even more surprised when she went straight to sleep on night one. Unfortunately by midnight, she was awake and screaming the place down. We visited at the chosen intervals but to be honest I think when she eventually went back to sleep at 4am it was just because she was exhausted.
The next day nap times were better than we expected, a little bit of crying but not the crying for the whole nap time we’d had with the first. We put her to bed that night expecting another night of tears and didn’t hear from her until morning. Nap times improved quickly with her and she kept to late afternoon mini nap for a few months which helped as she tended to get really overtired before bedtime without it.
When my children were babies, I was obsessed with sleep and read a lot of books before I started sleep training. While there are none specifically about sleep training a breastfed baby, the ones I would recommend are: “The Sensational Baby Sleep Plan*” “Save our Sleep*” and “The Baby Sleep Solution*”. You mind also want to look “Solve your Child’s Sleep Problems*” by Richard Ferber who was the originator of the “Cry it Out” method.
If you have an early riser, have a look at my post on early morning waking in babies and toddlers.
For us, sleep Training was life changing, my children still sleep well now and I have no regrets about doing it. It’s not for everyone, but it was right for us.
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Maureen Pang says
Thank you so much for writing this article. I thought there was no way I can sleep train whilst breastfeeding. But my 8 month old still fall asleep everytime I feed him. Should I wake him up after feeding so I can put him down awake?
I would yes, not so that he is completely awake, but enough that he is aware that you’re leaving.
Patricia A says
Did you start with nighttime sleep first for a while, then moved on to naps? or did you start both at the same time?
how would baby differentiate nighttime sleep from naps?
Hi Patricia, We went for both at the same time, in general nap times took longer to establish but we felt we consistently was important. We helped our babies to differentiate day from night from very early on by dressing them in “proper” clothes during the day and sleep suites at night.
Thanks for this. An interesting read. My LO 5 months can self soothe during the day for all his naps but still wakes up at night and I can no longer cope! He needs to be nursed or rocked but doesn’t need this during the day!
Will have to try cry it out again during the night to see how we can progress as I know he is almost there!
So I’ve started this tonight and wondering if I already bungled things. It was very difficult but my baby (nearly 7mo) fell asleep within 30 minutes of being laid down. It was very difficult to hear the crying but I did my check ins and he did it! An hour later he woke crying and I fed him. He fell asleep nursing and I put him down to sleep. Did I already undo all the frustration we just went through on night one???
Thanks Jo for this article. I am planning to sleep train my daughter soon. My concern is did you pump breastmilk in between the 11hrs sleep stretch? Did it affect your milk supply? I not sure if I should pump or not when I start to sleep train.
Hi Anne, no I didn’t pump. My body adjusted to not breastfeeding at night but still produced plenty of milk in the day and I carried on breastfeeding both time until past the one year mark.
katherine Rice says
Thankyou so much for writing this article. I’ve been in hell with my daughter who is nearly a year and still wakes 5 plus times a night. I’m at my wits end and have been looking to find some thing to give me hope that sleep training might be the answer for us, and that there is a method to it.
It’s so hard when they don’t sleep isn’t it, effects every part of your life. I hope our method works for you, it certainly did for us.