How Weaning from Breastfeeding May Affect Your Baby’s Sleep

If you’re considering weaning your baby from breastfeeding to a bottle or cup, you’re probably thinking about which weaning method you’ll use. Or, you might be considering which bottle or cup will make the transition easiest. And, if you’re reading The Baby Sleep Site, you are probably also thinking about how this may impact your baby’s sleep. This article will discuss ways, both good and bad, that weaning from breastfeeding may impact your baby’s sleep.

Weaning from breastfeeding can cause an otherwise great sleeper to wake and fuss more often, and if your baby already struggles with sleep, weaning can make your nights even more sleepless. On the other hand, if your baby is breastfeeding to sleep, weaning can improve sleep, in some cases.

A Word of Warning: A Reason Not to Wean from Breastfeeding!

Breastmilk digests faster than formula. For this reason, formula-fed babies do tend to sleep for longer stretches at night than breastfed babies, sometimes, depending on the baby. That said, if you’re considering weaning to formula in an effort to get your baby to sleep through the night, please reconsider. This isn’t a strategy we recommend here at The Baby Sleep Site®, simply because we’ve found that it is possible to breastfeed your baby AND have him sleep well at night and for naps. Changing your baby’s food source probably won’t change his sleeping habits; instead, you’re better off working on the sleeping habits themselves. We work with many families who don’t breastfeed that have just as many baby sleep problems and babies who do not sleep through the night.

Why Will Weaning Impact My Baby’s Sleep?

The reason weaning can have a major impact on sleep is because weaning is about more than simply exchanging one food source for another. For our babies, the end of breastfeeding can be an emotional, difficult experience.


How Will Weaning Impact My Baby’s Sleep?

For starters, weaning means the end of prolonged skin-to-skin contact between mom and baby. Remember that breastfeeding is more than just feeding time; it has comforting associations for baby. Some babies even end up using mom as a “human pacifier”! For these reasons, weaning can make your baby much fussier than normal, which can lead to interrupted naps and lots of nighttime waking.

Weaning can also disturb your baby’s sleep if you’ve made a habit of nursing your little one to sleep each night. If that’s the case, then nursing has likely become a sleep association for your baby. Therefore, when you change that feeding, you’re changing the thing he needs to fall asleep. This can make bedtime an exhausting battle each night.

If your baby is no longer feeding at night, then her nighttime sleep may or may not be affected. Her naps, however, could be. If you’re weaning and find that your baby’s naps are disrupted because of it, consider downloading our FREE napping guide, 7 Common Baby Nap and Sleep Schedule Mistakes.

Weaning can also impact your baby’s sleep when the weaning is “mom-initiated” instead of “baby-initiated.” Generally, at some point between 1 and 2 years of age, a baby will show signs of self-weaning. Baby-initiated weaning like this is usually easier and takes less time. Of course, baby-initiated weaning isn’t always possible; sometimes weaning has to happen earlier! If you’re weaning your baby before the one-year mark, however, it’s important to remember that the process may take longer, and your baby’s sleep may be disrupted.

Once you begin to wean, you may notice that it takes a little time for your baby’s appetite to adjust. This can be another reason for sudden nighttime waking and sleeplessness — your baby’s appetite is adjusting to this new method of feeding. This adjustment can take 1-2 weeks. You can help your baby during this time by making sure you’re offering enough nourishment during the day. But, remember that breast milk and formula should be your baby’s primary nutrition during the first year, so do not overcompensate with solids, if it’s not time. Check with your doctor on adequate amounts of formula for your baby’s age.

Finally, it isn’t just baby’s sleep that may be disrupted during the weaning process — mom’s may be, too! Weaning can lead to engorgement and possible infection, called mastitis. This is especially true for moms who try to wean their babies quickly, cutting out multiple feedings at once.

How Can I Help My Baby Sleep Well During the Weaning Process?

Avoid a “cold turkey” approach (in which you abruptly stop nursing). This can be very upsetting for your baby, and, as mentioned earlier, it’s likely to cause complications for you. Instead, opt for a gentler, “baby-led” or “slow and steady” approach; it’ll be far less disruptive to your baby’s sleep. A “slow and steady” approach would look something like this:

  • At feeding time, nurse your baby as you normally would. Then, offer your baby a bottle of formula or cup of milk.
  • When your baby has gotten used to the bottle/cup, then reverse these steps: offer the bottle/cup first, followed by a nursing.

Consider using the “Don’t Offer, Don’t Refuse” method. This is the gentlest way to wean. With this method, you don’t offer your baby the breast, but if your baby is clamoring to nurse, you don’t refuse her, either. This method is slower, but if you have the time to put in, it’ll mean more restful nights and restful naps for your baby!

Don’t wean too fast! Nicole remembers that while weaning one of her sons, he’d start biting her shoulder when she’d hold him. That’s a classic sign of weaning too fast, and she had to slow down. Experts recommend that you eliminate no more than one nursing at a time; then, wait about a week to let your baby’s appetite adjust.

Like so many other things in life, weaning goes best if there’s a plan in place. Try to plan weaning during times when life is most normal — in other words, don’t wean around a holiday or a vacation, during a move, right before the birth of a new baby, etc.

That said, remember that you work the plan — don’t let the plan work you! Life happens, and unexpected things like teething, illness, a work-related trip, new medication for mom, etc. can sometimes destroy a mom’s best-laid plans. What’s more, you might find that your baby simply refuses to cooperate! You didn’t exactly consult him when you made your plan, after all. If this is the case for you, remember that like sleep training, weaning is not a battle to be won. Consider taking a break and trying again later if your baby is showing major signs of resistance.

What about you? Did you find that weaning affected your baby’s sleep? Do you have any weaning tips to offer moms who are struggling?

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46 thoughts on “How Weaning from Breastfeeding May Affect Your Baby’s Sleep”

  1. @ Kristine — that’s a good distinction, I think. Maybe it’s not that there’s a window when weaning goes perfectly; instead, maybe it’s that there are times when a toddler’s development make weaning easier or harder.

    @ Lana — to each her own! It can be easy to get lost in the breastfeeding literature that’s out there, or to feel pressured to either stop or continue nursing. Only you know when it’s best for you (and your daughter) to be done.

  2. I breast fed exclusively for the first six months and my daughter is 2 years now and does not sleep through the night because she wakes up looking for that breast and seems very miserable when she is denied. I find the statement about bonding through breastfeeding is true. I love her but still think its time to stop breast feeding

  3. In following up to my previous comment regarding ‘weaning windows’, I have come across several references to developmental changes at 13-15 months and 19-22 months that might ease the weaning process. In other words, there might not be a actual weaning window, but children might be less adaptable to change in the 15-19 month range and weaning might prove to be more difficult at that time. I would love to know if anyone else can find any information on this, and/or let us know, if you tried mother led weaning several times, if you found your baby was more accepting at certain ages than others. When did weaning ‘stick’ for your baby?

  4. @ Chris — if she’s a highly routine-oriented kid, it could just be that replacing the bedtime feeding with a cup of milk is throwing her off a little. Some kids are more sensitive to changes in routine than others. If that’s it, I imagine it’ll likely pass quickly. It could also be a sleep regression; one of those can take place around 18 months. That’s actually the topic of next week’s blog article, so check back to read it and see if that’s what you might be dealing with 🙂

  5. My daughter is 18 months and has been sleeping soundly through the night since she was 7 weeks. She naps for 2 hours every afternoon, and goes to bed between 730 and 8 every night until 730 or 8 every morning. For the last 3 months, she has only been nursing in the morning and at bedtime. Now, in an attempt to wean we have cut out the bedtime nursing, giving her a cup of milk instead and since then she’s been up at between 230 and 3 almost every night. Some nights its crying, others she figures its time to get up. She has never been a ‘nurse for comfort’ type kiddo; she was never ever nursed to sleep, she didn’t wake for night feeds after 7 weeks, and the bedtime feed was first to go because she was easily distracted and was barely feeding by the time we weaned. I’ve followed the ‘Don’t Ask-Don’t Refuse’ philosophy while cutting out the bedtime feed, and she has never sought out the opportunity to nurse, nor is she really showing signs of wanting to nurse when she wakes up in the middle of the night. I’m so confused! Could it be a sleep association to nursing that neither of us knew was there until it was gone, or does it sound lilke good old 18 month sleep regression?

  6. @ Sasha — glad to hear night weaning led to better sleep for you! (And so quickly, too!) Thanks for sharing your experience.

  7. Oh it was one of the nicest things when I weaned my boy. even if it sounds selfish, it was such a relief!
    he was around 1,5 yrs, and I was pretty tired by than. he slept fine through the night since 2 or 3 months. I had to wake him up myself so that he could get a proper feed!
    around 1 he started waking every night (only once a night. I know it`s not too bad and it`s not something unusual, though it was frustrating after almost a year of good night sleep). it was going on for months and I thought it was due to anxiety (relationship with his father was not so good, unfortunatly) otherwise I didn`t know what to think.
    than I just desided to wean because to me it seemed that it was more of a habit than a real need, and I was really tired. and what do you think? he started sleeping through the night since the 2nd night after weaning! Maybe I should stop night feedings earlier, but I just couldn`t figure it out!

  8. @ Whitney — thanks for this link! Very helpful. And you’re right, of course — what works for some babies won’t work for others. My firstborn is an intense little guy still, even at 4 1/2 years old, and all change was traumatic for him, too. Still is 🙂

  9. This is an interesting article. I am very thankful that you point out that night sleep is more about baby habits and temperament than the method of feeding (breast vs. bottle). Both of mine have been frequent wakers. I just wanted to point out that there is another option. If your baby is over a year old, and you are interested in cutting back on nursing at night, you don’t have to wean entirely, but can night wean instead. There is a very helpful plan here (works for either co-sleeping families or baby sleeping in a crib):

    While Gordon suggests 3 days at each stage, many people I know have spent weeks on each stage, which has made the transition go more smoothly. However, I have to point out that for some babies with some temperaments, there is just not such thing as gentle — ANY change will be traumatic (this was my first!). But, I think it is an option that could help some people and wanted to post it.

    Wishing everyone a good night’s sleep!

  10. @ Zamina — glad you found this article helpful! Sorry, though, that you’re struggling with the aftermath of that 8/9/10 month sleep regression 🙁 Those can be so hard.

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