Ask Our Experts: Ways to Settle a Breastfed Toddler to Sleep as They Get Older

Cathy McCormick

NDC Possum Clinic Practitioner, Midwife and Lactation Consultant, Cathy McCormick from HolisticBaby offers her advice.

Q: I have a 19-month-old daughter who I’m still breastfeeding. This is how I get her to sleep or by rocking her in the pram and then transferring her to her cot when she is asleep. She wakes one to two times in the night when I breastfeed or rock her to sleep again. I’m concerned this way might not be so easy as she gets older. Can you suggest any other ideas?

Cathy: It sounds like you and your daughter are having a lovely breastfeeding experience. You are enjoying not only the nutritional benefits but the emotional and sensory nourishment breastfeeding gives to a mother/child relationship. Breastfeeding is so connected to turning the dial down and relaxing the nervous system which is why your daughter’s biological sleep regulators do their job and she settles to sleep. Research says waking in the night is very common right into toddlerhood and sometimes beyond. Often though, a child is not looking for the nutrition but looking for the sensory warmth a breastfeed provides, and as long as you are happy to keep doing this you don’t need to worry.

The main thing to keep an eye on is ensuring you have the two main sleep regulators working optimally:

  1. Circadian clock… knowing it’s day and night. Make a clear distinction: Day feeds are alert, talking, chatting, touching, etc. while night feeds are quiet and very sleepy so everyone goes back to sleep as quickly as possible. Start the day ideally at the same time – this is important so her body clock can sync with her circadian clock.
  2. Sleep-wake homeostatic pressure. This is low in the mornings, as we have been asleep at night, and slowly rises as the day goes on until night time where it’s very high and we go to sleep easily – as long as we also work with our children’s nervous system which we should try to keep as relaxed possible when it comes to bedtime. So, we want to make sure our babies/toddlers aren’t having big blocks of sleep during the day so that most of their sleep happens at night. The job of a daytime nap is to just drop the sleep pressure a little bit so we can get on with the day and slowly allow it to keep rising, that way by bedtime it’s high enough that your baby/toddler is very tired and will go to sleep easily. Research has found baby/toddler sleep is highly variable in how much they need. Some need as little as 9 hours in 24hrs and others as much as 18 hrs, especially in the first year of life. Then it averages out to about 11hrs-15hrs. Both ends of the spectrum are normal.

Lastly regarding your question of ‘this may not be as easy when she gets older.’ Or you may decide you don’t want to do this anymore?

Your daughter is very clever and we are teaching them new things all the time… how to talk, how to get clothes on, how to play games etc. It’s just about teaching her something new. Storytelling can be a very gentle way to start. Such as, “One day, at night, all the milk will be gone and we will just have to cuddle at night instead. Milk starts again when the sun comes up.” You just keep telling her the same story. Or some mums decide it’s really disrupting their sleep and want to stop breastfeeding so, instead of mum getting up, another loving carer like dad gets up instead and offers a bottle/cup of water to the baby/toddler if they’re thirsty and cuddles them back to sleep.

With the rocking, it does often get difficult as they get heavier. You can again tell a story and wean off. Maybe say, “We rock for a few minutes then we just hold hands,” or stroke her back. Again, this offers the sensory touch and reassurance they are looking for. Make small changes one baby step at a time and often they don’t notice.

In the meantime, enjoy it if you’re happy, make your days fun and busy with lots of new experiences together. It feels so intense when we are in the early years but many mothers look back and are so pleased they didn’t rush change as once they stop, often we miss the middle of the night special feeds and cuddles.


Follow Cathy on Instagram @holisticbaby. To book a consultation with Cathy, contact her via the details on her website.

Soteria editor, Skye Ross recently night weaned her 2-year-old daughter. See her interview about their experience here.

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