Whether you are planning a romantic getaway with your significant other or you are required to travel for work (download my 45 page guide 'Back to Work & Breastfeeding,' here), you probably feel conflicting emotions about the prospect of leaving your nursling overnight for any period of time. On one hand, you might be excited for some me-time and the prospect of a few nights of uninterrupted sleep. Or perhaps concerns about how your little one will cope in your absence are all-consuming. Maybe you swing between these two extremes depending upon the day! However you feel about your planned trip away, let's unpack those burning questions you have, including:
How can I manage my milk supply & avoid engorgement?
How will my baby or toddler be fed in my absence?
How will my child be comforted & fall asleep without being nursed?
How much do I need to pump whilst I am away (if at all)?
Should I wean my child off the breast before going away?
First and foremost, if you are simply reading this article out of curiosity, but you have no desire (or need) to leave your nursling overnight, that is completely normal. We are all individual and so are our circumstances. Some mothers cannot wait for a night or more away to recharge their batteries, whereas others have zero desire to be separated from their child(ren) overnight. Both are completely normal, and you do not need to explain why you may or may not want time away from your baby, toddler or child to anyone. If you do want or need time away, rest assured that a few nights away need not end your breastfeeding journey. Thousands of mothers around the world go away on girls' weekends and business trips without their breastfed babies every single day. If you want or need to, give yourself permission to do the same.
Busting Myths - You Need to Stop Breastfeeding Before you go Away
There is a common misconception that if you are going away for any period of time overnight that you should wean your child off the breast in anticipation of this separation. I disagree with this for several reasons. Primarily, weaning solely in order to somehow prepare your babe for a night away from you is completely unnecessary. In fact, I believe that it could even make your time away more difficult. Weaning gently is a gradual process and it may be difficult to stop breastfeeding completely by a certain deadline. Adding pressure on yourself and your babe to do this by a specific deadline is not helpful for anyone.
Abrupt weaning also has health risks for you and could lead to engorgement and mastitis, not to mention significant hormonal fluctuations. In the vast majority of cases, breastfeeding will remain your child's comfort once you return from your trip. It's also a wonderful way to reconnect and reassure your child that your relationship has not changed after a period of time apart. As far as they are concerned, if they were breastfed when you went away, they are still breastfeeding when you return. Suddenly not breastfeeding after your trip away could be incredibly distressing for you both. Imagine if your partner went away for the weekend and upon their return inexplicably never kissed you again? You would be left feeling confused and wondering what on earth had changed. Your child is no different. If breastfeeding is an integral part of your relationship now, a few nights away won't change that. In the unlikely event that it does trigger a nursing strike, you can get your breastfeeding journey back on track (if you want to), by doing lots of skin to skin, baby wearing and bathing together.
If you do in fact feel ready to stop breastfeeding, for any reason, you can get gentle, responsive weaning support here.
How Should I Manage my Supply & Avoid Engorgement?
If your baby is less than 3 months old, then your supply is significantly impacted by your hormones. A few nights away will not have a significant impact upon your supply but you will almost certainly need to hand express or pump milk in order to avoid engorgement, clogged ducts or engorgement. If your baby is over 3 months old, then your supply is linked more closely to how often you remove milk from your breasts. In this case, being away from your baby or child for more than two or three nights could have a very small and temporary impact upon your milk supply. To avoid this, wherever possible, pump or express milk as often as your baby typically nurses. For example, if your baby usually nurses first thing in the morning, around 11:00 am when they nap, around 1:00pm when they wake up, at 4:00pm and then before bedtime, try to hand express or pump milk four times throughout the day whilst you are away. If you have access to a freezer and a cooler bag, it could even be possible for you to save any milk that you express to give to your child(ren) later.
But How Will They Sleep?
If your child has ever fallen asleep without you, then you know that it is possible for them to fall asleep without you again. Whether being breastfed to sleep is your baby's preference however, is an entirely different matter. It certainly was in my son's case. He was 3 and still nursing when I first left him overnight. In fact it was him and his daddy who went away to stay with his grandma, leaving me at home. At this point my son had been nursed to sleep for 90% of his naps, at bedtime and if he woke up overnight since he was born. He loved the boob and if I was around, being breastfed to sleep was his first choice. As with any adult or child, though, my son could fall asleep in other ways if and when he felt safe and comfortable enough to do so. Those really are the only two key ingredients for helping your nursling fall asleep without you. Do they feel safe? Do they feel comfortable? If so, you can rest assured that they will fall asleep and be able to go back to sleep if they wake up too.
It sounds simple, but in reality, creating the right environment for your child to fall asleep feeling this way may be complex. My son, for example, is a highly sensitive soul. He has adored his daddy since day one, but that did not mean that he was necessarily happy to fall asleep with him in my presence. In my absence though, it was entirely possible. This was only the case though because my son had plenty of opportunities to practise falling asleep with his dad in the run up to our night apart. Because of this, he knew that the following components were essential at bedtime:
My son having a full tummy and an empty bladder
A few stories before bedtime
Near silence or some kind of white/brown noise
A darkened room
Movement - being rocked or carried
It is also worth noting that my fiancé is a seasoned hand when it comes to taking care of babies. An uncle many times over, he has spent many afternoons and evenings soothing his nephews and nieces to sleep over the years. As a consequence, he embodies a calm confidence which helped our spirited little boy relax into the land of nod without me. If your partner, or your child's caregiver does not have much experience with taking care of your baby or children solo, give them as many opportunities as possible to do so before your trip away.
Practise Makes Perfect
Deciding who to leave your child with will have a significant impact upon how you both feel whilst you are away. Choose the caregiver(s) who you trust most to take the very best care of your babe in your absence. If you can, give your little one and their caregiver lots of time together so that they each feel comfortable in one other’s company without you. Again, if your child's caregiver has not spent much time alone with them beforehand - including putting them to sleep - I recommend creating as many opportunities for this to happen as possible before you go away. This way they will feel relaxed about the fact that they have the necessary knowledge and skills to help your child fall asleep in your absence. You may even consider a bedtime rehearsal of overnight stay ahead of your trip. If this is not possible, practise over nap times instead. The point is to give your baby and their caregiver the chance to figure out what works for them in advance of your departure. Doing this will also help you to feel confident that actually, even if your babe struggles to fall asleep without you, they really are in good, loving hands.
If you have not already, establish a sleep routine that works for your little one and share it with whoever will be taking care of them. It need not be complicated, just a few steps to help prepare them to fall asleep. Remember that we cannot force sleep, we can only provide the conditions to allow it. What conditions does your babe need? Do certain sounds help? Textures? Motion? Whatever helps, let your little one’s caregiver(s) know so that they can provide them for your child.
Make a plan so that your chosen caregiver knows what to do if your baby gets upset in your absence. How are they usually comforted other than nursing? What are their favourite books or toys? Does being outdoors or in water soothe them? Layering comfort associations on top of nursing will help prepare your little one for your temporary separation. If you typically only comfort your babe at the breast, try rocking them or patting them at the same time in the weeks or even months leading up to your departure. By doing this, in time this action will become synonymous with comfort for your child.
The Issue of Eating
Make a plan for how your baby will be fed whilst you are away. Decide whether you will be able to leave enough pumped milk for your baby or whether they will be fed a mixture of formula and breast milk. As a rough guideline, leave around 3oz/90mls to 5oz/150mls
of milk per feed. Regarding breast milk storage, you can store breast milk in a sterilised container or in special breast-milk storage bags:
in the fridge for up to 8 days at 4C or lower
for 2 weeks in the ice compartment of the fridge
for up to 6 months in a freezer at -18C or lower
Paced bottle feeding is recommended for all babies (not just exclusively breastfed ones). You can read more about this, here. If your baby has never accepted a bottle before, fear not. Here are some other age-appropriate ways they can be fed:
Under 3 months - using a syringe, spoon or a small open cup.
Over 3 to 6 months - a free flowing sippy cup or an open cup. All feeding equipment should be sterilised if your baby is under 6 months old.
Beyond 6 months old - by now your baby can have some solids and water in a sippy cup/open cup. Stock up on your baby’s favourite foods so that you know they will consume something even if they do not drink much milk whilst you are apart. You can read more about introducing your breastfed baby to solid foods here.
However old your nursling is, trust that they are incredibly intuitive and will not starve themselves in your absence. As with sleep, your baby really will eat if they feel safe and comfortable enough to do so. So give yourself permission to spend time away from your child and to be fully present wherever you are for the duration of your stay. I assure you that once you are reunited, that reunion feed will feel incredible.
If you would like more personalised support with any aspect of navigating life as a breastfeeding mother, whether you need help taking care of yourself, return to work or stopping breastfeeding, you can book a 1-2-1 consultation with me here.