Breastfeeding your baby to sleep?

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Among  all the rules about baby sleep, you are certain to hear advice to never, ever allow your baby to fall asleep on the breast!

Although you may like to use other sleep cues as well as breastfeeding, advice that letting your baby fall asleep on the breast will create bad habits or that he will never learn to ‘self settle’  is unrealistic and impractical. Most newborns and young babies need some help to fall asleep. This is a complex neurological process that is a reflection of your baby’s developmental stages, not what you have ‘taught’ your baby: for the first four months, babies enter sleep from an active sleep phase and younger babies also have a startle reflex that can wake them randomly, so they will usually need help to calm and settle into a deeper sleep at first. Also, at new developmental stages, your baby’s little brain will be so busy he may have trouble ‘switching off’ and relaxing, so he may need some extra help. The good news is that by supporting and soothing your baby now you are helping him develop the brain wiring to be able to soothe himself when he is developmentally ready – without any sort of ‘training’.

It is the most natural thing in the world for a relaxed mother and baby to snuggle and doze together as they breastfeed. And it isn’t only younger babies who will find this comforting – an active toddler can often be easily calmed by nursing at bedtime. The soporific effect of breastfeeding is hormonally induced: Breastmilk contains a range of hormones, including oxytocin, prolactin and cholecystokinen (CCK). These hormones are released in both mother and baby during breastfeeding and have a sedating effect on both of you. Breastmilk has also been shown to supply a type of endocannabinoid – the natural neurotransmitters that marijuana stimulates. So when your baby falls off your breast all drowsy and relaxed, looking as though he is ‘milk drunk’ you could say he is actually ‘milk stoned’!

Research suggests that your ‘night time’ milk may be even more effective at helping your baby  sleep: melatonin, a sleep inducing hormone is barely detectable in breastmilk during the day, but peaks during the night and recent studies by Spanish scientists show that components in mothers’ mik can vary significantly over a 24 hour period. These researchers studied samples of breastmilk taken from healthy mothers at different times of the day and found concentrations of sleep inducing amino acids, hormones and nucleotides (proteins known to have a role in exciting and relaxing the nervous system), were stronger after dark than during the day.They suggest that these changes in the chemistry of breastmilk could help babies establish their own circadian rhythms.

The lead researcher of this study, Dr Christina Sanchez, advises that breast milk should be fed fresh or if you are expressing, it is best to take note of the time you express milk then feed it to your baby at the same time of day. She says, “you wouldn’t give a coffee at night, and the same is true of breast milk. It has day specific ingredients that stimulate activity in the infant, and other night-time components that help the baby rest.”

With so much evidence that mama’s milk actually helps babies sleep, it makes no sense at all to resist this naturally sedating and bonding process, or to wake a baby who has fallen asleep against your warm body only to try some other settling technique or plug him up with a dummy to get him to sleep again. However, if you do want to make changes, you can gently wean from feeding your baby to sleep. See how here.

And, just in case you are still worried about those voices warning you about ‘bad habits’ or that your baby will never outgrow needing a breast to help him sleep, take heart – I am sure there aren’t many mums who have had to set up side car cots next to their grown up kids and, if your child does still likes to snuggle up to a breast when he’s twenty one – you can be sure it won’t be yours!

Pinky McKay is an internationally certified Lactation Consultant and best-selling babycare author. Her new revised version of Sleeping Like a Baby is available in print and audio.

1 COMMENT

  1. You’re hilarious Pinky. I loved my baby’s milk blissed face and now I know he was really milk stoned. Both my babies were breast fed to sleep despite the advice I received to the contrary.

  2. Still breastfeeding my 20 month old to sleep, which I am ok about and she is happy, but what happens down the track? How did you stop Anna? Any advice please?

    • Don’t worry about it! She is only one! She will probably lose the need for it on her own sometime soon anyway, and then never again will she want to do it. 🙁 my toddlers have all self weaned when I got pregnant again and lost my milk supply. You could always take herbs to decrease or dry up your supply?

    • I bf my daughter to sleep until she was 21 months. One night she just said she didn’t want it and asked for cuddle. We cuddle to sleep now. Honestly I didn’t believe she would ever stop as she was feeding all night until 18 months but it DID happen, gently and with no tears! Have faith 🙂

  3. I to was told with my first child not to breastfeed to sleep. So I did as I was told and struggled for weeks, when I finally gave in it was blissfull !! I began co sleeping, feeding to sleep and following my heart.
    He is now Seven and has self settled for years (through a gradual process of support from me and my husband). I have also followed my heart for my four year old and four month old and we all wonderfully sleeping.
    My advice is to do what feels right for you, listen to other ways to settle but in the end go with your heart and the path of least resistance, for a happy baby and a happy you xxxxx

  4. Hey pinky, how the talk of this leading to tooth decay in toddlers?

    My son is 26 months old and still breastfeeds to sleep most nights, he had tooth decay and the dentists kind of point the finger that way. Was curious as to your thoughts on the topic.

  5. I have the same question as Tracy. I’m happily doing this with my 15 months old but I’m wondering how it will naturally end 🙂

  6. And what about when it does become a problem for you? What then? I have fed on demand, fed to sleep etc etc and now my baby has no idea how to self settle, like everyone says! At 6 months he’s waking hourly for feeds (after which I still feel full so he’s not taking much), waking at 5 (still tired but unable to re-settle). I can’t even put him down for a nap on his own because as soon as he realises he’s lying down on his own he starts stirring and stirs himself more and more until he wakes up and cries which escalates quickly to full blown screaming (have only tried that once!) I don’t want to practice controlled crying an am looking for gentle, AP advice about this!!!

  7. Ok so i think this baby is completely normal and mumma is doing a great job, BUT i have a question… my 3month old daughter feeds 1.5-2 hourly in the day and then feeds at 930/10pm at night and i dont hear from her again till bout 630am. She is a very happy content baby gaining weight ( she is little but still gaining at a nice pace) I am worried this is a problem knowing babies get there best milk at night… I have HEAPS of milk and she drinks it all. Is this ok… do i not try and fix something thats not broken? She has done this since the 1st night we were home. and has cat naps of bout 30 mins each in the day?

  8. I still happily breastfeed my 25mth old off to sleep. Though she is naturally starting to want to cuddle before falling fully asleep and no longer wakes as often in the night. I’ve enjoyed the ability to magically flick the sleep switch just with my milk alone.
    Also for those people who may say that this makes it impossible for Dad/someone else to put toddler to sleep, I’ve found that if I’m out she is happy to fall asleep cuddled up to Daddy as well.
    Tracy I’ve found my daughter has just slowly started hopping off and turning away for cuddles and then going to sleep, she doesn’t do it every night but over time I’ve noticed it becoming more common. I’m guessing eventually she just won’t need her “milkies” anymore and will just enjoy a cuddle/read a book/kiss goodnight.

  9. I enjoy feeding my nearly 9mo daughter to sleep day and night. However, my concern is that this makes her not ready for care. I do offer her breastfeeds at other times but she is not interested then 🙂 When and how do I insist on changing the pattern we both enjoy? (I’m planning to return to work in 2-3 months).

  10. Still feeding 26 month old….yes, two and two months….still sharing bed and still feeding in night. It’s ok. We are both fine and it has really helped her teething! It’s ok to carry on!!!!!!

  11. Fantastic article! I have been happily feeding my 5 month old to sleep up until now. The only problem is that my husband is not able to settle her to sleep when I’m not around, and I’m going back to work in a few weeks. I’ve been playing the same music every time she falls asleep for about 2 weeks now and for the last few days I’ve tried detaching her just before she falls asleep and then rocking from that point, but it has still been impossible for anyone else to put her to sleep, or even for me to do it without having the boob to relax her first. I’m starting to get a little worried about what will happen when I go back to work, to make matters worse she won’t take a bottle either!

  12. My daughter was breastfed to sleep until 34 months:) almost 3… She said to me one night, I think I’m too old for booby now mummy, oh are you? Yeah! And that was it!! No cries, no drama, was beautiful. She is 5 now and still likes to snuggle and feel skin often, just go with it, they grow up so fast!!!

  13. Thank you! My lo is 3 and we still breastfeed to sleep! I used to be uptight about telling people, but now if anyone says something “smart” I just smile and say “I’m sure you have some parenting habits I would frown upon but guess what I’ll never judge :)”.

  14. I nurse my baby to sleep and throughout the night he dreamfeeds. My concern is that he will have issues with his teeth later. That happened to a friend of mine with her daughter. Any advice on that?

  15. I breastfed both of my babies to sleep. Tracy — with my son, when he got to over 20 lbs I was no longer able to carry him to his room and put him down without waking him. So once he was about 10 months old I would breastfeed him to sleep only in one certain chair in his room. After a while he rarely asked to breastfeed unless I sat in that chair. So when he got to about 15 months and I wanted him to learn to fall asleep on his own, I started nursing him to almost asleep and then putting him in his crib. Once he got used to that, I just stopped sitting in that chair, and he stopped asking for it. My daughter nursed to sleep until 22 mos. Read “the no cry sleep solution” by Elizabeth Pantley, she has some good suggestions.

  16. I was naive and scared with my first. I was scared to let him sleep on his belly and was going to try and sleep train him. But then I realized that that is just crazy. He slept best with me. I felt like people would try to tell me how to raise my child like I didn’t know what I was doing. I finally had to say, this is my child and I will do what I feel is best for him. Yes, he slept with me until he was 3, yes he nursed until he was 18 months (wish we would have gone longer but felt pressured to stop along with a med I had to take making him sick) and yes he is perfectly fine. With my second, I didn’t let anyone say anything to me. I said I’m going to do this my way. I learned what my baby’s personality was like and went from there. He is a snuggle bug and loves mama boob, so the best thing is for him to sleep with mommy and daddy. I don’t think we will have issues at all getting him to sleep in his own bed when it comes time and I don’t think there will be an issues weaning him when he’s ready because he already tries so hard to be like big brother 🙂 I say go with your natural instincts and don’t let other people dictate how you raise your child 🙂

  17. I was constantly hounded by midwives at the hospital not to let my daughter fall asleep. When at home I gave in and let her. She ceased B/F at 23 months and she is fine putting herself to sleep now at 2 and a half. I’m due in three weeks to have a boy. This time I will be telling the midwives I will be doing what I think is best thank you!
    Thanks for this blog and info. It’s made me feel better and knowing I’m doing the right thing.
    B xxxx

  18. I fed my nearly 1 yr old to sleep up until a week ago. We went to sleep school as he was waking up 4-5 times a night for another feed to go to sleep. I was over it. And it worked. He now sleeps 12+ hours at night which means I get a decent amount of sleep too. I hope I’ll be feeling better soon cos I’m still exhausted!

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