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.