Written by: Wendy, IBCLC
Parents of little ones are tired—that’s just a fact. Babies often don’t sleep through the night. It can take them forever to fall asleep at times, and they are apt to wake up at the crack of dawn. On top of that, babies need near-constant care during the day, and parents end up having to meet those demands functioning on very little sleep. Talk about exhausting!
It makes sense that parents are looking for advice about how to get their babies to sleep better. The problem is, when you begin to ask for advice about baby sleep or scour the internet for answers, you are often told that you are doing something wrong. You might be told that you shouldn’t rock or shush your baby until they are asleep, that you should teach them to self-soothe, and that you should put them to sleep “drowsy but awake.”
But the biggest baby sleep violation? Nursing your baby to sleep.
NAVIGATING SLEEP ADVICE AS A BREASTFEEDING PARENT
Almost every breastfeeding parent who looks for advice about baby sleep will be told that nursing to sleep is a terrible idea. It’s the ultimate “sleep crutch,” they’ll be told. If you nurse your baby to sleep, they will need to nurse every time they wake up and will never learn to sleep independently. Nursing to sleep is a terrible habit. And the list goes on…
Here’s the thing, though. Many breastfeeding parents will say that nursing their baby to sleep is actually the easiest part of baby sleep. It’s what puts their baby to sleep the fastest and what soothes them the most if they wake up in the middle of the night. Most find nursing to sleep personally relaxing and a special way to reconnect with their baby at the end of a long, busy day.
These parents might wonder if nursing to sleep is really something they should give up. They wonder if it’s what’s really causing their baby to wake up in the middle of the night and whether it’s setting their baby up for a lifetime of poor sleep habits.
As an IBCLC who has counseled thousands of new parents and who breastfed her children to sleep for many years, I can say this much. Nursing to sleep is totally normal and common. Almost every nursing parent does it most or all of the time. And it definitely doesn’t set your child up for long-term poor sleep habits.
Not only that but contrary to what you might have been told, nursing to sleep might actually help your baby sleep better!
HOW CAN NURSING YOUR BABY TO SLEEP BE HELPFUL?
Suckling releases a hormone in your baby called cholecystokinin (CCK) that naturally makes them sleepy. Breast milk itself also has components that help babies fall asleep. Breast milk composition changes at night to support sleep, showing a rise in melatonin, which helps babies fall asleep more easily.
It’s almost as if nature designed babies to fall asleep nursing!
Breastfeeding is also naturally relaxing and sleep-inducing for breastfeeding parents, releasing hormones like oxytocin and prolactin that make them sleepy.
Did you ever notice yourself nodding off while nursing your baby to sleep? Or have you found that even when you get up in the middle of the night with your baby to nurse, you get drowsy and fall back asleep fairly easily?
It’s been reported that breastfeeding parents actually sleep better than non-breastfeeding parents, even if their babies frequently wake at night, with researchers reporting an average of 45 minutes extra shut-eye for breastfeeding parents.
As for the idea of setting up bad sleep habits, there isn’t any research out about whether nursing to sleep does that. But from my personal and professional observations, how well or how poorly your baby sleeps has to do with a number of factors, including temperament, genetics, and what developmental stage your baby is in. Things like growth spurts, illness, and teething also periodically affect sleep.
THE TRUTH ABOUT INFANT SLEEP
The truth is, whatever you do—whether you sleep train your baby, co-sleep with your baby, nurse your baby to sleep, or stop nursing your baby to sleep—babies just don’t sleep that great in their first few years of life.
And the hard truth that almost no parent wants to hear is that there isn’t much you can do about it. Your best bet is to do things like go to sleep a little earlier when possible, take naps when you can, and pare down your life so that you can get through these tiring few years when you are parenting babies.
WAKING THROUGHOUT THE NIGHT
Yes, it’s possible that stopping the habit of nursing to sleep may make your baby sleep a little better. But whether that will happen is uncertain and may be short-lived. Usually, the reasons babies wake are not because of how they are put to sleep or whether or not their parents are involved in their bedtime ritual. They wake because they have a need—like hunger, loneliness, a tooth that’s pushing through, or a scary dream.
Babies’ needs at night are BIG, and the fact is, nursing them to sleep and in the middle of the night can fulfill many of their most important needs. Nursing helps feed their hunger, soothes them, and helps them fall back asleep if they are feeling uncomfortable or emotional.
Remember, babies can’t tell you why they are waking up. But most of the time, nursing is just the thing that they need. Breastfeeding parents usually know this on an instinctual level, too.
DO WHAT FEELS RIGHT FOR YOU & YOUR BABY
So, yes, if you think breaking the nurse/sleep might help your baby sleep better, go for it. It may or may not work, but if you feel desperate for a solution, it’s something to try. And if you enjoy nursing your baby to sleep, and find that it’s the best way for them to fall asleep and go back to sleep if they wake up, then there is nothing that needs to change.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with nursing to sleep. Oh, and the idea that nursing your baby to sleep sets them up for lifelong sleep issues is also untrue. Just ask my former nurslings who sleep wonderfully all these years later.