Is it really so bad to nurse a baby to sleep?

There’s nothing more peaceful than having your baby doze off during her nighttime feeding—so why do experts discourage breastfeeding your baby to sleep?

Is it really so bad to nurse a baby to sleep?

Photo: iStockphoto

For many moms, nursing a baby to sleep is a peaceful, relaxing habit that comes naturally to both them and their babies. Unfortunately, it’s likely not the best way to set your baby up for a restful night’s sleep.

“Babies arouse two to six times in the night as a result of normal healthy sleep rhythms,” explains Pamela Mitelman, a Montreal-based clinical psychologist who specializes in paediatric sleep. But they don’t necessarily fully wake up every time. The difference between a slight arousal or a full-blown wakeup? Sometimes it’s if they’re dependent on something to get them back to sleep. It could be rocking, a pacifier or nursing—whatever it is, if it isn’t there, they’ll wake up looking for it. So, if your baby develops a need to nurse to fall asleep, they could potentially fully wake up needing you at every little arousal—basically every 90 to 120 minutes in the night.

In the early days, it’s virtually impossible for your newborn not to doze off while nursing because his circadian rhythm hasn’t been established and breastmilk is a natural sleep inducer. So if your baby is less than two months old, try not to worry that much when you see his eyes close mid-feed. That said, you can instil good sleep habits from the get-go by trying to put your baby down while he’s tired but not asleep, even just once in a while, to get him used to the idea of falling asleep without nursing. “After a few months, we encourage moms to try to keep the baby awake during feeds,” says Janey Reilly, CEO and founder of WeeSleep. This might mean tickling his feet, or nursing in a brightly lit, noisy area to help him avoid the temptation to drift off.

It’s not that you can’t nurse your baby at bedtime, but try not to do it as the last part of the routine, says Mitelman. “The best way to put an infant to sleep is in a drowsy but awake state,” she says. For example, you could try nursing your baby without letting him fall asleep, then put him in a sleeper, turn off the lights and place him in the crib. “If a six-month-old or even a four-month-old is being nursed, has a cat nap, opens his eyes, then mom puts him into bed, he is not as primed for sleep,” says Mitelman. (If your baby still needs a feed in the night, the wakeup should be at a consistent time every night, and he should be able to feed and then get back to sleep without much fuss.)

During the day, starting at about four months, Reilly suggests feeding your baby when he wakes up from a nap, rather than when he’s going down, which has the added benefit of giving your baby a full, hearty feed, rather than having him doze off and not getting all the milk he needs.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with nursing your baby to sleep, if you want your baby to sleep through the night so you can too, you’ll likely have to change that nighttime feed. Whether he’s four months old, six months old, or even a year old, the most effective way to break the habit is to not make nursing the last step before sleep, and make sure that when he does nurse, he stays awake for the full feed. Mitelman recommends breaking the nursing-to-sleep habit at bedtime first. “It’s the easiest time because they are most primed for sleep.”

Keep in mind, your baby will not likely take to the new routine without some protest, and the older they are, the stronger their protest is going to be. “A one-year-old who has had a whole year of being nursed to sleep will protest a lot harder than a younger child,” says Mitelman. She adds that wakeups for a one-year-old tend to be more prolonged than for a younger baby, too. “Oftentimes, what happens is they’re nursed to sleep, they wake in the night, the mother tries to nurse them back to sleep, but now their child may be up for one to two hours. It seems like they need to be nursed to sleep, but it’s really a habit that has been formed and, as the infant develops, it will no longer be an effective means of attaining healthy sleep.”

Stay consistent, say the experts, and know that you can break the habit. “The reality is everything is fixable when it comes to sleep,” says Reilly. It may help to keep your mind on the end goal, says Mitelman. “The habit needs to end if you want your baby to sleep through the night.”

This article was originally published on Jan 25, 2020

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