Breastfeeding Your Baby to Sleep: Will this Create a Bad Habit?
As a new parent, you have probably been told not to do so many things. Everyone has their opinions on how children should be raised, disciplined, loved, fed, and how they should be put to sleep. Unfortunately, most advice being given these days is purely opinion based.
A common fear expressed amongst families I work with is that nursing their baby to sleep will result in long-term sleep challenges.
While nursing to sleep can become a sleep association, it doesn’t always.
The first few months are survival mode. That means making sure your baby is fed, diapered, and napped, and making sure you also have an opportunity to eat, go to the bathroom, and sleep.
If breastfeeding your baby to sleep allows you to log a few extra zzzz’s, it does not mean your child will still be nursing to sleep right before entering college.
My rule of thumb is: go with whatever gets you more sleep in the first few months. If it does become a habit, there are many ways to improve your baby’s independent sleep skills after 21 weeks of age.
If you would like to work towards independent sleep skills, try putting your baby down drowsy but awake once per day. This will allow for some sleep skills to be developed while minimizing stress. If your baby is prone to bouts of intense crying, your best bet would be to focus on watching early and late sleep signs to maximize sleep rather than falling asleep independently.
Reasons Why Breastfeeding Your Baby to Sleep is NOT a Bad Habit:
- While knowing how to put themselves to sleep can be a valuable skill, not all babies will be able to do this at a young age.
- This is where temperament comes into play. Easy going, mellow babies are much more likely to fall asleep independently from a young age than any other temperament. Some babies will escalate quickly (think full-blown hysterics) and won’t be able to bring themselves back from that level of hysteria without a lot of help.
- Working on independent sleep skills before 21 weeks of age can cause a lot of stress for both you and your baby.
- Even if your baby does learn to fall asleep on their own, they have yet to go through the four-month developmental milestone (aka. four-month sleep regression). Sleep skills practised before this age will likely be lost in the midst of the intense neurodevelopment happening during this leap.
- Building up a robust milk supply depends on frequently nursing your baby.
- Prolactin is a hormone produced by the pituitary gland. It is also the main hormone involved in milk production.
- Prolactin levels follow a circadian rhythm and are naturally higher at night. If you are hoping to maintain your milk supply, breastfeeding your baby at night is a critical part of this (especially in the first four months of life).
- Breastfeeding can help both babies and mothers feel sleepy at night.
- Breastfeeding your baby to sleep can be a very enjoyable part of the newborn phase.
- It goes by so quickly – if you love soaking in the sleeping baby cuddles (oxytocin), you don’t have to give this up.
Reasons to work on independent sleep skills (after 21 weeks of age):
- Your baby will be going to daycare.
- To help prepare your baby for the transition to daycare, it is important that they know how to put themselves to sleep. This transition can be stressful for both parents and babies. Emotional regulation is easier when babies are well-rested.
- To minimize the stress from this life change, you can start working on independent sleep skills a couple of months before the onset of daycare.
- When breastfeeding to sleep stops working for your baby.
- As babies grow older, they become very interested in the world around them and as a result, many start fighting sleep. Unfortunately, this is often when sleep associations (ie. nursing to sleep) stop working. The most common age for this to start is between four and seven months of age. The bedtime that used to take 20 minutes can now last for hours as you struggle to find any other way to put your baby down.
- When breastfeeding your baby to sleep isn’t working for YOU anymore!
- Some babies wake up every 45 minutes all night long asking to suckle back to sleep. As the months of broken sleep trickle by, your sleep debt can become unmanageable. You need sleep to be a functioning, healthy parent (and a safe driver). You matter too!
Andrea Galambos is a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach, and founder of Blissful Nights. Andrea is a mother to 3 busy little kids and fully understands the toll extreme sleep deprivation can take. As a Gentle Sleep Coach, Andrea works with tired parents of infants and small children, helping them gently and lovingly teach their children invaluable sleep skills. As the children learn to sleep, parents are reunited with their own long-lost and desperately missed uninterrupted sleep.