Most breastfeeding mothers around the world know that nursing is the quickest way to get their baby to fall asleep — or back to sleep when they wake at night.
Indeed, breast milk is a natural sleep tonic.
It contains a hormone called cholecystokinin, which induces sleepiness in both the breastfeeding mother and her breastfed baby.
The skin-to-skin contact associated with breastfeeding to sleep boosts oxytocin (the feel-good hormone) and lowers cortisol (stress hormone) levels in both baby and mother. Oxytocin enhances a mother’s maternal feelings and gives her a sense of calm. It also provides a natural sedative that helps babies sleep peacefully.
Despite these facts, many mothers worry that breastfeeding their babies to sleep might mean they will never learn how to go to sleep on their own.
They’re even told that nursing baby to sleep could create ‘bad habits’.
So, what’s the truth? Is feeding your baby to sleep a good or a bad thing?
Does breastfeeding to sleep create a bad habit?
Your baby’s desire to be breastfed to sleep is not a bad habit at all. In fact, it’s biologically normal.
Babies seek to breastfeed for many reasons other than simply feeling hungry. Breastfeeding provides comfort for pain. It provides warmth when your baby is cold. It provides security and familiarity when insecurity and uncertainty set in. It also helps a baby transition from feeling drowsy, overstimulated or overtired to falling asleep. It’s perfectly natural for your baby to seek to breastfeed, to relax enough to go to sleep.
Here are 6 things you need to know about breastfeeding to sleep:
#1. Breastfeeding to sleep is good for milk supply
Your milk supply works on a supply equals demand basis. The more milk removed from your breasts, the more milk your breasts will make.
Because breastfeeding your baby to sleep can significantly add to the total number of feeds in a 24-hour period, more milk is removed and therefore more is made.
If you happen to have a low milk supply, breastfeeding to sleep can be an effective way to boost milk production.
For more information about how breastfeeding works, you can read BellyBelly’s article How Does Breastfeeding Work? An Explanation.
#2. Breastfeeding to sleep is good for your baby’s brain
A baby is born with only one quarter of the volume of an adult brain. Close contact with your baby is about much more than feeding. It’s also largely about brain wiring and forming pathways in your baby’s brain.
The first pathways formed after birth are those that connect emotional to social intelligence.
By 6-8 weeks, these pathways are more or less wired for life.
Breastfeeding to help your baby sleep provides her with more opportunities to be close to you. This is a great thing for optimal infant brain development.
#3. Breastfeeding to sleep might be a mother and baby’s favourite time to feed
For some older babies. feeding to sleep at nap time and during the night might be the time when they feed most effectively .
From about 3-4 months onwards, most babies begin to show increasing interest in the world around them. This also means some babies are very easily distracted by their environment. Trying to feed babies when they are awake and eager to explore can be nearly impossible.
Allowing babies to breastfeed at times when they feed well and aren’t distracted by the exciting world around them makes sure they get enough milk overall and your milk supply is maintained.
#4. You don’t need to worry about future sleep patterns
A great number of breastfed babies who have been fed for to sleep for months or years then go on to fall asleep on their own. Other babies might fall asleep easily without first having a breastfeed. Each child is unique and there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to infant sleep.
It’s unusual for a new baby to have a predictable bedtime routine, or to have a new baby sleep through the night.
You can be reassured in knowing that when babies are physically, emotionally and developmentally ready, baby sleep patterns will change. There is nothing you need do to make this happen; simply relax and know that when your baby is ready, it will happen.
The truth is, most babies wake and fall asleep again several times a night, whether they are breastfed back to sleep or an alternative settling method is used. If breastfeeding is the most efficient way to help your baby fall asleep, you don’t need to stop nursing overnight.
We don’t worry about a 4-month old’s nappy use interfering with future toilet learning; in the same way we don’t need to worry about breastfeeding to help an infant sleep.
#5. Night waking is biologically normal
Many new parents worry if their babies aren’t sleeping through the night by a certain age. After all, everyone knows they are ‘supposed to’ and, much to your despair and frustration, you will most likely hear stories from family and friends about their children sleeping through at six weeks, three months or six months and so on.
Even when a mother has no problems with her baby waking at night, she might continue to worry. That’s usually because our cultural norms place so much emphasis on the importance of infant sleep and child sleep.
The truth is, sleeping through is something which will occur in time, when your baby is developmentally ready. Even if you do nothing about it. Helping your baby sleep through the night is not a battle to be won, as it’s so often portrayed in books and the media. It’s a developmental milestone that different babies will reach at different times.
For information on the benefits of breastfeeding overnight, you can read BellyBelly’s article Nighttime Breastfeeding – 7 Reasons Why It’s So Important.
#6. Children – even young babies – can adapt well if you are away
If you breastfeed your child to sleep, it’s normal to worry about how she will go to sleep if you are not there for the bedtime routine.
The truth is children are very good at adapting to new ways to go to sleep when parents are not there. Your child will adapt, and her other caregiver will find ways to comfort her that will work just fine.
Breastfeeding to help infants sleep is a good thing. It certainly isn’t a bad thing. Your child will stop feeding to sleep when the time is right, even if you do nothing about it.
If your baby need to be fed a bottle in your absence, you can refer to the Australian Breastfeeding Association’s carer’s guide to the breastfed baby.
Is co-sleeping safe?
Some breastfeeding mothers worry about feeding their babies to sleep at night in case they fall asleep too.
Many parents sit up their bed so they can breastfeed and then co-sleep safely, with the baby in the same bed. This often results in more sleep for the whole family and can make nighttime parenting seem less challenging.
To ensure a safe infant sleeping environment, refer to the Red Nose Australia safe sleeping guide.