I hear this so often from mothers, so-called ‘parenting experts’ and even some health professionals. I can reassure you; this is a MYTH.
It took me a while to figure this out when I become a first time mother. My little girl would always fall asleep peacefully in my arms, nursing to sleep, but I was often told I was doing something wrong. I couldn’t understand why so many people would tell me not to nurse my baby to sleep, despite it being the easiest way to get her to snooze. Even more importantly, we both loved it, and it was such a special way to connect with my little girl.
Knowing what I do now as infant sleep consultant, I’m so glad that I trusted my maternal instincts. But I’ve met many mothers who doubt themselves because they are constantly bombarded with contradictory information about sleep.
‘… TOO LATE TO CHANGE THINGS..’
Recently, a mama of an 8-week old newborn got in contact and said: ‘I know it’s wrong, but breastfeeding is the easiest way to get her to sleep.’ When I asked the mama why she thought it was wrong, she said: ‘because it’s causing all of her sleep problems.’
I wasn’t surprised by her answer, I just felt a little saddened that I hear this all too often. So many mamas telling me by nursing their baby to sleep, they’ve ‘created bad habits’ because breastfeeding is a ‘negative sleep association’ and they have ‘made everything worse’ and often they believe it’s ‘too late to change things.’
‘NURSING IS DESIGNED TO HELP YOUR BABY FALL ASLEEP’
Seriously, let’s just think about this for a moment. Nature has gifted us mothers with an incredible superpower to be able to soothe, feed, comfort and bond with our baby, what could possibly be wrong in a mother using that unique gift?
Did you know that nursing is in fact designed to help your baby to fall asleep? Here’s 3 little known facts –
- SLEEP READY – During suckling at the breast, research shows, the hormone Cholecystokinin is released in both mum and baby, which makes your little one feel full, relaxed and sleepy (Uvnäs-Moberg, K., et al, 1993).
- MELATONIN BREAST MILK – There is also another little known wonder about breast milk; at night time a mother’s milk contains substantial levels of the hormone melatonin, this is referred to as the ‘sleep’ hormone because it makes us feel sleepy. This is another clever gift from nature because when our babies are born, their circadian rhythms, essentially their internal body clocks, haven’t been established and they don’t produce their own melatonin nor do they know the difference between day and night. So nursing could provide our babies with melatonin via breast milk during the night, which could in turn help to improve our little one’s night time sleep, as well as helping to develop their circadian rhythms earlier. And another bonus, research even suggests breast milk may decrease infant colic (Engler, A.C et al, 2012).
- SUPER INGREDIENTS – Breast milk also contains other super ingredients which could aid sleep in younger babies, like nucleotides and the amino acid Tryptophan, which is used by the body to manufacture melatonin.
‘NORMAL, RESPONSIVE PARENTING’
So, let’s ask ourselves, how could we be creating ‘bad-habits’ or doing something ‘so wrong’ when nature has actually designed nursing to help your baby to sleep?
Many mamas will know, nursing is often the quickest, easiest and most reliable way to soothe and relax an unsettled baby and crucially help your little one drift into a peaceful slumber.
It’s entirely biologically normal for a baby to fall asleep feeding, in fact, in the early days, it is very difficult to keep an infant awake while nursing.
So if nursing to sleep and during the night, makes complete biological sense, why are we telling mothers not to do something that is perfectly natural?
When mothers are told not to let their baby fall asleep on the breast, it can cause so much stress for them, because they are being asked to stop a natural and entirely normal biological process from occurring.
And even if we put biology aside, let’s acknowledge that nursing to sleep is something that has been the norm for many many generations, it is quite simply, normal, responsive parenting, so why is it now getting such a bad rep?
‘STRESS AND GUILT’
Unfortunately, many mamas stop nursing early, because of the stress and guilt they feel as a result of the mixed and unhelpful messages they are often bombarded with.
A common perception is that if I nurse my baby to sleep, she won’t know how to connect sleep cycles, and will need to be nursed back to sleep at the end of every sleep cycle throughout the night. Well, that’s not the case at all. I can share my own experience, my youngest daughter started sleeping through the night even though I nursed her to sleep for all naps and throughout the night – she’s 14 months and we’re still nursing!
Similarly, many families I have worked with continue to nurse to sleep and have tots who sleep blissfully at night. Many parents think that if they stop feeding to sleep, that will solve all their child’s sleep problems. However, it is unlikely that this is the cause of your baby’s sleep problems, and even if you teach your tot to fall asleep without being nursed, it does not mean your little one wont continue to wake during the night, because babies wake for many reasons other than hunger or comfort.
Often when I work with families, we make just small changes to ensure that the right conditions are created to enable little one to sleep blissfully, and often small changes are all that are needed to improve sleep. Before I suggest any changes to the way you choose to put your baby to sleep, be it nursing, rocking, cuddling, I was always put in place my blissful sleep essentials first.
If there isn’t enough improvement in sleep, once we sort out naps and other sleep fundamentals, it may be the case that, in some circumstances, little ones are struggling to fall back to sleep every time they wake at night, without being nursed. If little one is genuinely struggling to connect sleep cycles because they need to always be nursed to back to sleep, then we can implement gentle strategies to teach baby new skills to fall asleep with less parental presence. They key is that there are respectful and gentle ways of doing this.
… ‘ENJOY WITHOUT MUM GUILT’ …
How you choose to put your baby to sleep is entirely your choice and don’t let anyone take that away from you. If you decide to nurse your baby to sleep, or even rock, hold, pat or a combination of all of these things, then there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with it if you don’t have any problem with it.
You are not creating ‘bad sleep associations’. You are not creating ‘bad habits’. You are being a responsive parent by meeting your little one’s needs and cementing a secure attachment with your precious baby.
Remember, if nursing to sleep feels right to you, and it works for you and your baby, then stick with it, and enjoy it without any mum guilt.
If for whatever reason, it is no longer feasible or practical to continue nursing your baby to sleep, then there are always gentle strategies you can implement to teach your baby to fall asleep in new ways. Babies are adaptable and they can absolutely learn new behaviours without sleep training which involves making them cry-it-out.
So just continue to trust your maternal instincts, and enjoy every single second, guilt free.
Mother of two girls
Certified Baby and Infant sleep consultant
Stay in touch and share your success and sleep-bumps with me on Instagram HERE
Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Marchini, G. and Winberg, J., 1993. Plasma cholecystokinin concentrations after breast feeding in healthy 4 day old infants. Archives of disease in childhood, 68(1 Spec No), pp.46-48.
Engler, A.C., Hadash, A., Shehadeh, N. and Pillar, G., 2012. Breastfeeding may improve nocturnal sleep and reduce infantile colic: potential role of breast milk melatonin. European journal of Paediatrics, 171(4), pp.729-732