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"The Perfect Mothering Tool"?

Happy Summer!

I hope you are enjoying the warm, sunny days and balmy, moonlit nights. Are you finding your days and nights are busier than ever? Lots of friends and family visiting, the sun shining longer in the evenings, and muggy nights making it harder to fall asleep? Perhaps you are having a hard time helping your little one wind down for nap time due to visitors, warmer temperatures, or even noises coming through open windows. Maybe bedtime is becoming a bit of a struggle with your older nursling. You may start to mull over the thought of nursing your baby to sleep. It sure would be much easier than trying to get your little one to "self-soothe"... your sweet baby nursing to sleep as he calmly enjoys the soothing rhythm of nursing... Should you join the millions of other mothers who breastfeed their babies to sleep?

Mothers are often told not to let their babies fall asleep breastfeeding as it may cause some sort of "bad habit" of reliance on nursing to fall asleep. Moms also hear that the "bad habit" may even be impossible to break. Is there any truth to these adages? Can nursing to sleep be a problem ... or "the perfect mothering tool"? Let's discuss pros and cons which may affect your decision of what is right for your family.

Some of the Pros...

  • Breastfeeding helps babies fall asleep quickly at any time of day or night because of the rhythmic action of suckling. Also the sleep-inducing hormones in breastmilk help establish your baby's circadian rhythms - her internal body clock affecting sleeping and eating cycles. Your baby won't produce the necessary hormones, such as melatonin and cortisol, needed to direct their own circadian rhythms for approximately the first three months of life. There is some thought that mothers who are mostly or exclusively expressing breastmilk for their infants may want to label their milk with the time of day it was expressed and give the breastmilk at the same time of day as it was expressed.

  • The skin-to-skin contact so vital for successful breastfeeding has been shown to improve infant's sleep-wake cycles and bring them more in line with their mother's sleep-wake cycles. Mothers who are solely expressing and formula feeding would also do well to have plenty of skin-to-skin contact with their little ones as well for this reason (among many other great reasons).

  • Nursing your baby to sleep provides more opportunities for extra breast milk to be produced and offered, and in turn, more calories that are important for growth and development are present.

  • Breastfeeding to sleep offers the baby feelings of safety, security, calmness, and contentedness; perfect for the developing brain and quite the opposite of "crying it out". Breastfeeding to sleep is good for baby's emotional health.

  • And ... yes, it is a very handy mothering tool - Mom can settle the baby to sleep pretty much any time, any place.

And now for the Cons...

  • None! There are none! Nothing to see here ... continue to the end of the blog, please. Well of course I am going to say that because I found breastfeeding to sleep to be very helpful with my two little people all those years ago. But I would be amiss if I didn't mention a few concerns of some mothers who have nursed their babies to sleep.

  • Some moms find it can be inconvenient, especially if they have busy schedules or other young children who need their attention. A sling or a wrap to hold your baby can be helpful as you can breastfeed and still move around and have a free hand to do other things. Also you don't have to sit quietly in a dark room while your nursing baby to sleep. Some babies find the motion of you moving around to be calming, even sleep inducing.

  • Other caretakers can't breastfeed your baby to sleep. This can be a concern, especially of you have to leave your baby frequently. However, your partner, child care provider, or baby"s grandparent will find their own ways to get baby to sleep without nursing to sleep.

  • Yes, some children may take longer to eventually learn to fall asleep on their own. You can gradually introduce new sleep associations that trigger falling asleep, such as a new bed time routine, including bath time and infant massage, to help your baby find other ways to fall asleep. Remember, this "process" will not take forever.

  • And what about the whole "This kid will never become independent!"? (They will.) Babies do eventually grow out of breastfeeding to sleep just like all other mammal babies do. Babies also grow out of crawling and wearing diapers ... normally moving from one developmental stage to another. Nursing to sleep aids a baby in feeling safe and secure, which are vital for learning independence. Forcing a child to move to the next stage of development before they are ready can contribute to an anxious and clingy child.

So ...

The thought that a baby shouldn't be breastfed to sleep because it may be difficult to break the habit later on fights biology ... and makes mothering harder. Breastfeeding and breastfeeding to sleep are developmentally normal activities designed to make baby care easier, calming both mother and baby, helping baby fall asleep.

You can encourage new ways to induce sleep as your little one grows, just as you will give her plenty of opportunities to crawl and then walk. But right now, there's really no reason to deprive your baby of something so comforting, so reassuring, and so biologically necessary, because you are worried she might find it difficult to fall asleep on her own in the future. Breastfeeding your precious little one to sleep is not a "bad habit", but rather, it's normal, healthy, and designed to suit your baby's developmental needs ... and a very helpful tool in your "mothering tool box".

Nurse On!

Your Comforting Lactation Counselor,


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