Breastfeeding your baby to sleep?

Among  all the rules about baby sleep, you are certain to hear advice to never, ever allow your baby to fall asleep on the breast!

Although you may like to use other sleep cues as well as breastfeeding, advice that letting your baby fall asleep on the breast will create ‘bad habits’ or that he will never learn to ‘self settle’  is unrealistic and impractical: it is the most natural thing in the world for a relaxed baby and mother to snuggle and doze together as they breastfeed.

This soporific effect of breastfeeding is hormonally induced: Breastmilk contains a range of hormones, including oxytocin, prolactin and cholecystokinen (CCK). These hormones are released in both mother and baby during breastfeeding and have a sedating effect on both of you. Breastmilk has also been shown to supply a type of endocannabinoid – the natural neurotransmitters that marijuana stimulates. So when your baby falls off your breast all drowsy and relaxed, looking as though he is ‘milk drunk’ you could say he is actually ‘milk stoned’!

Research suggests that your ‘night time’ milk may be even more effective at helping your baby  sleep: melatonin, a sleep inducing hormone is barely detectable in breastmilk during the day, but peaks during the night and recent studies by Spanish scientists show that components in mothers’ mik can vary significantly over a 24 hour period. These researchers studied samples of breastmilk taken from healthy mothers at different times of the day and found concentrations of sleep inducing nucleotides (proteins known to have a role in exciting and relaxing the nervous system), were stronger after dark than during the day.

The lead researcher of this study, Dr Christina Sanchez, advises that breast milk should be fed fresh or if you are expressing, it is best to take note of the time you express milk then feed it to your baby at the same time of day. She says, “you wouldn’t give a coffee at night, and the same is true of breast milk. It has day specific ingredients that stimulate activity in the infant, and other night-time components that help the baby rest.”

With so much evidence that mama’s milk actually helps babies sleep, it makes no sense at all to resist this naturally sedating and bonding process, or to wake a baby who has fallen asleep against your warm body only to try some other settling technique or plug him up with a dummy to get him to sleep again.

And, just in case you are still worried about those voices warning you about ‘bad habits’ or that your baby will never outgrow needing a breast to help him sleep, take heart: I am sure there aren’t many mums who have had to set up side car cots next to their grown up kids and, if your child does still likes to snuggle up to a breast when he’s twenty one – you can be sure it won’t be yours!

15 Comments

  1. Anna Says Reply

    You’re hilarious Pinky. I loved my baby’s milk blissed face and now I know he was really milk stoned. Both my babies were breast fed to sleep despite the advice I received to the contrary.

  2. Tracy Says Reply

    Still breastfeeding my 20 month old to sleep, which I am ok about and she is happy, but what happens down the track? How did you stop Anna? Any advice please?

  3. Jackie Says Reply

    I enjoy feeding my nearly 9mo daughter to sleep day and night. However, my concern is that this makes her not ready for care. I do offer her breastfeeds at other times but she is not interested then :) When and how do I insist on changing the pattern we both enjoy? (I’m planning to return to work in 2-3 months).

  4. SG Says Reply

    Still feeding 26 month old….yes, two and two months….still sharing bed and still feeding in night. It’s ok. We are both fine and it has really helped her teething! It’s ok to carry on!!!!!!

  5. Hann Says Reply

    My bubbie is just 4 1/2 and the only way she knows to sleep at night is after a good feed. Although I am what is considered an anarchy mum as I sleep with my bubbie and cuddle her loads, won’t let her cry…I can’t help wondering when and how we stop getting ourselves off to sleep that way. I’m a single mum doing my work when she’s sleeping and this is the quickest way for her to sleep but what happens when I need someone else to put her to sleep? Even during the day she will always cry before sleeping. I have the book (sleeping like a baby) and happy with our rhythm now but how do I plan for the future when in a few weeks grandma will be looking after her so mummy can help.

    • Emma Says Reply

      Hann, it sounds like you have a wonderful bond with your daughter!
      I think she will be fine with Grandma looking after her, maybe start to introduce a snugly blanket during her bed time feed, which can transfer to bed time with other people.? Remember grandma doesn’t breast feed her, so she may not even expect it.
      She might cry as it will be a big change for her, you may cry as it will be a big change for you! If you approach the change with love, and talk to her about it without fear, she will be absolutely fine.
      As the saying goes, it takes a villiage to raise a child.
      Best of luck.

  6. becky Says Reply

    Hi Pinky. Great article. I am not worried about the act of feeding to sleep, but am concerned about whether the fact that we feed before sleeping (often, not always) is linked with waking every 1.5 – 2 hours through the night? Do you have info on the connection between settling techniques and wake frequency? My baby is a big 6.5 month old boy, who breastfeeds probably 4-5 times in the day (on demand) and eats 3 meals and we use bonjella for some teething relief. The night waking is exhausting … where to turn? Sleep school or something else? Cheers, becky

    • Emma Says Reply

      Hi Becky,
      I believe totally that my son woke often through the night because he would half wake, expect to find himself attached to me, and wake up screaming. (Early days it was every 45 minutes.)
      He was definitely having more than enough to eat due to the amount he threw up, and the amount he grew at the same time.
      Your bub is still very young. Advice we were given was to send dad in to settle at night (no boobies there!!) we started this at about 10 months. (When we were going out of our minds and needed help desperately, sleep school was our answer )
      Also a clear night time bed routine before 7pm (which will of course include his bedtime feed) but also a story, bath, cuddle or whatever you like to do. Do these things the same way every night and he will start to associate them with sleep. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, just something you do together at bed time.
      Good luck.

  7. Stacie Says Reply

    I completely agree with this as a natural means of helping bub to sleep. I have tried to create other ways for my baby to fall asleep as well but to no avail as she would begin to get upset and so I would feed her. I have no problems with this except recently after a bout of illness she has become really fussy and sometimes playful and not wanting to feed when clearly tired. I sometimes think this is because she is just to full from the previous feed to sleep session. I try other methods such as rocking, cuddling, massage and she gets sleepy then cries and roots for my boob but when offered pulls off and gets upset like she doesn’t want it. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to force her to feed just to get her to sleep and I really want to help her sleep in other ways gently and with love but these seem distressing for her too. I’d love to know how to support bub and not cause distrust or distress for her when she no longer wants to feed to sleep but doesn’t know any other way!

  8. Stacie Says Reply

    Bub is 4 months

    • amy Says Reply

      Is she teething stacie? Sounds like signs of teething. You could try some teething gel before she feeds.

  9. samantha Says Reply

    i nursed my little girl to sleep for the first 2 an a half months, which worked for us, now at 3 months, she started waking 5 minutes after she finished her feed so now i give her a last feed and put her in the cot awake, and i wait with her as she drops off, so its working well for us, not stopped her from self settling at all.

  10. Tina Says Reply

    I have loved feeding to sleep because it’s quality time with my daughter. I read pinky’s brilliant book ‘sleeping like a baby’ and felt like I was doing something really special for my daughter and making sleep time nice and happy. But, I realise I’ve created a really sad problem….. I’ve swaddled since birth as my girl responds really well to this. (5 months now). I would feed to sleep then lay her down and swaddle her. A while ago she started waking up when I lay her down and swaddled her so I would pick her back up swaddled and feed to sleep again. It’s got to the point where I just swaddled and then fed because I felt bad about her waking up. She was looking for a non bed time feed recently and when I fed her she was touching my skin and hair and it was lovely and I realised we are missing out on this special touch and closeness with our feeds because of the swaddle. I didn’t even realise and I feel like such a crappy mum!! I have since tried feeding her to sleep with her arms out of the swaddle but she waves them around and gets upset like she doesn’t know how to fall asleep with them out. If she finally does fall asleep she wakes as soon as I put her in the cot and gets upset. I try swaddling her then and re feeding but she’s woken herself right up and then won’t feed again and can’t get back to sleep cur stress. I feel devastated that I’ve created this and just want to cry when I think about the time we’ve missed out on that special closeness when feeding. I don’t want to keep swaddling while feeding to sleep but I also don’t want to cause stress at sleep time and undo what we’ve created. Please help!

  11. sarah Says Reply

    I have just discovered you today. Your blog is very reasuring nd i am happy to say I am a cuddler not tamer. My only worry is that when my baby is 10months I will need to go to work. How will she. Nap in the day without me :(

    She is 4 months now and always bf to sleep.unless on a long car journey.

    please keep posting and educati g mums.

  12. karly Says Reply

    To all the mums worried about bubs sleeping for other people- don’t. They know when the person putting them to sleep isnt mum and cope just fine. My boy will go to sleep any which way for everyone else, but for me? Only boobie! Haha.

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