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!

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  • Anna

    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.

  • Tracy

    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?

  • Jackie

    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).

  • SG

    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!!!!!!

    • Sher irony

      If the milk supply is not around then baby won’t expect milk. This has been the case with all three of my children, all breastfed till 3 years old and all have been in daycare . The staff didn’t ever know they were breastfed. I think it’s easier for them to understand than it is for a bottle fed baby in some ways.

  • Hann

    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

      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.

    • Jojo

      Thankyou SG – I have people saying very negative things about me wanting to B.F till my bubby is 2 (he is 17months atm). I’m glad I read your comment, we love to feed to sleep and we love to cuddle & co-sleep. Thankyou for being honest and reassuring that yes it is the best thing for me and my bub!

  • becky

    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

      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.

  • Stacie

    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!

  • Stacie

    Bub is 4 months

    • amy

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

      • Jessica

        I dont think teething gel before a feed is recommended, the numbing can cause difficulty latching for bub.

  • samantha

    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.

  • Tina

    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!

    • Jessica

      I think I have seen that you can buy a wrap type band that goes around baby’s tummy to give that firm secure feeling of being swaddled but arms are free? Or I think some of those swaddle bag things have an option to have arms out.

      Don’t beat yourself up. I have to tell myself all the time ‘I did the best with what I knew. Now that I know better, I can do better.’ We mummies are too hard on ourselves.

  • sarah

    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.

  • karly

    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.

  • Danielle Aafjes

    I used to work in a daycare centre and it was a common fear with all the mums new to the service. Not just the very little ones. As someone mentioned before a sleep routine works wonders and introducing a blankie or soft toy can really help this,we call them cuddles. It also gives us something to work off as we stay as close to home routine as possible. I had my teddy Curby, he was my cuddle. My step son is nearly 5 and it was traumatic for everyone trying to get him to sleep when he was 2 he was bottle fed not boob but i thought id write this for the mothers that are in the process of going back to work etc. We got Mr 5 a soft dog toy when he was 2 and he worked wonders for years recently because he suffers from frequent nightmares Mr 5 decided the dog wasnt enough anymore ao now he has fairy magic dream crystals too (amythest and rose quatrz). Whether its a placebo or they work he went from having nightmares 2-3 times a week to never. There will be constant updates needed to bedtime routine just work with your child. If the boob is helping baby sleep now go with it and slowly introduce other things. As weird as it may sound rub the cuddle item on yourself and make it smell like you. Mum smell is safety and it may help keep bubba calm 🙂

  • cess

    Nice… but (yep there is a but) what can you do when they grow up ? My best friend still nurses to sleep her 24 months daughter. But her lovely little girl needs the boob to go back to sleep every time she wakes up at night….and she still wakes up at least 4 or 5 times each night. She wont go back to sleep with het dad or someone else… my friend is not even trying to have a night out it simply wont happen. Im a mother of a 13 months little boy who started to sleep through the night at 4 months. He sometimes wakes up during the night and I hear him moving a bit, turn around, takes his thumb and his little blanket and go straight back to sleep. So much better (and i never ever let him cry alone). I think there are ways to gently teach your baby to self settle say and then it’s best not only for parents who work or have other kids to take care of but.its also best for the baby.

  • Fia

    I believe that each personality is so individual and they all sleep differently. Just as there is so much variety in how adults sleep so are babies…there are heavy sleepers, light sleepers, some need 6, 8 or 10 hours per night, people who fall asleep anywhere in 2 minutes flat…people who need a tea, book etc before sleep. I have 3 children who all did and still do sleep so differently to each other. You then also add the factor of so many varying family dynamics too. In the end you do what you think is best for that particular baby with what they need from you and what you can do to survive (and I mean literally survive some days!). I have had the whole range…self settler who never woke up…total screamer who cried every night no matter what I did (including giving boob) to a baby who giggles into my boob whilst she falls asleep…if I have another one hoping for a deep sleeper again! Either way enjoy the precious early years…sleepless nights or not because before long they will be finished and you will miss your baby that is all grown up 🙁

  • Jacqui

    Can anyone offer any advice , I’m a first time mum to a beautiful little 10 month old girl. I have always fed her to sleep. She has 3 bf’s through the day with meals & snacks & 1-2 feeds of a night. This has been working fine for us, but I have recently found out I am 2 months pregnant. I am looking to wean baby off breast milk once 12 months onto cows milk but I have no idea how to start & how will I get her to sleep without the comfort of the breast.
    She has never taken to other comforts eg dummy, blanket etc & doesn’t like to b rocked
    I really don’t know what to do!!

  • Raquel

    Heeeellpppp. My gorgeous little 11 mth old is still getting the boob to go to sleep. Essentially I don’t mind but the re settling at 12,2,4 am has pushed my into exhaustion, where I now have stress hives appearing from lack of sleep. He is my 2nd son and I fed my first till 2yrs and thought that I was tired then. But this is beyond a joke. I’ve tried everything, even letting him cry which I hate and I end up crying because I know u can just feed him back to sleep. But it’s really starting to break me. He self settles in the day fine, and when I put him down at 7:30 pm for bed I can kiss him and walk out. But not they the night. What is going on? It’s been mths if this I’m about to give up B feeding just so I can get some sleep hopefully. Pls help. Am desperate now

    • Eleesha

      I’m in the same boat. I’ve got a 8 month old who is fed to sleep every time but is now waking 5-10 times in a night. It’s absolutely exhausting me but I don’t want to stop BF and don’t want to leave her cry. Sorry I can’t offer advice but just to let you know your not alone 🙂

  • Jess

    This article has just made my night! I fed my first to sleep and he was and still is a terrible sleeper ( even though the feeding to sleep stopped at 6 months) and now I’m doing the same with my second. He is 10 weeks old and sleeps amazingly well at night (6-8 hrs) but has just started catnapping through the day! I have done nothing but stress about the fact that I feed him to sleep because it’s not best practice and everyone tells me how bad it is but this has made me so ridiculously happy! Every baby is different and if it’s working I’m going to keep at it until it doesn’t 🙂

  • Marnie

    I find I can’t burp my son once he falls asleep whilst feeding just before bedtime. I try but it seems he is too relaxed for any air to be helped up with my patting. So I end up putting him down with no burps and he’s awake in about 20-35 mins and as soon as I pick him a couple of big burps will always come out, does anyone else have this problem?

    • Charlotte

      Hi Marnie, did you find a resolution to this? I have this exact problem, spent the last half an hour walking around trying to burp my 10 week old with no success – I know he’ll be awake 30-60 mins with gas and then eventually it may come up if I pick him back up. Very frustrating every time I’ve just nodded off myself!!

  • Sez

    there’s nothing wrong with feeding your baby to sleep but, you can’t expect your baby/ child to just stop and go to sleep on their own or take another way of feeding/ or expect someone else to put them to sleep on their own. Just like that especially when it’s all they know and you’ve let it happen so they think it’s ok. It’s a harder process for some parents and children and easier for others just know it takes patience and time. I say this as a mother of twins and an Early Childhood Educator! I have a lot of experience in the field and people just expect their baby to take a bottle after they have never given them one 🤔Etc So if you want a baby to sleep on their own etc with no crying and to take bottles U need to do this from day one with no rocking/ feeding to sleep! Controlled crying is crap! And still breast feeding. So just do what is comfortable for you ! But please don’t expect your baby to do something else so quickly when they haven’t been expected to before! Good luck!