Should you breastfeed 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. However, there are gentle ways to make changes so that your baby can fall asleep with less help if you feel ready to wean off feeding to sleep. See how here.

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!

 

Pinky McKay is an international Board Certified Lactation Consultant and best-selling author of Sleeping Like a Baby , 100 Ways to Calm the Crying and Parenting by Heart. She also offers seminars for parents and health professionals on Baby Sleep.

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  • Sam

    LOVE!! Thanks for easing my mind I worry she won’t self settle but she will when she is ready 🙂

  • Trish Lusby

    As always Pinky, thanks for the sane advice. I always breastfed my first daughter to sleep – she’d be off within 5 minutes of a 20min feed – and am once again hearing those voices as I feed my 2 week old. With your voice in my head instead, i’ll enjoy the dreamy feeds and contented baby ; )

  • skye

    Love this, am reading it as I am breastfeeding my bub to sleep right now actually 🙂

    • Zainab

      Same! Yay for babies and their milk comas 😀

  • Dani Avery

    Awesome! My boy is 10months old and falls asleep at the breast for day and night sleeps – we have no tears, no stress, and a very contented baby! Its taken 10months of ignoring the ‘voices’ and choosing to do what suits us…and honestly it’s an honour to put my baby to sleep this way.

    • Tara

      Same here! No tears, no stress just a baby going to sleep calm & relaxed!
      My bub has slept from 7pm until 6am since she was one month old with out waking up for a feed. She is now nearly 4months. So clearly she “self settles’ or whatever they call it. I haven’t tried anything special just fed her until she fell asleep after a big play.

  • Louise

    Pinky….great article! I’m really interested to hear what you think about breastfeeding a toddler to sleep? My little man is 26months old and still loves to be breastfed, and if he had his way would feed to try and get to sleep whenever he could. I’ve been trying not to do it as I worry about the ‘bad habit’ too, and many times now, he stays wide awake for a long time while swapping from side to side. Any thoughts? Should there be more limits or boundaries on toddlers do you think?

  • Sue

    Thankyou! I have fed all my babies to sleep as it seemed the most natural thing in the world. And you know what, they all outgrew it and are wonderful sleepers now. It’s nice to know the science behind it and finally be vindicated.

  • Fiona

    I decided a long time ago that breastfeeding to sleep worked best for us and that if it was a “bad habit” I could always help my bub unbreak it. It still works. Its gentle and its natural. What could be more lovely than activly helping your child to sleep ( we still do this at 21/2!)

  • Pamela

    Im so glad someone has spoken out and said its okay! Being a first time mum you listen to the advice around you and I have been letting my 4.5 month old fall asleep on the breast because it helps him sleep better. I actually felt guilty! Thank you, I wish the organizations out there designed to give you advice as a mum were as realistic!

  • Jo

    Can you imagine how stressed you would be if you were snuggled up in bed and every second or so, somebody pushed and prodded you to make you stay awake? There is nothing more beautiful and VERY natural than a baby and mummy falling asleep snuggled up together after and during a breastfeed. Im sure the stress of babies being constantly made to stay awake during the feed releases a different chemical stress causing a stressed baby rather than a happy relaxed one. I wonder what being made to stay awake does to their little brains over time. Ignore the midwives and do what feels natural. There is too much midwife advice in early motherhood and not enough encouragement of mums to trust their instincts and do what feels best for them and their babies. Go for it mummies… trust your instincts and if thats what feels right for you then no doubt it is!

  • Analee

    I agree; although keen to hear thoughts on how to help gently encourage this routine to be phased out in the near future (currently at 2 years).

  • Kara Tait

    It seems to me the people who give out advice such as “never breastfeed your baby to sleep” are more often than not childless child carers who can’t breastfeed their wards to sleep. I guess they have to come up with other solutions. It’s just a pity we listen to it instead of doing what feels right.

  • Cassie

    I worried about the “bad habits” when my daughter was born but decided that at that point in time I was an exhausted new mum and would do what worked at the time and deal with these so called “bad habits” when she was older and I was more confident (and hopefully rested) later down the track. We did introduce other sleep cues early and found that by the time she was 4 or 5 months old she no longer fell asleep at the breast and therefore we never had to break the “bad habit” because she did it all by herself. Thanks for this article, it is a shame the advice often given by health professionals contradicts what is natural and perfectly ok

  • Jennifer

    it is a wonderful connection for mom and baby. i breastfed both my daughters to sleep up until their 2nd birthdays. i would like to comment on baby’s teeth. once your little ones starts to get their primary teeth, be sure to wipe them or brush them clean as often as possible. breast milk can still cause decay. both of my girls had cavities before the age of 3…. an i am dental hygienist!

    • Pinky McKay

      Hi Jennifer,

      Thanks -re teeth, Although I totally agree with cleaning teeth after food, I actually breastfed all my 5 kids to sleep – except one who wouldnt and was happy just to fall asleep by herself. They nursed to sleep well into toddler hood and I certainly didnt wake them to clean teeth. None of them had cavities throughout their childhood . I wonder if other aspects esp diet are a factor- eg nobody seems to suggest that feeding littlies sticky foods such as raisnins will mess up teeth. Or whether some children have a greater sucspetibility – or can things like parents sucking their kids dummies (I have seen this when dummies drop on the floor) transfer the ‘bad’ bacteria from parents mouths to the babies mouths and affect theit teeth?

  • Winning the Baby Sleep Lottery « Mama Shaz and Baby Pickle

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  • Melissa

    I always wondered about what happens when a mummy flies across the world and changes time zones- does that mean she then feeds the baby sleepy nighttime milk in the morning?! :))

  • Angela

    I’m glad to read this! I do however have a question. I’m struggling with after my daughter has fallen asleep breastfeeding actually putting her down! If she wakes she tries to latch back on or gets mad and cries. Nothing info to try to soothe her works…I end up giving her the nipple again and then starting over with getting her off. Any advice?

  • Jessica

    I want to breastfeed my baby to sleep but its proving very stressful…. it takes ages, like she’d suck for over an hour. She rods roots around as soon as I remove my nipple and becomes distressed. Does it not work for everyone?

  • MissLiss

    I’m sorry but simply do not agree. Although you might not need a cot for your grown child, I personally have witnessed A LOT of sleeping/settling problems with my friends kids from people who have let their children fall asleep while feeding and nursing their kids to sleep. Good luck to all who think it won’t be hard to get out of this pattern cause I can guarantee you will have problems. Think of how unfair it is for an older child to learn how to settle their self beacuase they’ve always been taught to sleep in mums arms. Think of how unfair it is for the partner.

  • Zainab

    Ahahaha! I love that ‘milk stoned’ comment!

    When my LO gets to that full and drowsy stage I call it ‘drunk on love’….now I might just call it ‘stoned on love’ 😛

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  • Jo Scantlebury

    Lovely article, made me laugh out loud

  • Jo Scantlebury

    Lovely article, made me laugh out loud

  • HaleyMacklin

    Man oh man did I need this tonight! Just fed Mr 6 month to sleep after an hour is crying whilst trying to put him down (3 teeth coming through). Half of me feels so frustrated at him that the only way he will fall asleep is on the boob – but the other half of me thinks thank GOD I have not one but two to keep him happy! I worry that I will be feeding a schoolchild to sleep, but need to trust that he will fall asleep on his own in due course.

  • Charlotte

    I breastfeed my baby to sleep and also I tried putting him down in bed sleepy at 6 weeks old and he went off to sleep easy as! I can do either if I get the timing right. I do enjoy a snuggle and a dozy feed but some times it’s into bed we go and he self settles just fine.

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  • laura

    Hi my baby is 6.5 months old and i have been trying to get her to go to sleep on her own without having to breastfeed her for a while now but she just doesn’t want to do it and I’m worried about how I’m going to get her to sleep once i can no longer feed her. How do i break this habit?

  • Benefits of Breastfeeding Beyond Infancy

    […] 4) Breast milk has a sedative effect. While we’re on the topic of drugs, in addition to containing hormones that have a relaxing, sedative effect on your baby or toddler, such as oxytocin, prolactin and cholecystokinin, breast milk also supplies a type of endocannabinoid… which is pretty much what it sounds like…  Breastfeeding is a safe, natural and biologically appropriate, way to help them relax and fall asleep. (source) […]

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  • Payal

    This is such a good read. I started using a self settling technique today. My baby is 4 months old and loves to feed to sleep. I have another 4 year old and it is not easy using self settling techniques with another one jumping around. After half an hr of on and off crying, I decided to f*** it and feed her off to sleep. I was not feeling good about letting her cry. She went off to sleep in a jiffy after a 10 min sleep and is now sound asleep. Ladies- do not worry about the “voices” and “bad habits” ! They all eventually turn out okay!