Have you been told any of these?
‘You mustn’t breastfeed your baby to sleep’
‘Your baby needs to learn to self-settle,’
Or ‘you are creating bad habits allowing your baby to fall asleep on the breast.’
Although you may like to use other sleep cues as well as breastfeeding your baby to sleep, 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. There are some magical chemicals in breast milk that support sleep as well as boosting your baby’s immunity, so it is the most natural thing in the world for a relaxed baby and mother to snuggle and doze together as they breastfeed.
There is a wealth of evidence that the soporific effects of breastfeeding are hormonally induced: Breastmilk contains a range of hormones, including prolactin (your milk production hormone), oxytocin (which releases breastmilk) and cholecystokinen (CCK – this has an effect on satiety). 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 studies by Spanish researchers show that components in mothers’ milk 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 mother’s milk 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.
Looking for gentle, respectful ways to help your baby (and you) sleep without compromising breastfeeding or the beautiful bond between you and your little one? See my book Sleeping Like a Baby (it’s available on Audible too, if you don’t have time to read). You can download the first chapter FREE HERE.
But what if I need to leave my baby with a carer?
If you are planning to leave your baby with a carer perhaps because you are returning to work, it can be helpful to have some other sleep cues besides breastfeeding, but you can introduce these gently when it feels right for you and your baby. It can be reassuring to know that when you return to work, your baby-sitter will be able to help your little one sleep because the carer won’t smell like breastmilk. Your baby will respond differently to you and a carer whether this is your partner, Grandma, or a babysitter – babies associate Mummy with breastmilk and her milky smell.
This means you can still use breastfeeding to help your baby relax and get to sleep when you are with her and need this magic tool, especially during the night when everyone needs to get back to sleep as easily as possible, however here is a gentle way to make changes so any transition is easier for your baby.
‘Baby steps’ to making changes
To ‘wean’ your baby off needing to be rocked or fed to sleep, you can use a ‘baby steps’ approach. Firstly, work out a realistic goal, then ‘reverse engineer’ that so you start changing one ‘baby step’ at a time, working towards your ‘goal’.
Introduce a new sleepy cue:
Start by introducing a more easily discarded cue as you feed your baby to sleep, such as gentle music or a ‘sleepy song’. Simply swapping one cue for another will be confusing and your baby won’t know what to expect so the idea is to ‘overlay’ the new cue (the music). Play the music on a low volume without making any other changes to your bedtime routine for at least a week.
Regardless of promises on lullaby labels, it will take your baby 7 to 10 days to ‘condition’ him to any music, and you want a positive association with this new routine. Going too quickly can be stressful to your baby, especially when you have worked so hard to make sleep time a calm and positive experience.
Making a change:
After a week, keep playing the music, but remove your baby from the breast before he falls asleep, just holding him until he dozes off. If he is upset, pop him back on the breast or rock a little until he settles, then try again.
Tip: as you remove your baby from the breast, press your fingers under his chin and gently hold his mouth closed – he will suck on his tongue a moment and relax, instead of grasping for the breast again.
Once your baby is happily falling asleep in your arms without being fed /rocked to sleep, the next step is to cuddle him until he is very relaxed then gently place him into his cot. It can help to warm the mattress a little with a heat pack (don’t overheat it), so your baby isn’t going from your warm arms to cold sheets. Keep your hand on your baby as you move him (patting is usually too stimulating) and gently rock him a little if this seems to help him drift to sleep.
baby is settling at this step, you can start moving the bedtime breastfeed back a little and pop him into the cot with his music playing. If at any time your baby gets upset, always move back a step until he is ready to move forward.
Gradually with love
This gentle baby steps approach can be used whenever you want to make changes, whatever these are – whether you want to ease off rocking or feeding your baby to sleep or if you have used a dummy and want to discard this. Remember the mantra, ‘gradually with love’ and plan backwards from your goal, then work out small baby steps and implement these, one at a time.
If you are enjoying precious bed-time snuggles there is no need to change anything or to rush through any steps: breastfeeding or cuddling and rocking your baby to sleep is not a ‘bad habit’ or a ‘sleep prop’. Consider, how do you go to sleep yourself – Do you like to read a book to wind down? Have complete darkness or a light on in the hallway? Enjoy a hot drink before bed? Do you snuggle up to your partner – or do you tell each other, “we must get onto our own side of the bed and self-settle, we are creating ‘bad habits’?”
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 parents who have had to set up side car cots next to their grown up kids and, if your child does still like 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 Baby Care author. For more support to help your baby sleep, check out Pinky’ book Sleeping Like a Baby – this “baby steps” method is outlined in detail. You can download the first chapter FREE .