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Falling Asleep While Nursing: Is It Really Such a Big Deal?

Jun18

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Hi Amalah,

I love, love, love your Advice Smackdown! The way you wrap humor around sound advice is witty entertainment at its best! My son, Grayson, is 4.5 months old and we are at what all the parenting/baby books indicate as a crossroads for developing “good” sleep habits. Let me first say that I am so blessed to have an amazing sleeper. I often have to wake him up after an 11 hour snooze so that he can get to school on time. *knock on wood, spit, spit, turn around twice, throw salt over shoulder* He is strictly breastfed at home (we haven’t introduced solids yet), but has adapted well (like he has most things in his 4.5 month life so far) with taking EBM bottles at daycare or from Daddy when I’m not at home to feed him (which, thankfully, is rare because I love nursing and want to treasure these moments while they last!). Our current after-school/work routine is quality time (playing or snuggling or napping, based on everyone’s mood), dinner for Grayson at 6ish, dinner for mommy and daddy around 6:30 or 7, quiet time before bath around 7:30-8, then “dessert” (i.e., nursing to sleep). *GASP* Nursing to sleep, you might ask?! Yes, this is where I need your advice.

As I said, I love our nursing relationship and know that these moments won’t last forever (I know he’ll trade his Dr. Brown’s bottles for beer bottles by college). On the one hand, if it isn’t broken (and we both enjoy it and it ordinarily results in long, uninterrupted sleep for both of us), don’t break it! On the other hand, it sounds like we are entering a critical period developmentally to sleep train (putting baby in crib while awake and let him fall to sleep on his own…or cry). I realize that no baby is “by the book,” so in your opinion/experience: should we continue with our current routine of nursing to sleep? Might he outgrow this need and let me know when he’s ready for a new routine? Or should we try to Ferberize or other similar sleep method? (I should note that Ferberizing may result in my loss of sanity and an increase in the stock price of Kleenex, but don’t let that sway your response.)

All the best,
Sarah B.

Two things you should know about my “approach” to sleep and sleep-training. Wait, scratch that. Three things.

1) I do not believe in using sleep-training methods that involve crying before six months of age, including Ferber (which I did indeed use when my babies were a bit older to address a variety of specific sleep issues).

2) That said, I DO believe good sleep habits can be encouraged before six months. As can bad ones, which will then possibly increase your chances of needing a sleep-training method that involves crying at some point down the line.

3) And yeah, falling asleep while on the boob or bottle — or really becoming completely dependent on ANYTHING external to fall asleep, be it rocking, swaddling, butt-patting, pacifier, whatever — is not a good long-term strategy for helping your child develop healthy sleep habits. All that stuff has to go away eventually, though it’s admittedly difficult to figure out how to best ease your baby through the transition…and to decide when it is indeed “eventually” and the sleep prop/crutch has to be removed.

WAIT. SCRATCH THAT AGAIN. FOUR THINGS. THERE ARE FOUR THINGS:

4) I also believe that nobody can tell you what’s 100% exactly right for your particular baby and his particular sleep needs. I mean, SOMEBODY probably has the right advice for you, but chances are you’ll end up following other advice first, then muddling around and trying This and then That before finally hitting upon the Right Approach For You. (Which you will then preach to everybody you know, thus keeping the circle of Conflicting Opinions About Sleep alive and ever-going.)

In other words, feel free to ignore everything I’m about to say, because I really don’t know anything more about your baby’s sleep habits than you do.

But anyway. At 4.5 months, I wouldn’t be freaking out juuuuuust yet about the fact that your son isn’t falling asleep on his own yet. He’s still really young, and yet is already doing REALLY WELL with the sleeping. I had one of those too! And yet for the life of me I cannot remember when he (baby Noah) consistently put himself to sleep or whether he ever fell asleep on the boob or bottle (I’m sure he did) or when exactly we figured out that it was okay for him to let out a few minutes’ worth of squawking in his crib after we put him down. That was actually his way of putting himself to sleep, and rushing to prevent the fussing simply screwed the whole system up. (Ike now does the same thing, though for many months he was the complete opposite: fussing = amping up to hysterics. Then he went and CHANGED ALL THE RULES).

Anyway, point is: There’s no set-in-stone cutoff date for self-soothing. No “if X isn’t happening by five months, ALL WILL BE LOST” rule of thumb. So…um. Feel free to chillax, I guess.

HOWEVER. Annoying words of wisdom from someone who has “been there.” What’s precious and non-intrusive at 4.5 months (and when your baby is sleeping 11 hours straight) can slowly morph into something less-than-ideal going forward, when you enter the realm of teething, sleep regressions, developmental spurts, illness, etc. If he is overly dependent on boobage to fall asleep, suddenly you’re getting called to active duty at 11 pm. Then 2 am. And omg 3:30 am. And so on and so forth. Night after night, while your body and brain enter a form of shock and you cannot figure out who this crappy sleeper is and why it ate your baby.

Baby sleep habits are NOT LINEAR, you guys. I really can’t stress this enough. Your newborn can amaze you with her sleeping-through-the-night habits for months, but that doesn’t mean you’ve birthed a lifelong effortless sleeper. It can mean things are just going to go to hell later, so try to look at infant sleep habits as being kind of a full first-year journey. There may be surprise twists and turns. Or maybe not! But they are easier to handle if you at least remind yourself that they’re a strong possibility.

So anyway, I think that’s the place where the (mostly well-meaning) advice about “NO FALLING ASLEEP ON BOOOOOBS” comes from. As wonderful as breastfeeding is, the gift of healthy, independent sleep habits is pretty darn wonderful too. And I say that as someone who breastfed and co-slept and babywore and did all manner of AP-style techniques as well. There’s a delicate line between attachment and over-reliance, I guess. I want my children to know without a doubt that I am here when they need me and will never, ever leave them…but I also don’t want them to wake up at night and be 100% DEPENDENT on me (or anything, really) to be able to simply roll over and go back to sleep. Glorious, wonderful sleep.

So…I guess that’s my sleep manifesto. Sloppy and disjointed as ever. So what do you DO about a baby who seems to require a nipple in his mouth to fall asleep?

1) Find out what the napping routine at daycare is. Are they letting him fall asleep with the bottle in his mouth, or are they encouraging him to fall asleep independently? In my (limited) experience, daycare ladies are Made of Magic when it comes to getting babies on schedules and enforcing healthy sleep routines, so his daycare may already be “on this” so to speak, and can offer some ideas that you can extend to bedtime.

2) Add a post-nursing step to his bedtime routine, however slight or subtle. Once he’s done and you unlatch him, don’t immediately bolt for the crib. Shift his position slightly and start singing or rocking. Or play a lullaby or musical toy. He may immediately start rooting and protesting, and that’s okay. Put him back on, then rinse, repeat, try again. Once he’s off the boob and stays off-yet-settled/content for just a couple minutes, put him in the crib.

You don’t have to go from zero to sixty here: a 4.5-month-old does NOT need to get unceremoniously plopped in a crib wide awake. Just maybe the barest, slightest bit of rousing in between nursing and the mattress can be enough to gently prod him into good self-soothing habits.

Although really: The fact that he’s sleeping 11 hours straight suggests that he IS self-soothing, because most of us do wake up slightly several times, then settle ourselves back down without realizing it. He’s not screaming for boob at 2 am, so this could all be a complete non-issue, for now.

But don’t worry about sleep training and a good breastfeeding relationship as being diametrically opposed somehow. Hell, Ike has suddenly decided (now that bedtime bottles are no more) that nursing is FANTASTIC again, particularly at bedtime, even though I doubt I’m making more than a couple watery ounces at this point. But I nurse him. We do bath, diaper, book, boob, song. Same as we used to do way back in the Newborn Day. Sometimes he falls asleep before the song and I have to do the jiggle-rouse thing (because the nights he conks out completely on the boob are invariably the nights he wakes up crying in the middle of the night, go figure). If I put him in the crib awake or half-awake, he fusses, but then he falls asleep on his own. Usually within three minutes or so. And then sleeps straight on ’til morning. Something it felt like we would NEVER achieve there, for awhile.

So…don’t worry too hard about it. Your baby sounds fine and normal and this “problem” is probably one of the simpler ones to deal with. Do what you can to nudge him in the very teeny tiny beginnings of self-soothing…and then table all the other worries and sleep-training anxieties for another month and a half. AT LEAST. Because like I said: he might already BE self-soothing at night, and just wants this one accommodation at bedtime. No big deal to that, says I.

Photo source: Purestock/ Thinkstock Photos

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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18 Responses to “Falling Asleep While Nursing: Is It Really Such a Big Deal?”

  1. Char Jun 18 at 1:40 pm Reply Reply

    I wouldn’t change a thing! I have two boys (two years apart), nursed them each to sleep until I weaned at 14 months. Both were Ferbered at 4 months (more for night wakings than for bedtime). And there was no issue getting them off the boob and self soothing during the weaning process. Ferber even supports nursing to sleep for the first year. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it…yet. Good luck!

  2. tasterspoon Jun 18 at 1:53 pm Reply Reply

    Well, Amy is the 3-kid veteran so that’s expertise in my book, and I totally get the concept of guiding your kid while they’re still young and pliable but, focusing on Thing 4, I just want to reassure you a bit.

    My baby fell asleep on the boob at night until she was 14 months old (I kind of went with the “how can something so seemingly biologically programmed be wrong?” thinking), yet she apparently napped at daycare just fine without me (and without a bottle, since that was one of my few teeth-preserving rules). My concern with the boob-sleeping was more tooth decay than self-soothing and I kind of punted there. She moved to zonking on cow’s milk with minimal fuss (14 months) and then to book + milk->toothbrushing->book + water (18 months) to no final beverages after the toothbrushing (19 months). We read a final couple of books, turn out the light (against protest), sing row your boat and patty cake in the dark, and lay her in her bed. And say goodnight! I won’t lie, I was SHOCKED how uneventful each of these transitions was, including the time she wearied of my songs and outright asked to be put in bed (18 months). Our issue is her reliance on her pacifier and that she wakes up multiple times a night when it falls out, but that’s a whole other topic. I’m not trying to brag or rub in how lucky we’ve been (I know #2 may be wildly different), just to reassure you that if everybody’s happy, I don’t think you should worry about what could go wrong down the road. It could go wrong anyway and then you’ll have missed out on these blissful months!

  3. Moxy Jun 18 at 2:06 pm Reply Reply

    I have one daughter, 20 months, and I nurse her to sleep many nights. My rational was if it’s working for us, don’t mess with it. She goes to daycare and they put her down for naps without a fuss, or bottle or pacifier – they really do have some magic! We’ve had babysitters get her down for the night, with some fussing. The difficult part for us has been the nights that nursing to sleep does not work. Taking a walk with her in a carrier does the trick most nights. She wakes in the middle of the night and will easily go back to sleep on her own. I think the best advice is to find what works for your family and go with it, no matter what well-meaning advice others swear by.

  4. Jeannie Jun 18 at 3:11 pm Reply Reply

    With my first, I was very anxious about him learning to self-soothe — not because nursing to sleep wasn’t working for us, but because everyone kept telling me he NEVER WOULD OTHERWISE OMG. So I went with the No-Cry Sleep Solution and would gently disengage him to get him to roll over before really sleeping; this sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t. And yet even though it didn’t always work he managed to sleep just fine for daycare naps and for babysitters and eventually weaned and figured it all out without that much fuss. He’s now six and his self-soothing sleep skills are excellent.

    With my second I was much more relaxed (about everything!) and didn’t bother with focussing too much on de-latching before sleep, but she has kind of adopted that on her own. And she too will go to sleep at daycare / with daddy / with babysitters / with grandma without much fuss.

    My point is — well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Yes, it can lead to problems in the future, but personally I would leave those problems to the future. It may not lead to problems; your child may just grow out of it slowly and naturally and at a pace that works for you. If it’s working for you / dad / daycare / other caregivers, you probably don’t need to worry about it. :)

  5. Antje Jun 18 at 3:43 pm Reply Reply

    I had a crazy non-sleeper in the first year.  At one point I decided that if falling asleep on the boob was going to make 95% of bed/naptimes better for me, then who cares if it would make 5% of bed/naptimes with someone else worse?  I needed that extra edge.

    At another point I decided that as long as she wasn’t 100% dependent on my boob for sleep (so, as long as she was putting herself to sleep maybe 5 times per week), then it wasn’t a big deal if she mostly fell asleep on the boob.

    Seriously, just do whatever you think is best.  I know everyone keeps saying that and it’s hard to believe, but it’s really true!  My baby was SO not a textbook sleeper, and it took me about 8 months to stop caring what anyone else thought about it.  What a relief that was!

    Also, another good bit of parenting advice I received: You can always change what you’re doing.  Just because you’re doing things one way now doesn’t mean you’re stuck doing them that way forever.  Really.  So just do your best, and that’s all anyone can ask!

  6. Kelli Oliver George Jun 18 at 4:51 pm Reply Reply

    I nursed both of my babies to sleep and we still co-sleep with our 6.5 yo and almost 5 yo.  Both kids will often go to bed by themselves to sleep, it’s not a big deal at this point.    We are not big on nighttime routines, my kids have figured out that we get into bed, have a bit of quiet time before hand (reading books, talking with each other, etc.) and then? we sleep.  We simply don’t have nighttime battles in our house.  

    I like what Antje said — all too often, moms are pressured with the “you must start this NOW while they are babies or they are ruined forever”.  I just haven’t found that to be the case.   For example, my kids are night owls right now — obviously, that is going to have change this fall when they are in 1st grade and Kindergarten with a morning schedule.  Over the years, when folks find out my kids are night owls, they act as if I am ruining my kids forever.  However, that doesn’t even make sense.  AT ALL.  My husband is from India  – a 10.5 time difference.  Therefore, he grew for the first 22 years of his life with  a schedule completely Day vs.  Night to what he is living now!  It seems that humans have the ability to adapt after all.   :-)

    So, I say — do what works for your family.  You can always switch things around.

    • Olivia Jun 19 at 3:22 pm Reply Reply

      I love hearing how things work in your house because we seem to be headed down the same path in ours. There are also no bedtime fights in our home.

  7. Whozat Jun 18 at 8:23 pm Reply Reply

    I think the big question is what works for you, and what you’re ok with. If you’re ok with your son nursing to sleep as long as he’s nursing, then don’t worry about it. If you’re not, then at some point, you’ll want to find other ways to get him to sleep.

    My personal feeling on the matter is that if babies weren’t meant to nurse to sleep (and then sleep with their mamas) then nursing wouldn’t make mama and baby both fall asleep!

    My daughter is 3.5 and nurses to sleep, in her own bed. (She slept with us til just after her 3rd birthday, when she decided to move to the Big Girl Bed.) 

    Our routine is tidy up (ok, sometimes), bath/teeth/potty, book(s) in bed while she nurses, then lights out (and usually switch sides) and nurse until she’s asleep. 

    Usually (USUALLY) it only takes a few minutes after we turn out the lights for her to be asleep enough to unlatch, roll over and not notice when I get up. 

    99.99999% of the time that routine is 100% fine with me. 

    Sometimes, it would be nice if she’d go to sleep for someone else, but my partner works evenings, so 5/7 nights a week I’m the only one home at bed time anyway, so whatever our routine is I’m going to be the one that she expects to be tucking her in. 

    On occasions when I’d like to be out past bedtime, I usually try to get her a nap in the late afternoon (she usually does not nap) even if it requires driving around aimlessly :-) and then she’s good to wait up for me to get home. 

    (I’m a SAHM, and she’s not in preschool, so there’s usually nothing that we have to be up for super early, so if she stays up late, she can sleep in.)

    That’s what’s working for us right now, so we’re just rolling with it. 

  8. Kate Jun 18 at 10:32 pm Reply Reply

    I think if you are comfortable and happy doing what you are doing now, then there is no reason to try and switch things up. As someone above said, you can always change what you are doing! To add some data points, I nursed my first son to sleep until 13 months or so when he just stopped falling asleep while nursing. So I would nurse him, he was still awake, and I would just put him in bed. He had been a terrible sleeper in almost every other respect, but we never had an issue with him falling asleep on his own after 13 months. My second child was similar. Around 18 months or so, he just stopped falling all the way asleep while nursing and was happy to be transferred to bed. I did miss bedtime probably 2-3 times a month after each child was 5 or 6 months old and my husband was able to put them to sleep with no problem with a bottle. Maybe that helped them be more adaptable? Not sure, but overall, I didn’t stress much about it and it turned out to be not a big deal for me at all. They are now 2 and 5 and are experts at going to bed on their own in their own room.

  9. OliviaW Jun 19 at 12:50 pm Reply Reply

    I don’t see the problem with nursing to sleep as long as it works for you. I did that for 2.5 yrs with my first and might go just as long with my second baby. When she and I were both ready for a change it was fairly quick and painless.

  10. Hannah Jun 20 at 12:15 pm Reply Reply

    You are going to have The Parenting Police dishing out unsolicited and unwelcome a$$vice for the rest of your son’s life – so you might as well get used to ignoring it now. 

    If you & your family are happy with things the way they are (and with a 4.5mo who sleeps all night, YOU SHOULD BE) then don’t worry about changing it just because people are telling you that you should.

    If it’s not working for you, Amy’s suggestions are good ones.

    Good luck!

  11. sixteen Jun 20 at 12:50 pm Reply Reply

    Personally I also think that if it aint broke don’t fix it. You can always change what you’re doing, and often you are forced to anyway, because what you used to do might no longer be effective! That’s the thing about kids! Once you think you have it figured out, they CHANGE on ya. But for now if it works for you and your family, heck, keep doing it. However if you do want to make a small change, Amy’s idea to add a post-nursing step is a really good one. Check out Elizabeth Pantley’s No-Cry Sleep Solution for ideas on how to slowly and kindly adjust your baby’s habits. She has helped us a lot.

  12. Meg A Jun 21 at 11:39 am Reply Reply

    Everyone told me, “Don’t nurse him to sleep or he’ll never be able to fall asleep on his own!” Well, guess what. I nursed him to sleep until he was around 5 months old and then he (on his own) stopped falling asleep at the breast. I would then put him down, sleepy but awake, in his crib and he maybe fusses for a minute or two (not crying, more like whining) before falling asleep. And staying sleep! We do have a sound machine in his room and we started giving him a “lovie” (blankie, etc) at around 5 months. These 2 additions help tremendously b/c they are now his sleep cues. We never read any sleep books – just did what worked for us. Go with your gut and if you want to nurse him to sleep b/c that’s what works, he WILL eventually learn to go to sleep on his own. My theory is that it’s a phase, like many other things babies do.

    • Christina Jul 07 at 4:20 pm Reply Reply

      This is pretty much word-for-word how it has gone with my 8 mo EBF son. Once he started staying awake during feedings I started laying him down once he got sleepy with a blankie and soft music. He has be going through a must-cry-it-out phase (like 5 min of sleepy cries) recently but I think that is just his thing now that he can crawl around and get comfy.. He does still nurse to sleep sometimes, but that is the exception, not the rule. And I love it when he does! Snuggle time!

  13. Lala Jun 21 at 1:44 pm Reply Reply

    I had a baby who was a horrible, horrible sleeper; she never slept more than a 2-3 hours at a stretch until she was almost 9 months old, fought naps like a wildcat, and just generally found everything JUST.TOO.INTERESTING! to fall asleep. The only way she would fall asleep was for me to nurse her down, which I did until she was about 19 months. I spent so much time feeling horribly stressed that I was doing it RONG and was going to scar her forever and she would never be able to self-soothe and fall asleep and and and….

    I weaned her at 19 months because we were down to 1 nursing session (the bedtime one) on just one boob, and I had upcoming travel for work. I anticipated an absolutely horrific transition. Instead, we had my husband give her a sippy of water and do the bedtime routine for a few days. After about a week of fussing/crying/jumping in her crib for 5-7 minutes before falling asleep (seriously, 7 minutes was her conk-out limit), she started to learn how to put herself to sleep.

    She’s now 21 months. We rock, read, and sing before bed, put her in her crib, rub her tummy and sing one last song, then it’s lights out. She sings to herself for a few minutes, rolls over, and is butt-up asleep for 11 hours.

    All this to say that if even the worst sleepers in the world can learn to self-soothe and fall asleep, your little baby will learn to do so as well, all in good time. Don’t feel pressured to do anything you, and he, aren’t ready to do yet, even if books and other people tell you that you’re messing your baby’s sleep up forever. You’re not. Promise.

  14. kate Jun 21 at 1:51 pm Reply Reply

    I’m not nursing my 10 mo old anymore, but I still rock him to sleep after he has his bedtime bottle. Sometimes I start to feel like I should force the falling asleep on his own thing. But then I look down at his growing-by-the-minute body and realize that I probably only have another couple of months of him even fitting on my lap to rock to sleep! At that point, I’ll have no choice but to put him in the crib to fall asleep, so for now, I’m going to enjoy the snuggly rocking and you should too with your baby. I really don’t understand why people scare moms into believing their babies will NEVER fall asleep on their own if they don’t start in minute one. It’s just…silly. Everyone learns to fall asleep on their own eventually :)

  15. Autumn Jun 21 at 5:25 pm Reply Reply

    I nurse my 10 month old to sleep both for naps and at night.  I’m pretty good now about knowing if she will fall asleep after the first 5 minutes.  It’s just easier for us now, and I love the snuggly sleepy baby.  She usually unlatches herself, but sometimes I help her out, and she usually is roused a bit on the trip to the crib when I step on or kick one of her toys,  She usually sleeps 10 hours at night, and I have to get up with her maybe once a week. 

    She was a poor napper until about 8 months, so I’m for anything that gets her (and me) the rest we need.  I’m willing to play along with day nursing till she’s a year or so (when I’m going to quit pumping) and I’m hoping to be done with bedtime boob by 2.  

  16. Growing Tween Mom Jun 22 at 1:11 am Reply Reply

    Reading this was so much fun. I employed the still-half-asleep-mom method of nursing all night with my babies in bed through four children and have emerged on the other side of things as now my youngest is 4 and no longer nursing or sleeping in our beds. It worked well for us and no noticeable signs of detriment have come up. Whew!

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