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baby falling asleep breastfeeding

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

By Amalah

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

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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 Ama...

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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