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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 [email protected].

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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Char
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Char

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!

tasterspoon
Guest
tasterspoon

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… Read more »

Moxy
Guest
Moxy

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… Read more »

Jeannie
Guest
Jeannie

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… Read more »

Antje
Guest
Antje

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… Read more »

Kelli Oliver George
Guest

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… Read more »

Olivia
Guest
Olivia

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.

Whozat
Guest

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… Read more »

Kate
Guest
Kate

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… Read more »

OliviaW
Guest
OliviaW

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.

Hannah
Guest

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!

sixteen
Guest
sixteen

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… Read more »

Meg A
Guest
Meg A

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.… Read more »

Christina
Guest
Christina

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!

Lala
Guest
Lala

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….… Read more »

kate
Guest
kate

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… Read more »

Autumn
Guest
Autumn

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… Read more »

Growing Tween Mom
Guest

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!

Mary
Guest
Mary

This advice really is making me think. I co-sleep with my almost 6 month old and nurse through the night because I want to. It is tiring though that he needs held to nap. I have so much to get done around my home! While working, my sister or husband keeps him and he really cries a lot, dependant on the boob…. I failed miserably with my 1st child and didn’t want that to happen with this one.

Nathania
Guest
Nathania

I’m so glad to read all of your replies. I have a 3.5 month old boy and nurse him to sleep and was worried that I should be training him to not fall asleep on the boob. But after reading all the above, I’m going to continue with nursing to sleep. I nurse my boy at about 6.30pm to sleep and he doesn’t wake till approx 2am. then up for a nappy change and quick feed to sleep till 6am. Its really hard being a first time mum with so much advice, that you will ruin your child if you… Read more »

Aggie
Guest
Aggie

Help! I know it’s an old post but I hope I can still get some help. My baby is only 10 weeks old. She has been nursing to sleep from the very beginning as I wasn’t able to get her to sleep any other way plus she just fell asleep every time I fed her and wouldn’t wake up when done. She used to take good naps (also after falling asleep on the breast) but for a while now she may nap for a few minutes (probably up to 15 min if I’m lucky) and she wakes up looking for… Read more »

Isabel Kallman
Admin

I am so sorry, but we don’t answer personalized questions here as it is would be unmanageable and we would lose track of them. If you would like to submit a question to our Advice Smackdown for consideration (there is a queue and not all get answered and therefore published), please send to amyadvice[at]gmail[dot]com

Freda Williams
Guest
Freda Williams

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it–but I definitely like Amy’s caveat of rousing him some after nursing to lessen the association some. Plus you are home with him fewer hours so with him sleeping all night lucky lady your breasts need that baby to mommy stimulation! Enjoy those moments without guilt.