As a breastfeeding helper, I get a lot of questions about nursing to sleep. Many mothers are worried that by nursing to sleep, they are setting up bad habits for their baby. They are worried that their baby will never fall asleep any other way. They are concerned that they are doing something wrong.
Sound familiar? There’s a lot of talk out there about how moms are doing things wrong, especially when it comes to sleep. Our culture has unrealistic expectations about infant and toddler sleep. The idea is that you are supposed to put your child in his bed, kiss him goodnight, walk out of the room, and not hear from him again until morning. This picture could not be farther from the truth. Babies and toddlers are designed to need parental help getting to sleep and staying asleep. Each child outgrows that need at his or her own pace.
Babies and toddlers are designed to suck to sleep. Sucking is their primary way of receiving comfort. Sucking releases hormones that make a baby sleepy, whether or not the baby received nourishment. That’s why a baby will fall asleep sucking on a pacifier. Many moms are worried that if they nurse their babies to sleep, they will become “human pacifiers.” There is no such thing! There were breasts before there were pacifiers. Humans nursed their young to sleep for millions of years. Babies who don’t nurse to sleep usually do suck to sleep on a pacifier, or a bottle, or a thumb (I have no problem with this if it works for you). One of the great things about nursing to sleep is that it will not be the cause of braces down the road, whereas pacifiers, bottles, and thumbs could be. Some mothers are concerned that nursing to sleep could cause tooth decay, but breastfeeding rarely causes this (and is never the main cause of tooth decay; this is an article I wrote about this topic).
To me, nursing to sleep is a sweet, heavenly experience I love being able to give my children. It’s nourishment, peacefulness, closeness, and relaxation. It’s the sleep association I want them to have.
Most children will be amendable to falling asleep other ways when mom isn’t there — in Daddy’s arms, a baby carrier, stroller, car seat. But if nursing to sleep is working for you, why change it? Also, for many busy babies and toddlers, nursing to sleep is one of the only ways to get in a good nursing session! Usually these sessions are the last to go when a child weans. Ending nursing to sleep before your child is ready may accelerate the weaning process too quickly if you aren’t ready.
So when to end it? It’s up to you! My older son stopped on his own when he was four. It just kind of happened. Sucking to sleep just didn’t work anymore. That length of time is not for everyone, I know, and if you just let it happen, your child may outgrow it sooner or later than mine did. But if you want to transition away from it sooner, you can. The idea is to find gentle substitutes for nursing: back patting, cuddling, shushing, stories. Some might have to enlist a partner for help. Like anything else with children, it’s is possible to wean from nursing to sleep gently, and with love.
So go for it. Enjoy it! It’s OK.