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It’s OK to Nurse to Sleep

nursingtosleep

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.

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15 thoughts on “It’s OK to Nurse to Sleep”

  • beautiful piece. I remember reading advice not to nurse our baby to sleep and it took me a long time to stop feeling guilty. now it is the reason why I don’t want my son to wean.

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  • Lovely post! I always cringe when I hear other moms disapproving of nursing to sleep. As you said, it’s so important for infants and toddlers to have that closeness and comfort when going to sleep. Taking that away from them before they are ready just seems unfair to me. My son is 19 months old and he only will go to sleep while nursing. It doesn’t bother me – I’m his mama and this is what I signed up for! 🙂

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  • thanks wendy! you always write such empowering comments and advice – it makes me feel confident that my instincts are right and things will all work out. early on, i googled stuff a few times and got so overwhelmed with all the conflicting info, i just went w my gut. and things have been going so well it made me realize i got this. 🙂

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  • Thanks for this post. I found it just now as I went looking for answers on this topic. My nearly-2-year-old wants to nurse to sleep, and for the most part this works for us. It only doesn’t on those (rare) nights when I can’t remove the nipple without him waking. And he does well with sleeping through the night (8-5, which is awesome in our family), so I’m not concerned on that score. But on the nights that ARE hard I get paranoid about it.

    Can you recommend ways to start transitioning towards other soothing methods? Like you mentioned, his dad or other caregivers can put him down just fine without the sucking, but when I’m on bedtime, only the boob will do… But I’d like to be able to shush him or soothe him in some boobless way, too… I’m sure there are other factors on those nights when I can’t extract myself, and maybe it’s a matter of finding my own calm with it, since it doesn’t happen so often, but it really can be a drawn out process on those nights!

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    • I hear you about the long drawn out times — I’ve been there :). This is the age when you can start talking to them. Maybe explain that the nursing session has a beginning and an end. Play a song or sing a song to signify that beginning and end. I sometimes take a break by going to the other room with the kid for some water or a snack or having daddy walk him around. Just try different things and talk about them and know the next night might be totally different!

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  • Thanks for this post. My older son is two and he still needs breastfeeding before going to sleep. I like the idea of to be able to help him to sleep. My only concern is if I could minimize the nap and night time awakening because I’m also breastfeeding my 5 weeks baby and it’s quite hard.

    Thank you very much

    Irene

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    • Yes! I understand. Nightweaning is definitely possible at the age, while still nursing to sleep. Elizabeth Pantley and Jay Gordan have some good, gentle ways to do it. It’s super helpful if your partner can take over some of the waking. Good luck! xo

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  • Thank you, my daughter is almost 5 months and wont use anything but me to sleep, we have tried different dummies for months and nothing has worked because I thought thats what I had to do and she is my 4th but my other 3 I thought by now they had to wean from me to sleep better because they all keep waking so thats what i did? but after reading the benefits of co sleeping and this it has changed how I thought it should be done and we actually both sleep better and I know I will feed her for longer.

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  • Hi Wendy — I love your advice and I really appreciate what you do. I just humbly request that you make one tiny edit for accuracy. Humans have only been nursing their young to sleep for millions of years, not billions (we’ve only been around for about 4.5 million years). Your point absolutely still stands, please forgive me for being a fact checker. Thanks again for your helpful experience and thoughts, it makes me feel good about nursing my 4-month-old to sleep.

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