There Is Nothing Wrong With Nursing To Sleep

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
Wendy Wisner

I breastfed both of my sons for a long while, and though I didn’t love every minute of it (it’s a big old myth that every nursing mama does), one of my favorite parts of breastfeeding was when my boys would nurse to sleep.

My days as a mom of small boys were loud, chaotic, relentless, and utterly exhausting. But those nights when we would snuggle down as close as could be, nursing together, were like magic. I’d watch their sweet eyes flutter closed, their little hands softly unfurl as they drifted off, and I felt like we were in our own little sleep cocoon together, mother and son, in love.

I remember being told early on that “nursing to sleep” was a major no-no, according to the sleep experts. “If you regularly nurse your baby to sleep,” wrote Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “[H]e’ll need that same cue to help him fall back to sleep during the night. […] Although it may be much easier to nurse during the night if you and your baby sleep share, it will result in more middle-of-the-night awakenings for both of you.”

And yes, although lots of kids who don’t nurse to sleep still wake frequently, that “nurse to sleep” association probably was “a crutch” for my kids, at least some of the time. But I didn’t care. Maybe it was because I was a rebel, or maybe I was too tired to try to change anything, but I nursed both of my kids to sleep. I shared a bed with my kids, nursed them when they woke up in the middle of the night, and survived it all.

Was I exhausted? Sometimes, yes, I absolutely was.

Did I resent some of the “nursing back to sleep” moments? Sure!

Do I wish I had broken “the habit” earlier? Nope. Absolutely not.

Here’s why: For me, and many parents out there who do it, the loveliness of nursing to sleep outweighed any hassle it caused me.

Moms of young kids are tired as all hell, and while I sometimes wondered if nursing my kids to sleep was one of the things causing my fatigue, it didn’t seem to be the one main thing causing my woes. And even if it was at times, that was only sometimes.

The nights where my sons only wanted my boobs in the middle of the night wore me down for sure, especially when the frequency of it increased, like when they were sick, teething, or learning a new skill. And there were certainly nights where nursing to sleep took forever and I wanted my sons off of me right now, so help me God.

But those moments were by far outweighed by the closeness and sweetness that nursing to sleep brought us. I said it then, and I will most certainly say it now: You do not get those moments with your kids back.

Whatever those moment are, whether it’s nursing to sleep, cuddling to sleep, rocking to sleep. Whether it’s holding your baby in a carrier, your lap, or letting your kids sleep with you in bed (sometimes or all the time). Whatever the ways are that you coddle or “baby” your little ones, it’s all worth it. All of it.

Of course, if something like nursing to sleep doesn’t work for you — either right away, or at any point — you shouldn’t feel obligated to continue. Parenting is hard, and even if there is something that feels warm and fuzzy to others, you shouldn’t feel pressured to do it if it doesn’t work for you. Period.

But for those of us who choose to nurse our babies into dreamland and enjoy it, go for it. We are doing nothing wrong and certainly do not deserve any side-eye or judgment.

Let’s put some of the misconceptions and myths to rest while we’re at it too. Nursing to sleep does not cause cavities (weak enamel, poor tooth brushing habits, and a proliferation of the strep mutans bacteria can all be to blame). As long as you keep your nursing-to-sleep babe’s teeth clean before nursing, your child is no more likely to get cavities than any other kid.

As for weaning your kid from nursing to sleep? It can happen at any time. I personally waited until the habit just died away. The “suck to sleep” association is a biological urge that all kids have, and it gradually and naturally fades away in its own good time. Kids who suck on pacifiers, thumbs, or the end of a blanket all stop eventually, and the same is true of nursing to sleep. Of course, some kids wean earlier than others, but there is no timetable set in stone.

There is an end in sight if you just have a little patience, but if you don’t want to wait it out, that’s fine too. It can take some work, but it’s possible to wean your child from nursing to sleep gently. Sometimes a sippy cup of water will help, or your partner can put your little one to sleep for a few nights. As long as it’s done with love, you’re good to go.

Here’s the thing: For those of us who choose to nurse our kids to sleep, it’s not about right or wrong. It’s not about whether our Aunt Sally approves, what Suzie down the block thinks, or even whether or not the “sleep experts” approve. We do it because it works for us. We do it because, to our kids, nursing to sleep is like heaven. The softest, sweetest embrace. And why deprive our kids of that? Why deprive ourselves of those sweet moments and long-lasting memories?

If nursing to sleep works for you, trust your instincts and do it for as long as you and your child want to. You won’t regret it. And while it lasts, savor the heck out of it. In the end, you’ll miss it more than you know. Trust me.

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