Can We Stop It With The Idea That Nursing Babies To Sleep Is A Bad Habit?

by Karen Johnson
Originally Published: 
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The worst thing we can do to ourselves as mothers is to hang on to regrets. Because we all have them. We all mess up and hope it’s not too scarring on our kids’ memories.

And we screw up the most with the first one, don’t we? That first pancake kid—the one who’s either a little burnt or a little undercooked, but never just right because we are still warming up the griddle. At least that’s the case for me, anyway. My list of things I’d change if I could go back and re-do parenting with my oldest child is long. I try to not beat myself up too badly, though, because he’s 12 now and pretty awesome, so I’m sure I’m doing a lot of things right.

Because holding on to a laundry list of regrets isn’t healthy for anyone. Especially a hard-working, exhausted mom who’s just doing her best.

But if there is one thing I truly do wish I could do over, it’s following my own gut—specifically when it comes to breastfeeding and sleep training him as a baby.

I can remember it clear as day. He was about four months old, and we were at the pediatrician for one of the 900 well visits babies have in their first year. I was a new mom, fresh out of the chute, and I was nervous. And naive.

I soaked up every word from the nurses’ and doctors’ mouth like they were gold. Please tell me what to do. I don’t know how to do this, I silently begged.

And they did. They told me what to do and what not to do, and I listened, like the good little mother that I was. But maybe, on occasion, I shouldn’t have.

Because it was at that appointment that I confessed he still wasn’t sleeping through the night. That I often breastfed him back to sleep. And that he also fell asleep breastfeeding during the day, too.

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And I was met with a harsh tsk-tsk. A “you need to stop that” lecture. A “babies should be sleeping through the night by this age” speech. Followed by a “You should also lay them in their cribs awake so they learn to self-soothe and put themselves to sleep” talk.

It was “advice” that left me feeling defeated. Breastfeeding had been a knock-down, drag-out battle for the first few months of his life, and I finally had it down. Now they wanted me to mess with our system? Nevertheless, I took my baby home and vowed to make these “necessary changes” the doctor recommended. I didn’t want to screw this up, after all. Motherhood was serious business. It was my only business. If it wasn’t good for him to feed during the night, we’d stop. If good moms lay their babies down awake, I’d do that. Because I was a good mom. And I was determined to do everything “the right way.”

And even though it didn’t necessarily feel “right” in my gut, because what harm could I be doing giving him a quick feed at 2 a.m. so we’d both get a few more hours of sleep? Or letting him fall asleep on the boob mid-day while I finally got to sit and catch a little HGTV? But, I figured the doctor certainly knew better than I did, so I listened up.

That day began a rigid sleep training, night-time weaning process that frankly, failed. That child didn’t sleep through the night until he was over a year. He was always fussy and I never felt a sense of calm from either of us. And I can’t help but wonder if it was because of adhering to whatever rules and schedules the experts told me I must follow, rather than my own heart.

Interestingly, by the time babies #2 and #3 came around, a lot had changed—including my willingness to breastfeed them whenever I damn well pleased. They often fell asleep nursing, and yes, even my last baby woke up to breastfeed in the middle of the night until the very end.

And yet, when I’d hear my third child fuss at 11, 12, 13 months old… in those dark middle of the night hours… that old judgy voice (we’d switched pediatricians by then) still whispered in the back of my head. “You shouldn’t still be doing this,” it said. “He’s too old for middle of the night feedings. He’s too old to fall asleep nursing. He’s almost a toddler.” But then I realized, well, I can do this for 10 minutes, then get a whole bunch of sleep, or I can refuse to nurse him and hear him cry. Hmmm. What’s better for Mom and baby? SLEEP.

By baby #3, nap and feeding schedules I used to follow religiously were out the window. That nervous new mom all those years ago tracked every feeding—how many minutes? Which side? But by the time #3 came around, if the doctor asked, I usually responded with, “Yeah, he eats… usually in the car… and he sleeps… usually in the car…” and I didn’t worry about it.

Because that last baby was the best sleeper, the best eater, and the happiest baby of all three—probably because his mom had learned to chill the fuck out. Probably because rather than nap time being at 1:00 on the dot, “nap time” was after he’d fallen asleep breastfeeding and I could lay him down, or not, and instead hold him for an hour. And “nap time” was at 10 a.m., or 3 p.m., or for 20-minute increments in between.

And now, at seven, he’s my most independent child. He heats up his own leftovers in the microwave, rode the bus on his own at four years old to preschool, and has no fears or hesitation about trying new things in life. He’s confident, outgoing, and a natural leader, and he definitely fell asleep breastfeeding longer than any of my other kids. So turns out, Mom’s gut was right.

In hindsight, I don’t begrudge that pediatrician for her advice. She probably saw an exhausted, overwhelmed mom, and believed this to be the best thing for me and my child. And she was right—at least about the exhausted, overwhelmed mom part. But perhaps a “Well, some moms do it this way, but in the end, do what feels right for you” conversation would have given me a better sense of confidence and less pressure to follow strict, and honestly unnecessary, rules.

There definitely are moms out there desperate to have their nights back. Or moms who believe it’s imperative that they lay their babies down awake. And if that’s what feels right to them, they should be supported on that path.

But there are also moms who are like screw it—I know my kid will eventually learn to put himself to sleep on his own. And, these baby days of sleep-nursing are so fleeting, so I’ll go ahead and soak them up as long as I can and ignore anyone who judges me for it.

When I look back at that nervous mom, desperate to get it all right, I wonder if a talk about the importance of bonding and calmness and accepting that all babies are different (and all moms are different) would have been more beneficial? Rather than telling a mom “Baby MUST be doing ___ at X age,” how about an emphasis on mom’s mental health and how well she’s adjusting and bonding with the baby?

La Leche League International even says that “by a year, about half of babies still need a parent’s soothing at least once a night on most nights.” And one of the best, safest, and most successful ways to soothe a baby? You guessed it. Breastfeeding.

Other sites, like Breastfeed Chicago, also support moms who choose to breastfeed their babies to sleep, saying that “in lactating women, prolactin production (prolactin is the milk-making hormone) follows a circadian rhythm. Studies have shown that breastfeeding women’s prolactin levels are significantly higher at night, particularly in the wee hours of the morning. Babies often want to nurse at night because quite simply, there’s more milk at night!”

Doesn’t that make so much sense? When I think back to my third baby and how most of his day-time feedings were on the go, in the car at school pickup for the older kids, or while I was holding a potty-training toddler over the toilet, it makes sense that he very much needed some calm Mommy-breastfeeding time when everyone else was finally asleep. He wanted to nurse at least once a day when he wouldn’t be interrupted or rushed and could fall softly back asleep with a full belly.

Also, know what else is in breastmilk? Tryptophan, which is a sleep-inducing amino acid essential for brain development. And, if you’re not sold on that one, here’s another jewel in the golden mommy juice—MELATONIN. And what does melatonin do? Makes. Baby. Sleepy.

Plus, as explains, “Nursing baby to sleep gives more opportunities for extra breast milk and hence more calories.” And, “Breastfeeding to sleep helps a baby’s emotional health by making him feel safe, secure, calm and content; perfect for his developing brain.”

And finally, so many moms who are committed to breastfeeding struggle with low supply. Breastfeeding their babies during the night is a great way to maintain that supply or even help increase milk production. The bonding and precious quiet moments we get with our babies? That’s just an extra bonus.

When my breastfeeding journey came to an end, and my third baby and I did our last middle of the night feeding, I was sad, of course. But he was ready. And I was ready to close the door on that chapter. The next night, when I heard him stir, I made the choice to not feed him, and turns out, he fell right back to sleep after just a quick snuggle.

So could I have stopped those nighttime feedings earlier? Probably. And could I have trained him to go to sleep on his own at an earlier age? Sure. But I like to think that instead, I gave him 13 solid months of security and comfort when he needed it, sending up the foundation for a little boy who knew he was safe and secure with or without milk at 2 a.m.

Because the truth is, feeding my last baby until he fell asleep—whenever we both felt like it, well, that’s one regret this mom doesn’t have.

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