As a new mother, you'll find advice, both wanted and unwanted, from every corner. But no topic seems to elicit as much concern and fear as that of sleep. Opinions on co-sleeping, crib sleeping, swaddling, colic and other sleep concerns abound (I've got articles on some of these topics in the site archives…feel free to take a look. And you'll also get lots of people telling you to not, under any circumstances, nurse your baby to sleep. Popular parenting books like Babywise and The Baby Whisperer support this notion. So should you allow your baby to nurse to sleep?
YES! Babies are made to nurse to sleep and milk is made to put kids to sleep. In fact, there is a hormone, cholecystokinin (CCK), that is released in the intestines of the baby that is triggered by breastfeeding (some sources say that it is from the act of suckling and some say from the fat in the fatty hindmilk). CCK functions to make the baby relaxed and sleepy. Interestingly, it is also released in the intestines of the mother while nursing and creates that same feeling of relaxation and sleepiness, which explains why I have fallen asleep in my nursing chair so many times!
But what about books like The Baby Whisperer who warn that if you allow your baby to fall asleep nursing, they'll never be able to fall asleep on their own without nursing? What do we say to friends and family that say the same?
The first thing I would say is "Never… really?" I nursed my first to sleep for 18 months, and am still nursing my 22 month old to sleep. My first has gone to bed every night since and I'm pretty confident I won't need to pull up a sidecar mattress in my second's college dorm to get her to bed at night. It's simply a ridiculous notion. I take serious issue with those who deny babies what they need now because of concerns over what we want them to do later.
The simple fact is that what babies need now isn't what they'll need later. Young babies need their mothers (or fathers or caregivers) beside them. If we want our elementary school-aged children to develop independence, the best way we can encourage that is to show them that they can count on us to meet their needs and give them the confidence that they can strike out on their own and know that we are there for them. We show them that by meeting their needs, not holding them at arms length, when we know, both scientifically and instinctively that in our arms and at the breast is where they need to be.
The second thing I would say is that books that tell us not to breastfeed except under certain conditions or on certain schedules are simply dangerous. Nursing every three hours is a *minimum* for a newborn or young baby, not a recommendation. Some babies naturally develop schedules, and some nurse much more frequently. I read The Baby Whisperer before my first daughter and clung to those ideas – it all seemed so orderly and logical.
But babies are not orderly and logical. My baby had trouble gaining weight, and I had trouble establishing my milk supply. But like an idiot, I paced for hours with my (hungry!) baby to get her to sleep, sucking on my finger, certain that what I was doing was good for her in the long run. Insanity! Young babies need to nurse on cue, not on a schedule, and if I had nursed her blissfully to sleep, her growth would have benefitted from both the increased milk, as well as the sleep. And, I would not have been fighting with a breastpump to maintain supply.
So nurse your baby to sleep. Ignore the nay-sayers. It's not a life sentence – it's simply what our bodies and theirs are meant to do. That said, it's worth noting that babies may go through stages where they don't or can't nurse to sleep. My second daughter, in her two years, has gone back and forth on this issue. Sometimes, the presence of the breast is too stimulating for her and she needs to be away from me with her daddy bouncing on the balance ball. Sometimes, nursing is the only way she can get to sleep. Either way, you aren't doing anything wrong, as long as you are recognizing what your baby needs and meeting that need.
Looking for some good books that provide alternative ways of thinking to Babywise, Solving Your Child's Sleep Problems, or The Baby Whisperer. These are some of my favorites…
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