Nursing Baby To Sleep: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Nursing Baby To Sleep

Let’s be honest here – we’ve all done this. When your baby is crying at 2 a.m., and you know that offering a quick feed would silence those cries and put that baby right back to sleep, what do you do?

Simple…you feed that baby to sleep!

Feeding a baby to sleep is one of the quickest and easiest ways to help your baby relax and fall asleep, to be sure…but it’s not without its drawbacks. There’s a “dark side” to feeding your baby to sleep.

And this is just what we’re studying in today’s blog article! We’ll take a look at “the good”, “the bad”, and “the ugly” of feeding your baby to sleep.

Nursing Baby To Sleep: The Good

Let’s start with “the good” of nursing your baby to sleep. This one is pretty simple – as any mama who’s nursed her baby to sleep can tell you, feeding a baby to sleep is fast, simple, and incredibly effective – even the fussiest, most overtired baby will relax and drift off after mom puts him to the breast. Why? Well, for starters, sucking itself is incredibly relaxing for babies. Additionally, being held securely against mom’s body is pretty relaxing as well.

But there’s more at work here than mere sucking and cuddling. There’s evidence that evening breastmilk actually has a sedating effect on babies. A group of Spanish researchers discovered that breastmilk produced in the evening and over the course of the night contains noticeably higher levels of the nucleotides that are associated with sleep. (By contrast, breastmilk produced in the morning has a stimulating effect; this is one reason why it’s best not to pump your milk first thing in the morning and then feed it to baby at bedtime!)

So there you go – not only does the very act of feeding your baby make her drowsy and relaxed, thanks to the sucking and cuddling that’s involved; if you’re breastfeeding, your evening breastmilk actually acts as a sedative!

Nursing Baby To Sleep: The Bad

Nursing your baby to sleep has some downsides, however. For starters, while many of us sooooooo enjoy nursing our newborns to sleep in those early weeks and months after birth, feeding your baby to sleep before EVERY sleep time can become exhausting and burdensome after a while.

Here’s why: if your baby doesn’t sleep well at night or wakes early from naps, you may be looking at needing to feed your baby to sleep after every interrupted waking. This can mean you’re bringing your baby to the breast, or offering a bottle, every hour or so at night (or possibly even more frequently, depending on your situation)! Same with naps – if your baby takes short naps, you may end up feeding your baby to sleep at the start of a nap, and then having to nurse your baby back to sleep after she wakes too early, then you may be spending A LOT of time feeding or nursing to sleep during the day.

Additionally, while parents who use formula can take shifts feeding baby to sleep (which means you get a break each time your partner feeds baby to sleep), moms who are exclusively breastfeeding are basically stuck – if your baby is used to falling asleep “at the source” (i.e. at the breast), then YOU have to be the one feeding baby to sleep before each nap, and at bedtime, and after each night waking. Talk about exhausting! Even the strongest, most resilient moms find that exhausting after awhile.

Nursing Baby To Sleep: The Ugly

As much as I hate to say it…there’s an ugly side of routinely feeding your baby to sleep. If you nurse or feed your baby to sleep all the time, or almost all the time, then it’s almost certain that feeding is a sleep association for your baby. Simply put, your baby has come to associate feeding with falling asleep, which means that your baby needs you to feed her in order to fall asleep – she doesn’t know she can fall asleep any other way. The longer you feed your baby to sleep, the more you reinforce this association.

This explains why so, so many moms are still nursing their older babies and toddlers to sleep every two or three hours at night. See, even though their little ones are old enough to sleep through the night, they aren’t; every time they wake between sleep cycles, they don’t know how to put themselves back to sleep without help from mom or dad, in the form of a feed.

Helping Baby Learn To Sleep WITHOUT Nursing and Feeding

Fortunately, all hope is not lost – even if your baby has to feed to sleep 100% of the time, you CAN gently wean your baby from needing to breastfeed to sleep, and teach him to fall asleep without help. This is what sleep training does – it gently and gradually helps your baby learn to fall asleep independently, without any help from you in the form of feeding or rocking or holding to sleep.

Why bother with teaching your baby to fall asleep without nursing or feeding? Simple – it’ll lead to sleeping through the night and longer naps for your child! The truth is, we all wake briefly between sleep cycles – you do it, and your baby does, too. But you are able to roll over, fluff your pillow, reposition yourself, and go right back to sleep. Your baby, on the other hand, doesn’t know how to fall asleep without your help, so he needs YOU in order to fall back asleep. But through the process of sleep coaching, your baby comes to learn how to fall back to sleep quickly between sleep cycles without help…and THIS is how you get from multiple nighttime wakings to sleeping through the night.

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6 thoughts on “Nursing Baby To Sleep: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”

  1. My baby is turning 6 months next week. And has just started waking after 2-3 hours for a feed. It now happens 2 to 3 times a night.
    I do nurse her to sleep but have not had this issue before now, it has only just started in the last week or two. I try not to feed her as I do not want her to get used to waking in the night for feeds, but she screams until she gets her own way most nights.
    Is this a growth spurt or is this something i should try and stop now.
    I have tried to leave her to self settle in the past but she just screams (cries until until it turns into a scream) and i then have to soothe her, normally by nursing.
    How can i stop this learned behaviour with her. Or is it a growth spurt.
    She also doesn’t nap well, I am lucky if I get a solid hour out of her and also lucky if she has more than 1 nap.

    • Hi @Ali – Thank you for writing us. I’m sorry to hear your family is having sleep problems and your daughter is struggling with night wakings and fighting naps! You’re not alone and we would love to help! If this has only been going on for a few days or so, you may want to wait a bit and see if things improve. If it continues for weeks or more, likely you will need to take some action to teach or re-teach her how to fall back to sleep without feeding, and you may want to work on naps as well. For more help, we have e-Books and premium resources available where the research has been done for you. Or, for the fastest service, we have expert sleep consultants waiting to help!
      You can read about all of our sleep consultation packages here:
      I hope that things smooth out!! Please let us know if you need any assistance at any time! : )

  2. Hello. From day one I have made the mistake of nursing our daughter to sleep. It was easy at first, diaper change, feeding, burp while asleep and put to bed. As a newborn that worked wonders for us and she’d sleep 9-12 hours! Now that she’s a little over 4 months old, this has quickly become a problem. I exclusively breastfeed, so I’m by myself all night and losing my mind and patience along with it. It’s not her fault, it’s mine, but I still get upset. She refuses a pacifier, and is not catching on to sucking her thumb, so every time she wakes in goes my breast. She also has her days and nights mixed up too, so it’s not like there is a once or twice feeding. It. Is. All. Night. Long. The night starts at 8pm and lasts until 5 or 6 am now. A few months ago it was 8pm until 2:30 am and my god I miss those days. I’ll feed her from 8 to midnight, she’ll have a 45 minute nap if I’m lucky, and then wake up crying bloody murder because my boob is gone. Then we’ll struggle feeding from 1am until she finally falls asleep around 5-6am, and she’ll sleep from then until 2-3 in the AFTERNOON. Up for an hour, have a 2 hour nap and then we start the night all over again. She’s so backwards and dependant on my breast and it’s all my fault. I have no idea how to fix this. I’m going insane!

    • @Allison – Thank you for reading and, boy, do we feel your pain! This is one of the most common sleep associations we help families through especially around your daughter’s age. With patience and consistency as you work with her sleep, there is hope and a light at the end of the tunnel. Better sleep is possible! Hang in there, Allison, and let us know if we can be of any help to you during this time. We’d love to help you through this!

  3. I nanny for three children,the oldest is 4, the middle is 2,
    And baby is almost 7 months. Mom is nursing the baby to sleep but some nights Mom works until 9-not Home until 9:30. Baby starts her wanting and fussing to nurse to sleep anytime from 6:30 -700 PM. Makes for a long evening since no one can nurse her to sleep except Mom. And bottles will
    Put her down for a little while but not for long. She likes the cluster nursings
    In the evening
    Sure makes it hard on this ole
    When is nursing to sleep recommended to cease

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