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Friday, 18 May 2012

Breastfeeding to Sleep: Peaceful and Natural… and How It Does Pass

This article was published in the Australian Breastfeeding Association's Essence Magazine, May 2011. An update on sleep in our house appears at the end of the article. 

Breastfeeding. The best sleep prop. Ever.

I think almost every new (or even not-so-new) breastfeeding mother has been given the well-meaning advice of “don’t feed him to sleep!” at one time or another. Tales of ‘bad habits’ or ‘spoiling’ are quite common in our society regarding infant sleep, with a trend of encouraging baby to fall asleep independently and alone.

But it is becoming more widely-accepted now, with advancements in neuroscience and attachment theory research, that babies actually can’t put themselves to sleep easily when they are tired – it is a developmental skill that they must mature enough to acquire, just like other milestones such as walking or talking. In their book Helping Your Baby to Sleep, Anni Gethin and Beth Macgregor say “contrary to popular opinion, humans are not designed to be able to go to sleep without assistance in early life. Making the transition to sleep is rarely something babies’ immature brains can do without some form of help.” (1)

When it comes to sleep deprivation, I am, like many parents, an expert in that field! My now-three-year-old woke 1-2 hourly from birth, starting to sleep longer only recently. The first few months of her life were a blur of constant breastfeeding, walking and rocking – day and night. I tried learning her ‘tired cues’ but found these all looked the same – Feed me! Hold me! By the time she was about six months old she was more settled, but the only way to put her to sleep was with a breastfeed. She slept alongside me every night from birth, waking and breastfeeding anything up to ten times a night. I worried that I had created a terrible habit. How would she ever learn to fall asleep on her own? Was I going to be feeding her to sleep forever?

Humans have two states of sleep. REM sleep (raipd-eye-movement, or active sleep) and non-REM sleep (quiet, deep sleep). During the night, we move through these different sleep states several times. It is in the transition between REM and non-REM sleep, that a person (ie. baby!) is easily roused. Babies have a high percentage of REM sleep, and it can take several months before they start to sleep more deeply, and for longer stretches. Even then, adult levels of REM and non-REM sleep are not attained until about 2-3 years of age (2). Unlike adults however, babies enter sleep through a REM state, which explains the reason why our babies can need so much help going to sleep, and so frequently.

When a baby breastfeeds, a number of wonderful hormones are at play. Oxytocin, the hormone that causes the mother’s let-down reflex, is released in both the mother and baby, as well as being present in breastmilk itself. Oxytocin is sometimes known as the ‘love hormone’, and is responsible for feelings of warmth, comfort and pleasure. Another hormone released in both mother and baby during breastfeeding is cholecystokinin (CCK). CCK release also happens when the stomach is full – it is what causes that drowsy feeling when you’ve just had a big lunch! In babies, sucking-induced CCK peaks at the end of a feed, often causing them to feel sleepy or drift off to sleep. These lovely hormones, combined with the pleasure of sucking and a cuddle from mum, all form the basis of a perfect infant-sleep-inducing atmosphere. Nature provided us with this clever concoction to use, to help our babies sleep, until they mature enough to do it on their own.

I soon discovered that one of the keys to coping with constant waking was realizing that it was perfectly normal, and accepting that it would pass – eventually! At three months of age, around 80% of babies wake up at night and need a parents help to get back to sleep. At six  months this figure is 75% of babies, at around one year it is 50% of babies, and up to four years old about one third of children still wake and need a parents help to get back to sleep (3). Once I learned this, I spent some time altering my attitude to one of acceptance, and suddenly found life a lot easier. So she was just wakeful. It was nothing I had done wrong – it was biologically normal, completely human, infant behaviour. I made a point of finding and talking with other parents of wakeful babies, which provided support when I needed it (often!) and also helped normalise this behaviour for me.

By the time my little-one was about one year old, we had night-times down to a fine art (well, most nights!). After dinner, my husband would bathe her, whilst I caught up on some quiet time. Then we would lie in bed, breastfeed to sleep, then I would creep back out and enjoy some more time to myself. Usually, within an hour or two, she would wake and I would be back in bed, quickly feeding her to sleep again. Sometimes I would get back up again, but more often than not, this was when I would go to sleep myself. And then anything from about hourly, she would stir and fuss, I would roll over, she would attach and then we were both back to sleep. Our sleep cycles became well synchronized – I would often rouse just before her, so my own sleep felt less interrupted. I would only wake enough to ensure she was attached and comfortable and safe, before drifting back to sleep myself. People often asked me “how many times does she wake up at night?”. I would respond “lots!” but I couldn’t tell them when, or even give them a number, I was never awake long enough or fully enough to actually pay attention!

This state of zen acceptance wasn’t always easy to uphold. There were plenty of hard times, convinced I was the only one going through this. I felt like all the babies around me at her age were now sleeping through the night, often even in their own beds! What had I done so wrong? But these were the times that I found I was not looking after myself adequately during the day.

Coping with a wakeful babe is not possible without looking after yourself. Ensuring that you are well-supported and rested during the day is what makes this exhausting biological norm bearable. For day naps, I would lie down with her and read a book while she breastfed to sleep, getting much-needed rest and relaxation myself. Ensuring that a priority became taking care of me, while this early high-needs phase passed, was what made her very real needs so much easier to meet. In his book, Nighttime Parenting, Dr. William Sears says “sleep problems occur when your child’s night-waking exceeds your ability to cope”. So I conserved energy by keeping extra activities to a minimum, saying ‘no’ if necessary, and just spending as much time resting and enjoying this phase as possible.

When my toddler turned 25-moths old, my menstrual cycle finally returned. She was still waking and attaching very frequently at night, but going longer stretches during the day without a breastfeed. Her feeds at night now were often just a quick comfort suck, rather than a lengthy breastfeed. And sometimes, she would attach for just a few moments before rolling over and going back to sleep. By now she was quite verbal, and I would often remind her “it’s night time now, time for sleep.” A few times I tried offering her just a cuddle – but it was met with vehement and very loud protesting! Clearly, the need for that comfort was still very real.

A few months after she turned two, I became pregnant again. My milk supply dropped considerably by about the end of the first trimester. Although this didn’t really reduce the night waking, it made it difficult for me to fall back to sleep, as I was getting uncomfortable with her on the breast. We talked often about her breastfeeding, and about having  ‘just cuddles’ at night time. Over the space of a few months, the idea was introduced. She would suck until sleepy, but not asleep, then I would gently detach her. If she cried, I would allow her to re-attach. Sometimes she cried, other times she would just fuss a little and then drift back to sleep with a cuddle.

In the last trimester of my pregnancy, when she was almost three, it began to feel like I was actually interrupting her by attaching her when she roused. One particularly tired day, after a conversation with a fellow ABA counselor, I spent all day chatting with her about ‘just cuddles tonight’. It felt right, and she was very open to the idea. So that night, I breastfed her to sleep in the evening, but after that, at each waking I reminded her that we had milk in the daytime, and cuddles now at night. She barely whimpered. She was clearly ready to accept this now, at almost three years old. I felt she had the capacity to understand what I was asking of her, and the ability to go back to sleep without sucking.

If she ever became distressed, I would offer her a “quick 1-2-3 milk”. That three seconds was often enough to offer her the comfort that she needed, without being too much for me. Then she would be happy with a cuddle.

She is only having one breastfeed a day now, at night before sleep. I lie with her and breastfeed for a few minutes, then ask her to detach and we cuddle and I usually sing a song, or read her a story, or draw pictures on her back. That is how she goes to sleep. She sleeps with us, but since the new baby arrived, she decided that she wanted to sleep in the side-car style cot. So now she has her “own bed” next to ours. She still wakes a few times a night, but she is perfectly happy with a cuddle back to sleep.

She often tells us now, after dinner, “I want to go to bed”. If we have guests they usually cannot believe that a three-year-old could not only be so happy about going to bed, but actually initiate it! It seems, sadly, that bedtime and toddler tantrums are the accepted norm in our society. But bedtime and sleep has only ever been a safe, warm and loving space for her to go, and she now recognizes when she needs it.

During those early years of intensely wakeful nights, I just couldn’t imagine how this phase would ever pass. But waiting until she was ready, including her in the process, and doing it gently and patiently, was the best thing we could do to ease the transition from sucking to sleep, to falling asleep without the breast. Peacefully and naturally.

UPDATE May 2012:
I wrote this almost two years ago, when my daughter was just 3-years-old. Almost five now, she is weaned, (well, pretty much. She still asks for "milky" on a rare occasion), and goes to sleep happily every night with a cuddle from myself, her Dad (this is the most common, as I'm usually breastfeeding her 2-year-old brother to sleep), or even her Nan. She loves bedtime, she loves everything about it - the stories, the cuddling. Although she has her 'own' bed - a single bed, next to the king bed in our family bedroom - she usually rolls over next to me at some point during the night. Unless she is sick, she sleeps all night. There is never any 'bedtime battles' that are so common with toddlers. She still tells us when she's tired, when she wants to go to bed. Bedtime, in our house, is truly, truly, blissful. I would never do it any other way.

1. Gethin, Anni & Macgregor, Beth Helping Your Baby To Sleep, pg 11
2. Bodribb, Wendy Breastfeeding Management, pg 100.
3. Gethin, Anni & Macgregor, Beth Helping Your Baby To Sleep, pg 3


  1. Thanks for writing this! My son is 26 months old and we breastfeed to slee for his afternoon nap and at night. Its nice to see how a child moves from feeding to sleep to going to sleep on their own timeline.

  2. Thanks for your lovely words, we now feel much better about our choices.

  3. Oh my goodness. I soooo needed to hear this today. I have a 10month old who wakes nearly hourly, and have lately been feeling so worried about what I've done wrong, and struggling to cope with the exhaustion. Thank you thank you, thank you. I so love your page x

    1. You are most welcome! It can be so hard coping with that exhaustion, hey? An hourly waker is draining indeed! I remember, 4 years ago, believing so whole-heartedly that it would NEVER pass, that I would be doing this FOREVER...but last night, by hourly-boober baby, now 5-years-old, slept the entire night in her own bed—by her own choice, no prompting or 'training' from us. She just decided she wanted her own bed, and off she went! It passes, in their own time, and you won't look back and regret meeting that need. I hope you have good support to nurture YOU in the day time. Lots of love. Kim xoxo

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