Breastfeeding your baby to sleep

Andrea Ippolito
August 31, 2020

It can be worrisome as a mother to not breastfeed your baby to sleep. Although it’s what many experts argue for, we’ll break down some commonly asked questions that’ll help you get a good sense of how to approach it yourself. Read on to see what Kathy Murphy, one of our very own IBCLCs, has to say about all this!

Is breastfeeding your baby to sleep a bad idea? Why or why not? Does it depend on if it’s nap time or bedtime? Does it depend on the age?

In the first few months of life you might find that it’s hard NOT to nurse your baby to sleep – it’s a pretty natural tendency for them to fall asleep with breastfeeding. During the first few months of life look for times when your baby is sleepy, but not yet asleep. Then, try laying them down in their sleep space so they start to recognize it in a sleepy but awake state and get to know it this way. Do not stress that your 2 month old almost always falls asleep as you lay them down. Around 4-6 months of age is a good time to more actively look for times/ways to lay them down sleepy vs asleep and becoming more developmentally appropriate.

How much time should there be between breastfeeding and putting your baby down to sleep?

The time between the end of nursing and laying down to sleep does not need to be long. The goal is simply for them to be in their sleep space sleepy but not asleep so they recognize it as their sleep space on their own and start learning to go to sleep in this space on their own. Like all the things your baby is learning this takes time and repetition. One idea is to finish nursing, then read a book or sing a song, and then lay them down so there is a small space separated from the breast and that they then don’t learn that is the only way to fall asleep.

How soon can you sleep train your baby?

Sleep training encompasses a wide range of approaches and techniques. Generally 4-6 months of age is a great time developmentally to really focus on helping the baby learn to fall asleep in ways that do not always involve falling asleep at the breast. But sleep training starts right from the start of your baby’s life – setting a good evening routine, consistency in your approach to “bed time” (same routine every night, for example bath, breast, book, bed) can start very early and they will recognize these cues. Like any training, setting up the environment in which we learn something is important too. Keep things low key and dark at night – no playing etc and help them learn night is for sleeping, daytime is for playing. Consistent routines from the start can help with more “formal training” which is generally considered OK around 6 months of age.

Visual credit: Michelle Wang, SimpliFed

What are a few good sleep training methods that are gentle?

No single sleep training method is considered to be the best. The book “Sleep” from the AAP discusses the importance of and realistic sleep needs/patterns at each age. This then helps with expectations of how your baby/toddler should sleep and ways to approach this. For some “cry it out” is effective but for some parents this is difficult emotionally (though evidence does show that your baby will be OK if you follow that method after 6 months of age). One resource many find helpful is “No Cry Sleep Solution.” Remember in the end it is important to first know when sleep is important, what normal sleep patterns are at each age and then figuring out the approach that works best for your family and you can be consistent with.  

Do you always have to put your baby down awake in their crib to sleep?

There will always be times when your baby falls asleep and needs to get moved to crib/sleep space. Do not stress over this – sometimes snuggling a few extra minutes until asleep is exactly what you and your baby need! Instead focus on the other times and try to help them learn how to lay down awake and go to sleep on their own.

Does letting your baby cry it out cause psychological damage?

The “Cry it out” concept is not generally recommended until six months of age. There is consensus that at that point it is developmentally OK for your baby and that it will not cause psychological damage. This approach does not mean you need to put your baby to bed, close the door and see them in the morning. It means you are helping them learn that they are OK when you are not in the room and they gradually learn how to go to sleep on their own and thus also learn how to sometimes go back to sleep on their own when they wake overnight now and down the road. Babies need space to learn a lot of the things they learn in the first few years of life – sitting, crawling, walking…this is similar and when set up well with a consistent approach from caregivers they learn this too. It will always be recommended that you respond to your baby if you feel they need you!

How long should you let them cry it out before it becomes too much?

This is an answer that is completely individual and depends on both the baby and the caregivers/parents. Some parents find it very hard to hear their baby cry and need to slowly increase the amount of time they wait before they go back in. The idea is to do what feels comfortable for you and try to have a plan in place on how to increase that time so your baby continues to learn that they are OK and you are there to help them when needed. This is definitely one that is hard on the heart but if you know they are safe in their crib and have a plan in place that helps!