Many expectant moms fear that if they choose to breastfeed their baby, then that means they won’t see a decent night’s sleep for a few years. This is simply not true! Yes, it’s true that babies enjoy eating and sleeping, and that they often go hand-in-hand: baby nurses, then baby sleeps. Feeding your baby is relaxing, and it definitely makes them sleepy, especially at night. Breast milk contains melatonin at night, so your body is actually helping to make your newborn sleepy during the night, so everyone can get back to sleep quickly!
Almost all babies will fall asleep during a feed, so it’s completely normal. And when you’ve just given birth, you’re beyond happy to have a peaceful, sleeping baby, so you’re definitely not going to “rock that boat”! While babies are very good at nursing-to-sleep, it doesn’t mean that’s the only way they can get to sleep. When babies are born, they pretty much have a “clean slate” when it comes to learning. Every hour and minute that goes by, you are teaching your baby. You teach her how to latch properly if she can’t figure it out, you teach him the difference between night and day, you teach her about her new bedtime routine, and you teach him how to fall asleep (either with or without help).
If you only ever feed baby to sleep, then that’s all they will ever know. You can’t expect baby to just know how to do it without any props (ie feeding, patting, rocking, bouncing, baby equipment, etc), if you’ve never given them the chance to try it. If you can allow your newborn to fall asleep in their crib or without being held (even just once in a while), then you will easily teach your baby how to do this moving forward. Too often parents wait until their babies are over 6 months old before they even begin to think about this possibility. Believe me, it’s much harder to teach this once the baby is older and used to their current routine. However, if you can teach this to your baby early on (before the 4th month), then you have a much better chance of avoiding the dreaded “4 month regression” and having a baby sleeping through the night on their own by 4 months (you can check out “The Truth About Age Regressions” blog if you’re not familiar with this time frame).
I know this is possible, because it’s exactly what I did with my exclusively breastfed son. It took me until my 4th child to finally be successful at breastfeeding. I gave up too quickly with my first baby who had latch issues, and I had more latch and prematurity issues with my twins (though I did pump for a few months with them). It would appear that the 4th time was the charm for me! I admit I fed him to sleep for the first 3 months (this was before my sleep and breastfeeding trainings), and everything was great. I would nurse him, he would fall asleep, and I would transfer him to his crib. But then in the 4th month, I saw it happening again. I could no longer put him down in his crib already asleep, because he would wake up on the transfer and I had to start over nursing or pat his bottom to sleep. I vividly and quickly remembered the struggled of sleep training my twins at almost 7 months, and I really didn’t want to repeat that. I decided then and there that I would make a few changes and no longer feed him until he was fully asleep. Thankfully, I caught him in enough time, because he didn’t fight me much and did great very quickly. Of course our breastfeeding journey continued for many months after that, and now he was also sleeping through the night. A win-win for both of us!
I now have the awesome job of helping other moms achieve this same success. Many new moms are worried that they could lose their milk supply or dry up altogether. It’s certainly a very real and valid concern! If you simply cut night feeds without doing anything else differently, then yes, your supply is going to take a dip. The trick is that you want to make sure that you’re not just cutting those nighttime calories, but that you’re transferring those calories to the daytime. Your body is going to produce milk based on supply and demand. If you cut the demand out overnight, then there will be less supply overall. However, if you cut it out overnight, but add in another session or two during the day, then you’ve just moved them and your body will continue producing as usual. Your body will adjust from being so full at night though, so don’t panic if you notice that change. Know that your supply is still there, but it’s just there during the day! And if you’re concerned about it, you can always pump before you go to bed for a little extra. Also, keep an eye on your little one to ensure you’re seeing swallowing while nursing and that they seem satisfied when they are done.*
Another bonus of not feeding your baby to sleep is that you’ll be keeping baby awake during the feed. If baby’s awake, then baby will eat more. Oftentimes, babies will “snack and snooze”, meaning they will nurse a little, then sleep a little. When you allow this, you can be feeding many times a day and still be concerned that your little one isn’t eating enough. You’ll notice this type of “snacking and snoozing” if you’re feeding before naps or sleep times; however, if you feed baby after a nap, they will stay awake and be ready to eat a full meal. They will also be upright for a while, which is much better for their digestion, and of course they’ll be falling asleep on their own too!
So yes, you can breastfeed your baby until whatever age you’re comfortable with and still have a child who sleeps independently through the night too! The vast majority of my clients are moms who are breastfeeding and wish to continue on that journey, while also being able to get better sleep for their entire family. I’m happy to report that they are all still happily nursing their children once we’ve finished working together! For families with older breastfeeding children (ie over 1 year old), many moms are frustrated with the lack of sleep and are wanting to give up breastfeeding altogether when we first start. I always encourage these moms to hold off on making that decision until after we’ve night weaned and mom can think more clearly about her choice. In the majority of these cases, the moms decide to continue their breastfeeding journey after all. The lack of sleep they experienced is what drove them to want to be done, but once they began sleeping well again, they would see that they really did enjoy that bonding time with their toddlers and most would end up continuing with daytime nursing only. So be sure you’re making this big decision once you’re feeling better and are well-rested!
FINAL NOTE: August 1-7, 2017 is World Breastfeeding Week! Congratulations to all the breastfeeding mamas out there for providing your child with the best thing ever! Thanks to all the partners that support these mamas, too! Feel free to check out a previous blog of mine called “Breastfeeding Do’s and Don’ts“, for more information! And if you’re interested in getting some help with sleep training your child, I offer free 15min phone calls. As a certified sleep consultant and lactation counselor, I can help your entire family sleep well while maintaining your milk supply.
*If you have any concerns about your milk supply or whether or not your child is getting enough breast milk, please contact your local lactation consultant/counselor or your child’s pediatrician. You should also check with the pediatrician before starting any sleep training program, especially if there is a weight or medical concern.