When babies are first born, it can be really hard to get them to stay awake while they’re feeding. Often newborn babies find that the comfort they get from sucking on either a nipple or a teat is enough to send them straight off to the land of slumber. And it’s no wonder that, as parents, we start to think that this is the only way that our babies will get to sleep. It’ so easy to do! Feed baby, baby sleeps. Why on earth would you not want to take advantage of that seemingly magic cure for bedtime? But while it’s normal for newborn babies to fall asleep during feeds, for older babies we are told that it’s not such a great idea after all. And we’re also told that to prevent this ‘bad habit’ we should not have started it in the first place. But tell me, just how easy is it to stop a tiny baby falling asleep during a feed? So this week’s question is this: Is feeding baby to sleep really such a bad idea?
How it starts
So your newborn baby feeds to sleep. Perfect. Just as nature intended. When the sucking reflex is satisfied your baby is relaxed, safe and secure and therefore able to sleep. Plus there is also the fact that newborn babies can take so long to feed that by the time they are done, it’s sleep time anyway. What’s not to love about this situation? And if it’s working for you, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t carry on doing it.
Feeding to sleep can be a wonderful way to bond with your baby. Soft, warm snuggles at the end of the day- precious alone time for you and baby. And during the night too, feeding to sleep can be just as effective and just as rewarding. So where do the issues crop up?
When baby wakes for feeds through the night
Some babies need to feed through the night for longer than others. The notion that once they get to 12 weeks of age they should no longer need to feed is not only ridiculous but it’s also very wrong. Babies don’t suddenly lose their basic need for nutrition once they reach a certain age or a certain weight. All babies are different, with different metabolisms and therefore there is no way that anyone can tell you when your baby is going to stop needing a feed during the night. Some babies will still need to feed up to and possibly beyond 12 months of age.
However, some babies will wake for feeds several times a night, and beyond the age of six months or so this is not usually the norm. Your baby, by this age, should be able to go a little longer (4 hours at least) without food, and if you find that you are up and feeding for much of the night then there could be an issue.
What happens when baby relies on feeding to sleep?
If your baby falls asleep with either nipple or teat in mouth, or needs you to feed her to sleep, there is a bis chance that she will also need you when she wakes in the night too. So often, you will find that you are feeding her to get her back to sleep, without her actually needing a feed. If this is not a problem for you (perhaps you co-sleep and offer the breast whenever baby wants it, and by doing this you both have as much sleep as you need), then I don’t see any reason why you should stop. Sleeping issues are only an issue if they are a problem for you. So take no notice of well meaning friends and relatives who insist that you’re spoiling baby. You’re not. You cannot spoil a baby.
On the flip side, if feeding baby to sleep through the night means that you and she are both exhausted by morning, it could be time to make some changes. Baby may need to learn how to fall asleep by herself.
Breaking the habit
A baby who wakes at the same time each night is in a habit. Not a bad habit, but a habit all the same. A baby who wakes at different times each night is most likely hungry. So how to break the habit, gently? Assuming this is what you want to do, then the only way is to teach baby how to fall asleep independently.
Depending on baby’s age, you can wean her from the need to feed to sleep.
- Babies under the age of 5 months: use gentle settling techniques to encourage baby to sleep after a feed. Make sure you put her to bed drowsy, but awake. Rock her, pat her, sing to her. Use white noise machines or apps. Whatever technique works for you. Yes, you are still needed and yes it can take a while for her to get used to it. The important thing is that you are replacing her need to feed in order to sleep.
- Babies over the age of 5 months: older babies may need a little more convincing! After all, you are effectively taking away the only way they know to fall asleep. So tread gently. Read my very quick guide to the Michi Method for tips on how to make the switch.
Remember that feeding baby to sleep is only a bad idea if it is not working for you and your family. If baby is waking too often and you are tired, you may want to break the habit now. But if you are happy to carry on as you are, then don’t let anyone tell you that’s not ok too.