Like with everything about parenting, there are a lot of schools of thought when it comes to babies and sleep. Pair that with opinions on breastfeeding and you’ve got a lot of debate. People want you to breastfeed, but they also want you to sleep train your baby — but everyone knows a sweet cuddled up nursing session causes all the snoozing. So is breastfeeding your baby to sleep bad? I know “bad” is a relative term, but it seems to be a common question.
Pediatrician Gina Posner tells Romper that whether something like breastfeeding your child to sleep is considered “bad” really depends on you. “If you feel that you want your child to depend on nursing in order to go to sleep, then it is OK to do — although once they get teeth, having the milk on their teeth after they fall asleep isn’t great,” she says. “Most people don’t want that dependence, so it is better to not get them into the habit of needing to nurse in order to sleep.”
However, according to Deedee Franke, an IBCLC and registered nurse, she says that while it depends on how comfortable you are with what you’re doing for yourself and your baby, she thinks there are no problems with breastfeeding your baby to sleep in the first 4 to 6 months of their life. She does recommend putting the baby down when they’re drowsy, though, and not all the way asleep.
“In my opinion, where parents struggle with helping a baby to sleep is first an understanding of the infant’s development, the baby’s sleep needs, and being aware of when a baby is showing signs of early tiredness,” Franke says. She believes that the biggest concern as baby gets older is needing something — like a nursing session or a bottle — to get to sleep. Like Posner said, making your baby dependent on these can impact how well they sleep without them, and may be a lot on you.
But breastfeeding your baby to sleep is inevitable, according to IBCLC Rebecca Costello. “Newborns almost universally fall asleep while nursing, and many parents of newborns have come to me anxious that they are ‘creating a bad habit.’” Costello says that she explains that literally the only way to prevent their newborn from breastfeeding to sleep would be to deliberately wake them up after nursing, so there is no way to avoid breastfeeding your baby to sleep. “In fact, one of the nice things about breastfeeding is that it often helps to calm a fussy baby, or help an overtired baby fall asleep,” she says.
But Costello does recognize that as your baby gets older, you may decide to try to break the association between breastfeeding and sleep. “The idea with this might be that when your baby wakes in the middle of the night, they can go back to sleep without needing to breastfeed. Be cautious with this, as your baby may still be nursing in the middle of the night because they are hungry and need to eat."
Posner says to help break the habit of breastfeeding your baby to sleep, it’s OK to nurse, change their diaper, and then put them down when groggy and sleepy, but not totally asleep.
“The biggest advice that I can give to make this a smooth transition is understanding about your infant’s development and the baby’s sleep needs day and night, making sure the baby is healthy during this time, reading the baby’s behaviors for early signs of tiredness, developing a sleep routine, and then committing to the plan,” Franke says. And whatever that plan is that works for you is never “bad.”
Gina Posner, MD, pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California.
Deedee Franke R.N., BSN, IBCLC
Rebecca Costello, IBCLC, MPH