Falling Asleep While Breastfeeding
By Lyn Mettler
At its most basic, breastfeeding provides your baby with food, but many mothers find that it also provides their babies with a sense of comfort and calm. Many babies relax so much that they drift off to sleep.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a 39-year-old mother from Jacksonville, Fla., found breastfeeding did just that for her son Aaron. “I find breast milk to be ‘knockout juice,’” she says. “Breastfeeding calms Aaron down. When he’s a little disorganized or fussy, five minutes at the breast will return him to his usual happy self, ready to play.” She looks at breastfeeding as Aaron’s little Zen meditation time.
The Perfect Sleep Aid
Many babies relax so much that they drift off to sleep.
“It’s a very soothing experience for the baby to feel the warmth of his or her Mom, to hear Mom’s heartbeat, to be nourished, etc. This is the perfect environment to fall asleep in,” says Sandra Samberg, of New York City, mother of two, pediatric nurse practitioner and author of BABY -C Book: For the ABC’s of Keeping Your Baby Healthy and Happy.
But many experts caution that allowing your baby to fall asleep while breastfeeding might not be a good idea. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics in their book Guide to Your Child’s Sleep says that it is a bad habit to develop and can keep parents and baby from getting a good night’s sleep.
“If a baby routinely falls asleep while breastfeeding, he or she begins to associate falling asleep with nursing,” Samberg says. “Therefore, if the baby wakes up in the middle of the night and is in that half-awake or half-asleep state, it’s likely that he or she will need to breastfeed in order to fall back to sleep.” As the baby gets older, she says, the feedings are less needed for nutrition and are more out of habit. “Unfortunately, this habit becomes more difficult to break as the baby gets older and more used to falling asleep while nursing,” she explains.
However, Sheila Kitzinger, author of “Breastfeeding Your Baby,” feels that falling asleep at the breast is natural and should not be discouraged. “All over the world, in countries like Africa and India, where breastfeeding is more successful than in Western cultures, babies fall asleep at the breast when they’re satisfied,” she says. “When a baby’s head gets heavy and she drops off the nipple with a dazed expression on her face, a mother knows she has had enough. Otherwise you cannot be sure.”
The only disadvantage Kitzinger finds to allowing babies to fall asleep at the breast is that it may slow moms down and keep them from doing something else. She cautions though, “Breastfeeding a baby gives a lesson in patience, and in trusting the baby’s rhythms instead of superimposing a timetable.”
A Hard Habit to Break?
Samantha Fewox, of Houston, Texas, allowed her now 2-year-old son Collin to fall asleep while nursing. “Just because he fell asleep every now and then, didn’t create a habit,” she says. “He didn’t always need to be fed to fall asleep. Somehow it all seemed to work out.”
Dr. Bennett Kaye, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, Ill., agrees. “There will be a lot of babies who will continue to fall asleep at the breast and not have sleep problems,” he said. Deciding whether or not to allow babies to fall asleep while nursing depends on individual circumstances such as the baby’s sleeping patterns and the baby’s age. Kaye feels that sleeping at the breast is fine for those with no sleep problems and for babies less than 2 months old. But, if a baby is beyond the age of three or four months and having difficulty sleeping through the night, mothers might want to avoid making it a habit.
Tips You Can Use
So how do you keep your baby from napping at the breast?
Kaye advises parents to train their babies to fall asleep on their own. Moms should pay careful attention to their babies while nursing, he says, noting any cues that they are about to drift off.
Kitzinger suggests tickling the baby’s feet or changing the diaper to keep the baby awake. The mom should then try to put the baby down before he has fallen asleep.
“This way, the baby learns to put himself or herself to sleep and is then able to do this in the middle of the night,” says Samberg.
If the baby cries when he is put down, Kaye suggests gradually giving him increasing amounts of time to fuss and settle himself. But, if you’re trying to avoid the habit and you’ve found that your baby has dozed off despite your best efforts, Kaye advises moms not to wake him.
Hogshead-Makar found her own system that worked for her and her son. “What I did was let the baby nurse to sleep — there was no stopping him — but then walk a distance before I put him into bed,” she says. “For example, I’d nurse in the sunroom downstairs and then walk up to his bedroom to put him to sleep. That way, he was mildly awake when I actually did put him down. And when he woke up, he didn’t wonder, ‘How did I get here? I’m supposed to be at Mom’s breast.’”
Just like Hogshead-Makar, moms must wade through this issue on their own, finding a pattern and a technique that works best for them. “I think people focus too much on what an ‘expert’ says that they should or should not do and don’t trust their instincts,” Fewox says. “Yes, we all like to hear others’ opinions, but what works for one baby doesn’t always work for another. Moms today need to take the advice they read or hear and tailor it to their own situation.