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Barbara Cohen, IBCLC

International Board Certified Lactation Consultant

Nurse Your Baby to Sleep!

The other day I was helping a mom who is struggling to build her milk supply to meet her baby’s needs. One of my suggestions was to think of her breasts as her most reliable and trusted mothering tool rather than only as a milk dispenser. I offered that it could be helpful to simply put her baby to her breast when baby was showing cues that she would like to go to sleep. I saw a look of utter confusion flash across her face.

Then she said, “But I thought it was bad to nurse my baby to sleep.”

In that moment, I wanted to cry for that poor mama and her baby. She had been sold a bill of goods that effectively puts distance and mistrust between her and her baby. In just two short weeks of her baby’s life, she has embodied a mothering style that assumes that her baby would be “using” her breasts to fall asleep and that she would become “addicted” to falling asleep while nursing.

Mothers have been helping their babies drift off to sleep at the breast since the beginning of time. Falling asleep while nursing is the time-honored way of helping a baby with a very immature nervous system transition from one state to another, from awake to asleep. And it works brilliantly. And in my experience it works well on the other end of sleep, too. Breastfeeding a baby awake is a sweet (and nourishing) way to ease a baby into consciousness. Waking up to feel skin meet skin and the sweet smell of mama can’t hold a candle to waking up tightly wrapped like a burrito, arms strapped down and unable to move. That certainly makes no sense to a tiny human.

In today’s parenting culture it seems as though breastfeeding has been distilled, by the myriad parenting and sleep “experts” into a purely functional act. Get the milk into the baby and don’t take very long doing it. Make sure you log the minutes on the app. Don’t allow the baby to fall asleep while nursing or you’ll set up a terrible habit. You’ll confuse your baby if you offer the breast for comfort - think of nursing as a business lunch. Your baby will become addicted to nursing to sleep.

Wait, what?

I go into the homes of new families every day and I see evidence of all sorts of contraptions that babies could so easily become addicted to for sleep. I see all manner of shushing machines, blackout curtains, every variety of swaddle clothing or blankets and even a bassinet that has a heartbeat and a built-in straightjacket. And I hear the things that parents have been told by pediatricians, friends and parenting books - none of which take the baby into consideration at all. And all of which are potentially damaging to the breastfeeding relationship and milk supply.

Dr. Harvey Karp and others have managed to create a generation of mothers who don’t trust their bodies or their babies. Everything but loving human contact is utilized to help babies settle and the most natural sleep-inducer, breastfeeding, has fallen by the wayside. In the wake of an ever-growing industry with a powerful voice, mothers have forgotten that they are the ultimate pacifier (peace-maker) for their babies. Warm milk, a real human heartbeat and loving arms are all it takes to soothe a baby to sleep.

Trust yourself and trust your baby. Take commerce and mistrust out of your relationship and get down to the inherent ease and beauty of mothering your baby at your breast. All the devices and gizmos on the market can’t offer your baby what you have always available and at no cost - loving arms, warm milk and the sense of well-being that your body provides.

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