The Benefits of Breastfeeding to Sleep

Have you been told, ‘you are creating bad habits’ by allowing your baby to fall asleep on the breast?

Although you may like to use other sleep cues as well as breastfeeding your baby to sleep, advice that letting your baby fall asleep on the breast will create ‘bad habits’ or that he will never learn to ‘self-settle’ is unrealistic and impractical.

Breastfeeding or cuddling and rocking your baby to sleep is not a ‘bad habit’ or a ‘sleep prop’. Consider, how do you go to sleep yourself – Do you like to read a book to wind down? Have complete darkness or a light on in the hallway? Enjoy a hot drink before bed? Do you snuggle up to your partner – or do you tell each other, “we must get onto our own side of the bed and self-settle, we are creating ‘bad habits’?”

The benefits of breastfeeding to sleep

There are some magical chemicals in breast milk that support sleep, so it is the most natural thing in the world for a relaxed baby and mother to snuggle and doze together as they breastfeed.

There is a wealth of evidence that the soporific effects of breastfeeding are hormonally induced: Breastmilk contains a range of hormones, including prolactin (your milk production hormone), oxytocin (which releases breastmilk) and cholecystokinin (CCK – this has an effect on satiety). These hormones are released in both mother and baby during breastfeeding and have a sedating effect on both of you.

Breastmilk has also been shown to supply a type of endocannabinoid – the natural neurotransmitters that marijuana stimulates. So, when your baby falls off your breast all drowsy and relaxed, looking as though he is ‘milk drunk’ you could say he is actually ‘milk stoned’!

Research suggests that your ‘night-time’ breastmilk may be even more effective at helping your baby sleep: melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone is barely detectable in breastmilk during the day, but peaks during the night and recent studies by Spanish scientists show that components in mothers’ milk can vary significantly over a 24-hour period. These researchers studied samples of breastmilk taken from healthy mothers at different times of the day and found concentrations of sleep-inducing nucleotides (proteins known to have a role in exciting and relaxing the nervous system), were stronger after dark than during the day.

The lead researcher of this study, Dr Christina Sanchez, advises that breast milk should be fed fresh or if you are expressing, it is best to take note of the time you express milk then feed it to your baby at the same time of day. She says, “you wouldn’t give a coffee at night, and the same is true of breast milk. It has day specific ingredients that stimulate activity in the infant, and other night-time components that help the baby rest.”

With so much evidence that mother’s milk helps babies sleep, it makes no sense at all to resist this naturally sedating and bonding process, or to wake a baby who has fallen asleep against your warm body only to try some other settling technique or plug him up with a dummy to get him to sleep again.

What if you want to leave your baby with another caregiver?

If you need to be separated from your baby during sleep times, it can be helpful to have some other sleep cues besides breastfeeding, such as gentle music, ‘wearing’ your baby to sleep or taking your little one for a walk in the pram. You can introduce these other cues gently when it feels right for you and your baby.

And you don’t need to worry that a carer won’t be able to settle your baby. Your baby will respond differently to you and a carer whether this is your partner, Grandma, or a babysitter – babies associate Mummy with breastmilk and her milky smell, and the carer won’t smell like breastmilk (unless she is a breastfeeding mum).

This means you can still use breastfeeding to help your baby relax and get to sleep when you are with her and need this magic tool, especially during the night when everyone needs to get back to sleep as easily as possible.

And, just in case you are still worried about those voices warning you about ‘bad habits’ or that your baby will never outgrow needing a breast to help him sleep, take heart: if your child does still like to snuggle up to a breast when he’s twenty-one – you can be sure it won’t be yours!

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