As a certified child sleep consultant, I often get asked, “should you nurse your baby to sleep?” I had the same question as a new mother. My passion for sleep started when my preemie baby had trouble sleeping through the night.
I was up holding him every hour, on the hour, night after night. It felt as if we were the only ones awake in the world and I felt so alone, even though I had this beautiful baby in my arms. This left me with many sleepless nights listening to my infant’s every breath and feeding him frequently through the night to keep his weight on track. I walked around like a zombie every morning, feeling unable to enjoy the day due to my severe exhaustion. The process of teaching my new baby how to sleep felt daunting and I wasn’t sure where to turn for help.
Related: Your Guide to Baby Sleep
After countless sleepless nights (and the darkest circles under my eyes!), I went on a quest to learn how to help my son sleep better. Now, I do the same for other families as a trained Good Night Educator and sleep consultant with Good Night Sleep Site.
Should you nurse your baby to sleep?
It depends on the age of the infant. In the early months, when your infant’s sleep hasn’t consolidated yet, it’s fine to feed or nurse your baby to help them fall asleep.
Once your baby turns 4 months old, their sleep should start to become more regulated, and feeding or nursing your baby to sleep could become something they depend on to fall asleep or get back to sleep, which is what we call a sleep association.
Sleep in the fourth trimester
For the first four months after birth, babies tend to sleep 16 to 18 hours a day and feed on demand. We call this the fourth trimester—a beautiful and sometimes challenging time for a parent to adjust to life with a new baby.
Awake time ranges from 45 to 60 minutes and mostly consists of feedings, diaper changes and resting in the arms of their caretaker.
Parents often become exhausted due to the demanding and unpredictable schedule, and sleep is crucial, both for the parents and baby.
In the early days, it may seem like babies sleep all day and are awake all night. At about 2 months, their night sleep will begin to lengthen, and day and night confusion will start to dissipate. To help your baby’s day/night cycle synchronize, expose them to bright light during the day and dimmer light at night.
By about 8 to 12 weeks, your baby’s circadian rhythms will begin to develop and the nighttime hormone melatonin, which makes us sleepy, will start to be produced by the pineal gland. The true function of melatonin and its regular production does not fully calibrate until your baby is about 4 months old.
Therefore, there is no need to create a formal sleep schedule before the 4-month mark as babies are not biologically ready.
Do whatever it takes to help your baby sleep in this period, even if that means feeding them to sleep. You won’t create any hard-to-break habits during this time, I promise.
Sleep after 4 months
At 4 months, an age-appropriate sleep schedule is recommended, and an early bedtime is key at this stage. As your baby’s sleep consolidates, they will naturally begin to take more predictable naps during the day and have longer sleep stretches at night.
Night feeding may still be happening during this period, but I highly recommend not feeding your baby to sleep.
Why this change? We all have sleep associations, the things and routines that help us and soothe us for the most optimal sleep. If your baby falls asleep sucking on their bottle or nursing, they will expect to be fed to sleep again when they have a night waking. This creates a negative sleep association and will become a merry-go-round you can’t get off as your baby’s sleep has now become dependent on you to provide a feeding to get back to sleep.
Instead, I suggest continuing to feed your baby as many times as needed for their weight and size, but be sure to put them in their crib drowsy but awake.
If your baby falls asleep in your arms during a feeding, gently rub the palm of their hand or slightly raise their arm and then place them in their crib. It’s OK if their eyelids flutter or are even closed.
Putting your baby down drowsy but awake may be hard at first, and may even seem near impossible, but I strongly encourage you to stick with it as you are helping your baby become an independent sleeper who can soothe themselves to sleep.
It’s not too early to establish a bedtime routine
Creating a calming bedtime routine and optimal sleep environment for your baby can be very helpful during those first four months and beyond.
Start by giving your baby a soothing, warm bath followed by a gentle massage. Dress them in soft pajamas, dim the lights, and read a book or sing a lullaby. Feed your baby during this time or after the last step of your bedtime routine. The room should be cool, dark (blackout shades recommended), and quiet with some white noise. Give them time to play in their crib and get used to their sleeping environment. Plan for the bedtime routine to last about 30 minutes.
With time and consistency, you and your family will be getting the much-needed rest you’ve been searching for.