Thursday, February 21

The ridiculous world of baby sleep (and is it really so bad to breastfeed your baby to sleep?)

So I realize this topic of baby sleep troubles and whether or not it's ok to breastfeed your baby to sleep is not for everyone.
So if this kind of thing interests you, read on after the jump...

When Zac was born I didn't realize that sleep was something that parents had to actively teach their babies. I wrongly assumed that babies just slept when they needed to.
They don't.
I mean, most don't. At least not once you get out of that very newborn period. There are exceptions, of course, but most babies need to be taught good sleep habits. And it's not exactly easy to do either.

I have now officially read a ton of baby sleep books (The Happiest Baby on the Block, The Baby Whisperer, The No Cry Sleep Solution, Bringing Up Bébé, The 90 minute Sleep Cycle Solution, and countless online articles). I should be an expert on the topic. But truthfully, I often feel rather lost & confused. There is so much conflicting information out there from these so called experts, it can really make a sleep-deprived mommy's head spin.

One piece of advice I was given early on was not to read any baby books and just follow my instincts.   And while I can see why someone might say that (the books often leave you feeling like you are doing everything wrong), the reason I read all these books in the first place was because the sleep problems were already there...

Zac was born crying. He cried during every waking moment for the first 4 weeks of his life... unless he was breastfeeding. So I literally breastfed him all the time. ALL THE TIME. I knew he wasn't hungry. I knew he was just soothing himself, but I didn't know what else to do. It was the ONLY thing that worked. We bought an infant swing, a vibrating chair, a pacifier in every shape, size and colour known to man, we shushed, we swaddled, we prayed, but nothing but a real nipple would ever do.

Looking back now, what I didn't realize was that my baby was probably crying because he just wasn't getting enough sleep. He was over-tired and over-stimulated, and breastfeeding was the only way he knew how to tune-out and fall asleep.

Fast-forward 3 months and Zac still doesn't know how to fall asleep without breastfeeding. According to most books I've read this is a major problem, and it's my fault for not teaching him to sleep from the beginning. He should have been put down awake (in his crib) from the start, the books say, and allowed to learn to fall asleep on his own.

But I can't help but wonder...

Is it really that bad to breastfeed your baby to sleep?

I mean it's quite enjoyable after all. And the other options are kind of awful. Like this week I decided to attempt some sleep training. Tracy Hogg (The Baby Whisperer) adamantly urges you not to breastfeed to sleep (as most books do). Instead she recommends holding your swaddled baby (if under 4 months old) over your shoulder and shushing them to sleep while patting their back (her so-called "shush-pat" method). So I've been trying this for the past 2 days and it looks something like this: Zac screams at the top of his lungs and thrashes in my arms (as much as he can manage to while swaddled) for about 10 minutes and then falls asleep from complete and utter exhaustion.

Contrast this to peacefully drifting off to sleep Nirvana while quietly breastfeeding.

So it's screaming himself to sleep (the supposed superior method) vs. falling asleep completely blissed-out while breastfeeding (the inferior method). It just doesn't seem natural!

So I repeat...

Is it really that bad to breastfeed your baby to sleep?

I know, I know, the theory goes that if he always breastfeeds to sleep he will never know how to fall asleep on his own. And obviously I'm not going to breastfeed him to sleep for the rest of his life! But what bugs me most (and the reason I am even trying to sleep train him) is that I don't like the idea of him developing a sleep-feeding association. I don't want him to learn that the uncomfortable sensations of tiredness and grumpiness are solved by eating. I want him to learn that hunger is solved by eating. Our culture has such an unhealthy relationship to food and I guess I'm afraid that he will too. Is that silly of me?

What do you think? If you have children, did you breastfeed them to sleep? And if so, do they sleep ok now? And how on earth did you get them to eventually stop?!

addendum: On day three of this sleep training business, Zac begins falling asleep after only a few minutes of screaming and thrashing in my arms.... so maybe, just maybe, we are getting somewhere after all.


Stacy said...

Well my boys are 12 and 10 now so it's going back a bit but here is what I did. I always nursed them to sleep. It was the only way they would settle. It was annoying at times especially when it would take HOURS to get them to sleep. I remember putting my finger in their mouth just to get the suction off my nipple so I could quietly sneak off the bed and out of the room. It got easier and easier as time went on. They got older and became good sleepers but they did nurse to sleep until I stopped breastfeeding (at ages 21 and 24 months respectively). When you are in it like you are it seems like forever but trust me it will pass. Good luck :)

Stacy said...

Oh and just one more thing. If I were you I wouldn't worry about the food association thing at all. That's never been an issue with my kids or any of my friends kids who were nursed to sleep as well. It's more a comfort thing I think. My boys weren't hungry they just loved that closeness with their mommy. It's such a special time, try to enjoy it.

Lady Grey said...

Thank you for the advice. I'm actually very relieved to hear that : )

Anonymous said...

I have 3 kids (5, 3, and 2 years) and I breastfed each until 9 months. My youngest was the easiest when it came to sleeping. When he was about 4 mths old we would lay him in his crib at the same time each evening and he was very good at quietly falling asleep most of the time.I think that things just went smoothest with him because we had an establish bedtime routine with the older two and he sort of just fell inot the same routine. My 3yr old- nothing worked to make her fall asleep except pacing back and forth, back and forth for hours sometimes- I would wish that I could just breastfeed her and she'd fall asleep. I would try breastfeeding her to sleep in desperation sometimes. The good thing was that at least my husband and I could take turns pacing. With my oldest, I did not realize that I was creating any issues with sleep by breastfeeding him to sleep all the time. It was just natural. I'd feed him and he'd fall asleep. And I loved doing it. I loved my time cuddle with him. But as the months went by it got harder and harder. He started sleeping through the night at 4 months. He was good for about 2 mths with only the occasional night where he'd wake up. But by 6 months he started waking up in the night on a regular basis and did not know how to soothe himself without breastfeeding. At first it was once a night then gradually he was waking up every 1-2 hrs and the absolute only thing that would calm him was breastfeeding and it was getting longer and longer each time since when he would feel me move away from him he would wake back up again. I was exhausted and frustrated and felt very alone. This continued until he was 9 mths.We waited until my husband was on vacation for 2 weeks (we anticipated sleep training was not going to be easy)and then tried the No-Cry Sleep Solution. We followed it exactly- except that I completely stopped breastfeeding at the same time and the book recommends no other big changes at the same time. I was very conflicted about whether it was the right thing to do or not. It did not feel natural to let my baby cry- rather it was completely heartbreaking. I felt like an absolute horrible mother for stopping breastfeeding cold-turkey as well but sleep and breastfeeding had become so dependant that I did not see how we were going to separate the two and succeed. On the first night- he cried hystericlly in his crib for 1 hr before falling asleep and I was a crying mess in the living room. Day 2 he was down to 30 mins and by day 5, 5 mins of crying and not an issue since. He's 5 now and an absolute mommy's boy and I've never seen a child who loves to cuddle more than he does. We used the No-Cry Sleep Solution at 10mths with my daughter as well to break the habit of pacing back and forth. Sleep training was not fun but worked well in the end. I delayed doing it because as long as what we were doing worked and felt right for our family, we did not see the need to change.

Lady Grey said...

Thank you for sharing your story. I guess no matter what "prop" you use to help your baby fall asleep (pacing, breastfeeding, whatever) you will eventually have to wean them off it. And weaning is simply no fun and probably always involves some tears. But I think you're right in saying that you do what feels right for your family, and make changes when it doesn't feel right anymore.

hibs said...

Hey Vanessa. My baby was actually born the someday as yours. So they are bday buddies. Hehe. I've had the same issues as you are having. For the first 6 weeks tala would not sleep and cried all the time. I was ready to throw myself out of a building. Things slowly got better, and I started ding the shushing method you are talking about above. It worked until last week when she got this nasty cold and now she won't sleep at night unless she's sleeping next to me Breastfeeding. It's been terrible. I'm planning to start training her again as soon as she's feeling better. She's a bad sleeper too, and it takes a lot to settle her down for a nap. Everyone says things get better, so I am waiting for that to happen. I will keep you posted if something works for me. Good luck with baby :).
Heba( from dent)

Hannah said...

I just weaned Stella last month, a month after she turned 2. Up until that point I nursed her to sleep. I loved it, she took comfort in it, and I felt like if it was working, it was WORKING. Crying-it-out was never an option for me. When I became pregnant with baby #2 in October, nursing became more of a struggle (nausea, sore breasts) and that's when I decided it was time. It took a few days to break the pattern, but I still lay down with her every night to get her to sleep. That still feels good and right for us. And, in the end, you do what feels right for you and what lets you get some rest. Good luck, lady!

Lady Grey said...

Hey Heba! That's so cool that our babies were born on the same day!
Eek, I can only imagine how difficult it will be to put Zac to sleep when he's sick. Luckily, no colds yet!
Stay in touch, Heba, I would love to hear how things are going for you : )

Lady Grey said...

Thanks Hannah. Good for you for breastfeeding so long! My goal of one year feels like forever to me right now, but maybe with time it will get easier.
Zac absolutely loves to breastfeed to sleep, and I love it too... when it works quickly. Sometimes though it takes an hour and by that point I'm feeling pretty abused!

Catherine said...

I breastfed my boy to sleep until he was 4 months old (he's now 7mo). The only reason I stopped is because it stopped working for us. I needed to breastfeed him until he was fast asleep to be able to put him down in his crib without waking him. When he did wake up, massive crisis ensued, so I needed to start the whole breastfeeding thing all over again for him to go back to sleep (at least 20min). And it was like that every single time, night feeding included. It just got exhausting.
So I started a bedtime routine that included a bath, story, nursing and putting him down awake. He did cry a bit the first few days, but nothing crazy like I expected. He even started sleeping longer at night. He now sleeps 12h a night! So, that's my little success story ! :)
But in the end, like Hannah said, it really is down to what feels right for you. No matter what books or friends say.

Anonymous said...

Hey Vanessa! I only breastfed my boy for a couple of months, but after that I always fed him a bottle before putting him to sleep at night, and I would sit with him in the rocking chair to help him sleep. I know many books say it is not the right thing to do, but it worked for us. I started working again when my son was 4 months old, and I really loved rocking him to sleep at night. When he turned 1 year and the pediatrician told me not to give him a bottle before sleep anymore I thought it was going to be chaotic....but it wasn't!!! So, my advice would be... do what you can and what you are comfortable with... babies sleep habits change as well, and nothing is forever!
Tina from Buenos Aires

Lady Grey said...

Babies are so adaptable, aren't they?!
Zac often surprises me with unexpectedly good behaviour when I'm expecting the worst.
Thanks for the advice, Tina. xo

Lady Grey said...

Oh you have given me a lot of hope with your little success story. I have to admit that I've never truly given the "putting him down awake" thing a real go. I mean he screams before I've even left the room. But I wonder how long he would actually scream for if I tried it. I'm terrified! But you never know, he might surprise me!
Thanks for sharing your story, Catherine.

k said...

I think a lot of moms will do this so their child sleeps! Here's a suggestion...maybe try to transition to something else comforting for a white noise machine - so play that while you are hoping he will sleep while you are feeding him and then eventually maybe he can just use that to sleep?

For the love of psych. said...

I have nothing to add re: breastfeeding, just wanted to point out how adorable Z is in these pics and how he's totally killing it with his neck strength. Way to lift that head Zac!