What to Know About Nursing a Baby to Sleep

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 05, 2023
4 min read

Nursing a baby to sleep can be an incredibly comforting experience for both you and your baby. Deep bonding can happen through skin-to-skin contact, and sleep-inducing hormones can lull your newborn into relaxed dreamland. As your baby gets older, however, it's important that they learn how to fall asleep on their own and practice an independent bedtime routine.

Just like adults, babies can get comfortable with a routine. They start to associate certain things with sleep, like putting on pajamas, reading, and quiet time at the end of the day. While it is not necessarily dangerous to nurse your baby to help them fall asleep, it can create a dependency. Then, your baby may not be able to fall asleep without it.

Here are some consequences of nursing a baby to sleep that you may want to avoid:

Suck to sleep association. When your baby starts to rely on nursing to fall asleep, it can make bedtime more challenging. Your baby may wake during the night and depend on nursing to fall back asleep. And when they get older, weaning them off breastfeeding will be more difficult.

Harder for others to feed your baby. A day may come when you go back to work or maybe have a fun date night out on the town. If your baby refuses to go to sleep without nursing from you first, it could be a real problem. Introducing your baby to a bottle early on allows your partner and loved ones to take care of your little one (while you get a much-needed break).

The emotional toll. Parents are already dealing with sleep deprivation after they welcome their new baby into the world. If mom is the only one who can get the baby to sleep, it can take a toll on their emotional and physical health. Sharing the responsibility of feeding the baby can go a long way in reducing stress and setting everyone up for success in the long run.

As your baby gets older, watch out for the following signs that it's time to stop nursing them to sleep:

  • Some babies suck without swallowing, which is known as comfort nursing. While this is fine occasionally, (like during times of illness or teething), your baby should not frequently nurse for comfort. 
  • All of us have habits that help us fall asleep. If your baby has a habit of relying on nursing to fall asleep and refuses to go back to sleep unless you nurse them again, it could be a sign that it’s time to stop nursing. 
  • Babies have shorter and lighter sleep cycles than adults. If your baby has developed a dependency on nursing to fall asleep, that means they’ll be waking you up every 45 minutes all night long. In this case, sleep training can be helpful to breastfeeding moms.

Here are some ideas to help your baby get into a healthy sleep routine:

Create an environment that facilitates rest. Get your to-dos done early in the day. You and your baby are both likely to sleep better if you take some time to unwind before bedtime. You can take your baby for a nice evening stroll around the block, or just step out the door and take a few deep breaths. The fresh air can do wonders for calming relaxation. 

As the day comes to a close, keep your baby nearby and make sure the environment is not too loud. Some regular noises and ordinary conversations can help a baby sleep. 

Make breastfeeding about food. While breastfeeding, wear something that’s harder to get your breast out of, slightly delaying the nursing. It’s a way of saying, “I’m here, but nursing takes some prep time.” Your older baby may decide it’s not worth the wait and settle for a snuggle. To avoid your baby falling asleep during a breastfeeding session, pay attention to clues that they are full. Then, roll over and turn your back after nursing. You’re still there for your baby, but your breast isn’t. 

Stick with a regular nighttime routine. Start a predictable bedtime routine, including activities like “brushing” gums or teeth with a wet washcloth, reading together, singing favorite songs, all quietly and consistently the same way each night. If you have a partner, have them do the nighttime routine regularly with your baby. 

Before bedtime, lay back with your baby’s front resting against your chest, this releases calming hormones in both of you. Try holding your baby for 20 minutes or so after their eyes close. That way there’s a much better chance they won’t fly open again as soon as you lay your baby down.

Talk them through it. As your child’s understanding grows, you can add some more steps, like talking to your baby about the routine. Nurse your baby for a little while, then stop and move away briefly. You can explain to your baby that you need to grab something or put something away and you’ll come right back. Gradually make the breaks a little longer, but always keep your promise to come back. This process can help develop trust and increase the likelihood that your baby will fall asleep on their own while they’re waiting for you to return.

You can also explain to your baby that nursing is done in daytime but only once (or not at all) at night.

Each baby is unique and will develop their own sleep patterns. You can help them establish a good nighttime routine by keeping things active during the day and calm at night.