This month I was asked by a subscriber to explore the topic of comfort nursing and how that relates to sleep. This topic is one of the most common concerns that is mentioned during my consultations with families as many babies are feeding throughout the night as a means to put themselves back to sleep. This means that some of these babies are relying on feeding (both bottles and nursing) as a sleep prop rather than just to satisfy hunger.
Is comfort feeding a “bad” thing?
In short, there is nothing wrong with comfort feeding in general. Nursing in particular is by nature a very relaxing, calming experience for babies. Even the sucking sensation that comes from bottles is a quick and reliable way to soothe a fussy infant. It is natural for feeding to be so calming. However, the problem comes when babies are relying on feeding in order to fall asleep. In these cases, many babies will wake frequently throughout the night and demand a feeding in order to fall back asleep. This can become quite problematic, because for many babies that means they are waking every couple of hours as they are transitioning through sleep cycles. It is normal for everyone to experience brief awakenings throughout the night, but a baby who has true independent sleep skills will be able to roll over and go right back to sleep, just as adults do. Whereas a baby who relies on feeding to fall asleep will need you to come back for each brief awakening to help him fall back to sleep…each and every time. This leads to broken sleep for the baby and for you, meaning no one is getting the quality sleep they need.
So how do you know if your baby is feeding just for comfort or due to hunger?
At a certain age and weight, most babies are capable of going all night without feeding (consult your pediatrician to find out if your baby is ready). Here are some signs to look for that your baby is feeding for comfort rather than hunger:
1. Sometimes your baby can go longer stretches at night, and other nights she wakes every hour. I usually say “hold her to her personal best”. If you know your baby can sleep for 6-7 hours in a stretch, then stop offering feedings during that period to help her maintain that long stretch of sleep.
2. When you feed your baby in the middle of the night, he only drinks an ounce or two, or only nurses for a few minutes before acting satisfied. If your baby typically drinks 6 ounce bottles, or nurses for 10 minutes for a full feeding, but in the middle of the night those feedings are significantly less, that is a good indicator that your baby is not actually hungry and is only snacking for soothing purposes.
3. If your baby is falling asleep in the middle of feedings, then it is most likely she is using that feeding as a sleep prop. For some babies, even getting drowsy during the feeding can be considered a sleep prop.
If you think your little one is using a bottle or nursing as a sleep prop, there are some steps you can take to encourage her to learn how to fall asleep without those props.
How to break the cycle:
Remove feeding from the bedtime routine. It is important that your baby goes to bed with a full tummy, however that does not mean you have to feed right before laying your baby down for the night. I recommend switching up the order of your bedtime routine so that the feeding is 15-20 minutes before laying your baby down. A good bedtime routine looks like this:
Final feed of the day (in a room other than the nursery)
Lotion and PJs
Read a book
Lay in crib
Feed upon waking rather than before naps. If you structure your day so that your baby is getting a full feeding when he wakes up from naps, then he should not need to feed right before naps, meaning he cannot use feeding as a means for sleep during the day either. I recommend an EAT > PLAY > SLEEP routine. That means you feed your baby when he wakes up, have a period of playtime, then lay down for nap. His next feeding will be when he wakes from his nap.
Establish a nap routine that does not include feeding. Most parents are aware of the importance of a good bedtime routine, but having a consistent nap routine will also help your baby transition from playtime to naptime more easily. The nap routine should not include a feeding to ensure your baby is not using the feed as a sleep prop. A good nap routine should be no more than 5-10 minutes. It can look something like this:
Read a book
Sing a song
Lay in crib
Keep your baby awake during feedings. If you are not confident your baby can go all night without feeding, you can continue to offer feedings in the middle of the night, but it is very important that you keep your little one AWAKE during those feedings! When your baby wakes for the night, you can feed her as usual, but do whatever you have to do to make sure she stays awake and gets a full feeding each time. This may mean you have to remove her from the breast or bottle and give her a burp to keep her awake. Once the feeding is complete, lay your baby back in bed AWAKE so she can drift off to sleep on her own. If your baby is indeed feeding for comfort and not due to hunger, keeping her awake during the feeding will be less satisfying which will help to break the feed/sleep association.
Making these changes to your baby’s sleep routine will help set the stage for your baby to learn how to fall asleep without using feeding as a sleep prop. By breaking the feed/sleep association, it is possible she will automatically phase out those middle of the night wakings all on her own.
If the idea of laying your baby down awake terrifies you, and you would like some more guidance on how to teach your baby independent sleep skills, please use the link below to book a free evaluation call with me today.