Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Reader Question: Nursing Your Young Baby to Sleep

By: Jennifer Goldbronn

Recently, we received a question from a reader about nursing her 11-week-old to sleep. We have been asked many times whether or not babies get “used to” being nursed to sleep and whether or not it affects his or her ability to get back to sleep alone.  Here is one reader’s story:

My baby is 11 weeks old and I nurse him to sleep. He wakes up several times a night and I doubt he's always waking due to hunger. I have read that I may be contributing to his night wakings by nursing him to sleep and thus preventing him from learning how to self soothe (ie when he wakes he's unable to settle himself to sleep and so I have to nurse him).  If I am cultivating a problem I'd like to nip it in the bud sooner rather than later.

At 3 months of age, babies are able to self-soothe back to sleep after night wakings only about 0ne-third of the time. By 1 year, infants are able to self-soothe back to sleep about half of the time.  (Burnham 2002) When babies are not able to get back to sleep on their own, they will need a caregiver’s help, whether that be rocking or singing or nursing, to get back to sleep during the night. Babies do get “used to” how they fall asleep, but not at this young of an age. As babies get older parents can create a bedtime routine that does not include nursing as the last step. For this reader, nursing or rocking her young baby to sleep now does not mean she will have to continue this routine forever!

Night Waking
Babies wake for many reasons other than hunger, though they also need to be fed frequently! Babies also wake when they are too hot or cold, lonely (at this age babies need to interact with caregivers often) or just plain uncomfortable. Since young babies enter into light sleep first, they do wake very easily so it’s helpful to wait until they get into deep sleep before you lay them down. Holding or rocking to sleep are examples of ways to soothe your baby until he enters deep sleep. (For more information about light and deep sleep, click here.) It gets easier! By around 4 months of age babies fall into deep sleep first and won’t need as much help from you at bedtime.  Here are some other tips to get a little more sleep when dealing with the inevitable waking of your little one.

More Information
Falling asleep and staying asleep are 2 very different things. Learn the difference between the two in this post. The recommendation to lay your baby down to sleep awake vs. asleep is also discussed in this post.

As we mentioned above, there are many reasons babies wake during the night; you will find a full list of reasons in this post. You can also read about establishing routines in older babies.

Sleep patterns change a lot as babies get older. Learn more about the specifics of sleep patterns of babies 6-16 weeks of age in this post.

Burnham MM, Goodlin-Jones BL, Gaylor EE, Anders TF. Nighttime sleep-wake patterns and self-soothing from birth to one year of age: a longitudinal intervention study. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2002;43:713-25


  1. and from personal experience. Nursing to sleep every night and at every night waking, even for as long as the first 15-18 months, does not prevent them from learning to 'self soothe' and be able to be comfortable and confident in going to sleep on their own later. It may even prevent some 'fear of separation' or loneliness. and really, why not just be there for them when they need it and are small, so that they have the confidence to strike out on their own when they're ready.

  2. Thank you for answering my question! I continue to primarily nurse to sleep and at 4.5 months my baby slept for 11 hours straight without waking last night (of course I've probably just jinxed myself by posting this!). I still hope to find a way of having my baby fall asleep on his own in case I am not around to help him fall asleep. Thanks again. Your blog is fantastic and I continue to diligently follow your posts.