I was asked this question recently on Twitter. The answer in a nutshell is yes. Over the long term, it causes problems.
But, let me be very clear – you can still exclusively breast feed AND create a great sleeper. The two are not mutually exclusive.
When a baby is a newborn, their tummies are tiny and they do need to be nursed frequently. Yes, there is a correlation between full stomachs and better sleep. When they are a few weeks old, you can nurse them to sleep and then transfer them into the bassinet or the crib and they will often sleep for long periods.
And, I know, I have been there personally, as a Mom. There is nothing more beautiful than holding your newborn baby, watching them feed from your breast and then fall asleep in your arms. It can break your heart and fill you with joy.
The problem though, is that over time, the breast becomes a sleep prop. The baby becomes dependent upon it to get to sleep at bedtime and for naps. They associate it with not only nourishment but their vehicle to take them from point A awake to point B asleep.
Then, somewhere between the second and fourth month, all hell breaks loose. These babies that were sleeping for nice long periods after being nursed to sleep for naps and at bedtime are no longer doing that. They are waking up more frequently and crying until Mom comes in and nurses them to sleep.
As a parent, your mind races and wonders … Why is it getting WORSE? I expected to be up every 2 to 3 hours with a newborn … but they are now 4 months old and weigh way more … why are they waking more frequently?
As parents, we are left perplexed and looking for answers … it must be a growth spurt, they must be getting teeth, is it gas? Are they sick? Was it the immunizations? Was it because we went away and stayed in a Hotel room? Is it something I am eating?
The answer is No to all of the above. It is simply that the baby has an external strategy to sleep and they are OLDER and more aware of their surroundings.
How a baby or a child FALLS asleep makes all the difference on how they get back to sleep. If a baby is nursed TO sleep at bedtime, they will need to be nursed BACK to sleep.
Typically, most parents get frustrated and look for other methods to get their babies back to sleep. “I know he must not be hungry, so I will …. rock him, get Dad to soothe, use the swing….”
Once again, I have been there personally. I used all the props: the swing, rocking, bouncing, the pacifier, the stroller, and the car. I changed what I ate and switched laundry detergents searching for the answer. I literally tried everything I could to get my son to sleep longer in the night and in the day. At first, some of them worked quickly. For example, I could get my son to take the soother and it would buy me another 45 minutes to an hour. I could rock for 5 minutes … but then … over time, it took longer and longer. By four and half months, it would take me over an hour to get him to sleep and then he would be awake again within 45 minutes to an hour later.
The best thing for your baby is not become dependent on external strategies to get to sleep. When they can develop their own internal ones, you have given them the best gift in the world: the skill of sleep.
When baby number two arrived, I still exclusively breast fed her. By 10 weeks, she was sleeping 10 hours through the night, waking up once to nurse, going back to bed for another two to three hours. Instead of nursing TO sleep, I focused on having her back in the crib drowsy but awake. Over time, with practice and no crying, she learned to put herself to sleep.
And, now I have the pleasure of showing parents how to instill the right habits from the start so that they can have the “Maddy” experience too. It is never too early to start in my opinion. It is also never too late. Sleep is a skill and every baby and child can learn and master it.