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Cry It Out
My baby won’t go to sleep at night without me. Breastfeeding always works well to settle him and is a nice way to end each day, but I am worried that it is becoming a bad habit that we’ll never break. I am hearing a lot of advice from friends and family that he needs to learn to self-soothe and they say his reliance on breastfeeding will spoil him. My mother-in-law recommends I try the “cry it out” method. The one time I did, it reduced me to tears as well as my baby. What do other mothers think? How effective is such a technique to encourage babies to sleep? And what gentler ways are there for nighttime parenting your baby to sleep?
It can be so exhausting when your baby needs you and only you, every night, but it is also such a precious, fleeting time. Your baby won’t nurse to sleep forever. My baby gave up nursing to sleep far too early for my liking. Once the nurse-to-sleep tool is gone from your toolbox, you will likely miss it. The good news is that my toddler still loves cuddling to sleep and I truly love that time with him.
If you feel pressure from others you may want to just change the subject when they raise it. The way you parent doesn’t concern them. Follow your mama instincts; they won’t let you down.
Lindsey, Okemos, MI, USA
My mother-in-law raised my husband with the same beliefs in “crying it out.” His mind changed when we saw studies that showed when babies’ needs are met and they are not left to cry, they become more empathic and secure, which fosters healthy independence. This changed my husband’s thinking. We have a baby who loves nursing to sleep and napping in our arms. I love seeing my baby sleep skin to skin on my husband’s chest. I don’t fear bad habits or spoiling (although I do feel annoyed at times when I could be getting something done instead of holding my daughter). However, when I look at her smiling face, I know that we are doing our parenting job with compassion and love. Breastfeeding to sleep is not a “bad habit.” It is paving the way to a healthy, connected relationship full of trust now and in the future.
Dannelle, Gardnerville, Nevada, USA
I breastfed my oldest for three years, I did nurse her to sleep. She is now five and goes to bed by herself. She didn’t “nurse forever.” She isn’t “coming home from kindergarten to nurse,” as people warned me she would. She weaned just before she turned three. I have a two-year-old who also nurses to sleep and she too has started to go to sleep on her own, and is starting to wean herself. They are only small for a blink of an eye. Trust your instincts, do what feels right. Only you and your husband are responsible for the wellbeing of your child.
Joanne Miller, Philadelphia PA, USA
Sleep training methods (letting your baby cry-it-out) work quite effectively for many babies, who do stop crying, sometimes within just a few nights. Superficially such training seems like a good idea. But neurologists, neurophysiologists, and psychologists say that these methods are harmful, even brain damaging.
On page 321 of Sweet Sleep. Nighttime and naptime strategies for the breastfeeding family some of the research is given (see the book for the references, which I omitted here):
“A baby’s brain changes when she is separated from her mother and cries for more than a few minutes. Prolonged solitary crying sets off a fight-or-flight response that floods her body with the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol raises heart rate, blood pressure, and pressure inside the skull, and decreases blood oxygenation. Adrenaline increases blood sugar, heart rate, and blood pressure. Digestion, kidney function, and the immune system are temporarily impaired. Prolonged stress also raises a baby’s levels of thyroid and vasopressin hormones. Vasopressin also increases blood pressure and can cause nausea and vomiting, which may be why many babies throw up after crying for a long time … The baby who cries from physical or even emotional distress in your arms doesn’t have that same cortisol rise. It’s separation that is linked to those intense physiological responses.”
Babies who are trained to go to sleep quietly, without crying for your attention, have simply learned that there is no point in doing so, because you cannot be trusted to respond. I don’t think that’s a great start to any relationship. You say that leaving your baby to cry it out reduced you to tears too, and there are often good reasons for trusting your gut instincts as a mother.
Mary Brinley, Stockport, Cheshire, UK
You may be saying that you always have to nurse your baby to sleep. As a mom of two, I assure you that not only is this just fine—it is actually one of the benefits of breastfeeding! You have an easy way to put your baby down each night. So rather than a bad habit, it is the ultimate bedtime ritual.
Your beginning-of-the-night soothe-to-sleep ritual can be different from your middle-of-the-night one, depending on your baby’s age.
To meet a newborn’s nutritional needs and keep up his milk supply, breastfeeding mothers need to nurse on demand, day and night. If a mother’s goal is to nurse her baby exclusively say for the first six months, typically this means nursing frequently day and night during this period. So it doesn’t matter whether it is the beginning or the middle of the night, mamas just need to nurse their babies.
Sometime after this stage, though, moms can begin to make choices and night weaning may be one. Moms have different ideas about how to define how old is “old enough” for night weaning. Your best bet is to follow your gut instinct. If you night wean, keep in mind two things: (1) your baby will still likely need an early morning feeding for a while, after which he may nurse back to sleep or be up for the day—be prepared for either scenario and (2) you can still nurse your baby down to sleep at the beginning of the night.
When adults go to sleep, we usually need a bedtime ritual. Perhaps we read a book or watch some TV. It would be hard to imagine falling asleep without this ritual. But when we wake up during the night, we don’t need to fully rouse ourselves and read a book or watch TV again. We just drift back into a deeper sleep on our own. Babies do this as they mature. It is something that happens given time.
What approaches can you use during the night? If your baby is well past the newborn stage, you have two main options: (1) you can continue to nurse on demand or, (2) you can night wean. It’s a matter of what works best for each family.
If you prefer to continue to nurse on demand throughout the night at this time, a gentle way to maximize everyone’s rest is to co-sleep, or at least incorporate elements of co-sleeping into your nighttime arrangements. Your child won’t nurse forever.
If you prefer to night wean at this time, you have two main options: (1) night weaning without soothing; or (2) night weaning with lots of soothing. Any night weaning will involve crying. The baby wants to nurse and you’re not nursing, therefore the baby will likely cry. The main difference is how much soothing you choose to do during the crying. Another thing to know is that either approach is compatible with breastfeeding after the newborn stage. There’s no need to introduce formula to get more sleep. Just figure out what works best for you, your baby, and the whole family, and you can make it work while continuing to breastfeed your baby.
Examples of night weaning with lots of soothing can be found in Elizabeth Pantley’s The No-Cry Sleep Solution. While there still is crying (contrary to the book’s title), the active soothing is a better fit for some families.
Neither approach to night weaning is easy. If you’re not ready to night wean, then don’t feel you have to. Your question about whether it’s time to night wean seems based primarily on advice from friends and family, which is not necessarily the best reason for undertaking the difficult process of night weaning. Night weaning works best when mom and dad are truly ready.
Susan Vukadinovic, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
I am the mother of a three-and-a-half month old little girl. My baby sleeps only in my arms during the day and on me or beside me, during the night. She wakes up every three hours to nurse. It’s a little hard because I was used to sleeping well before pregnancy. I researched the cry-it-out method, and found this letter and after reading it, I decided to never let my baby believe she is abandoned or unloved. I hope eventually she will sleep alone in her own bed. Until then, I try to enjoy the time I spend with her in my arms because she’ll never be this little again.
Liliana Dan, Romania
Reading research about infant sleep and breastfeeding helped me to understand why my baby woke during the night and why continuing to breastfeed him when he did so was a good thing. Breastfeeding is often the scapegoat when parents are tired but it isn’t the reason for our exhaustion. In fact, it seems that breastfeeding actually helps with that.
Researchers found that mothers who exclusively breastfed slept an average of 40 minutes longer than mothers who supplemented with formula. Doan, T., Gardiner, A. et al. Breastfeeding increases sleep duration of new parents. Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing 2007; 21(3), 200–206.
Breastfeeding mothers are less tired and get more sleep than their formula or mixed-feeding counterparts which lowers their risk of depression: Dorheim, S., Bondevik, G. et al Sleep and depression in postpartum women: A population-based study. Sleep 2009; 32(7), 847–855.
Miriam Gray, Oxford, UK
My daughter just turned two and we are still breastfeeding to sleep every night and every naptime (unless she falls asleep in the car). I have no worries that she will need to nurse to sleep for the rest of her life. When she is ready, she will be able to fall asleep on her own. I cherish the time I am able to nurse her to sleep. It helps put me to sleep too!
Megan Fabian, Yorba Linda, California
In years to come you will remember these wakeful nights and wonder how you ever managed to do it, but have confidence that nursing is the gentle way to parent your baby back to sleep while you meet his need to feel safe and secure. I’m sure it was a big deal at the time, but now I can’t recall just how old my sons were when they were able to drift off to sleep alone, no longer needing to nurse. I do know it was long years before they became adult men living over 1000 miles away from me. James L. Hymes, Jr. in The Child Under Six writes, “If it is easy to break, it’s a habit! If you run into any major difficulty … chances are you are tampering with a human need.”
I was inspired to write this song one night after sending my night-owl son, the one that used to keep me awake, off to work the night shift at the post office. The song offers a role call of night watchers across time and around the world who have kept vigil for loved ones or for duty. This lullaby is written for wakers, not sleepers, who may appreciate the company of music on a lonely night. Happy listening!
Karen Shaw, Greater Pittston, Pennsylvania, USA
Mother’s New Situation
I recently learned I am pregnant with twins! I breastfed my first baby only for a couple of weeks because of the toe-curling pain that I now realize came from poor attachment to the breast. He was nipple-feeding rather than getting a deep enough latch. I feel far more prepared to give it a go this time, but with two?! Won’t this mean it will be two times as hard and painful if I get it wrong? Have other mothers managed to breastfeed multiple babies? Can you share some of your practical tips for coping as a mother of two, please?
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