You may notice that babies fall asleep very easily after they are breastfed. This is particularly true for newborns. But, if your baby falls asleep while breastfeeding, you may worry that they have not consumed enough milk.
It is normal for babies to doze off while nursing in the warm comfort of your arms, but you may be advised to look for ways to keep your little one awake to ensure a complete feed. This post discusses whether it is safe for babies to sleep while breastfeeding, why that happens, and what can be done to keep them from dozing off.
Why Do Babies Fall Asleep While Breastfeeding?
Babies, especially newborns, fall asleep while breastfeeding due to a full stomach. Studies have shown that an increase in the hormone called cholecystokinin controls the feeling of satiety and induces drowsiness (1) in infants.
The baby may doze off during nursing due to a poor latch. It means that he falls asleep without having sufficient milk. In the long run this could lead to malnourishment. You can prevent this situation by ensuring the baby latches on well. If your baby is making clicking sounds when he is feeding, it means he has a shallow latch which needs correction (2).
A baby’s nervous system stops the sucking reflex after the baby has fallen asleep to prevent gagging and choking. Also, milk flows from the breast only when a baby suckles and not otherwise unless the mother is leaking.
Is It Okay To Nurse A Baby To Sleep?
There is nothing alarming about a baby falling asleep during feeding but sleeping and feeding should be two separate activities. Babies who are nursed to sleep or breastfed before a nap tend to associate feeding with sleeping. In the long term, it becomes a habit and putting the baby to bed becomes difficult once the baby weans.
Long-Term Effects Of Sleeping While Breastfeeding
Never feed a baby solely for the purpose of making him fall asleep to avoid long-term repercussions, because:
- The baby will not self-soothe. Learning to self-soothe is important because this keeps the baby stress-free and prevents crankiness.
- It interferes with both feeding and sleeping. If a baby falls asleep while feeding, then it increases the chances of him getting only half the nutrition. Moreover, if the baby is used to taking a feed to sleep, the feeding schedule becomes erratic.
- Affects your sleep. If the baby’s feeding schedule is erratic, it will make your sleep cycle erratic too.
The habit of sleeping during feeding can be broken.
How To Prevent The Baby From Sleeping While Breastfeeding?
Here is how you can stop the baby from sleeping during his feeds:
- Stroke baby’s back or neck: Gently rub or pat the baby’s back and face when he feeds so that his nervous system is busy with a sensation.
- Keep talking to the infant: Speak to him like you are holding a conversation. Your partner can chip-in and help you with the conversation.
- Feed the baby in a well-lit room: If the room has adequate lighting, then he is less likely to feel drowsy.
- Do not feed the baby in a lying down position If you and the baby are lying on the bed during the feeding session, then the baby will fall asleep as the position is comfortable. Nurse the baby in a slant or near-vertical position.
- Switch breasts and burp the baby: The moment a baby let goes the suction, quickly change the breast. You can also give a break and burp him for a few seconds.
If the baby tends to fall asleep in spite of your efforts, you may use a few tricks to wake him up.
What To Do If The Baby Falls Asleep While Nursing?
Pulling the baby away from the nipple may injure or startle the baby. Hence, if he has fallen asleep while still latched on, you could:
- Rub the baby’s back. Undress the baby and gently rub or tap his upper back. Do not rub the tummy as the baby may throw up.
- Burp the baby. Gently tap the back to burp the baby. This should wake him up, and once he does, you can resume nursing.
- Tickle the feet. Tickle the sole of your baby’s feet or palms.
- Wipe the face with wet, soft cloth. The cooling effect of the water should wake the baby up.
You can also use the above methods to wake the baby before feeding. Alternatively, you could change the nappy or clothes. Experts recommend parents to keep the baby completely awake before breastfeeding, right from the first month (3).
Unlatching the sleeping baby from the breast after he is fed:
Unlatch the baby after nursing so that he does not begin to associate sleep with nursing. Here is a way to unhook the baby once he has fallen asleep:
- Gently place your clean index finger on the side of the baby’s mouth and between the gums.
- Turn your finger in either direction till you feel the suction loosening.
- Gently pull the baby while you do so.
How To Break The Habit Of Sleeping While Breastfeeding?
As mentioned, if your little one dozes off every time he feeds, then he may have got used to it. However, it is not difficult to break the habit, and here are ways to bring in the change:
1. Have separate feeding and sleeping routines:
Babies learn to associate events with an activity when they occur consistently. Establish a routine by observing a particular set of activities such as bathing and reading a storybook before going to bed. The infant will not understand the sequence immediately but soon comprehends that bathing and listening to a book mean that it is time to sleep. If it is time for a feeding session and he is asleep or if he has fallen asleep while feeding, then wake him up.
2. Use a pacifier:
Pacifiers help calm and soothe the baby, sometimes even to sleep. In fact, they are often recommended by experts for babies who depend on feeds to fall asleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests using a pacifier as a replacement for a bottle or breast nipple (4). However, do not introduce the pacifier until the baby has an established breastfeeding routine (5). Never give a pacifier to a baby younger than a month (6). Infants may suck their thumb to soothe themselves to sleep, especially when you withdraw breastfeeding for sleeping.
3. Use other ways to soothe the baby to sleep:
Use a bit of cajoling and soothing such as speaking in a soft voice, singing a song, or playing with his favorite toy to put him to bed. At night, place the baby’s crib right next to yours so you are in his line of sight. The assuring presence of a parent is sometimes all the infant needs to fall asleep peacefully.
It is common to see that a baby falls asleep while breastfeeding because of satiety. However, sometimes the baby may sleep because of poor latching, leading to inadequate feeding. While there is no harm, babies might start associating sleep with feeding, interfering with the mother’s sleep. So, to prevent babies from sleeping while breastfeeding, you may stroke the baby’s neck, feed in a lighted room, or burp the baby in between feeds. Even if the baby falls asleep, you may gently tickle their feet or wipe their face with a cloth. It is important to break the habit of sleeping so babies can feed adequately and not develop malnourishment.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Should you burp your baby if they fall asleep?
Yes. If your baby falls asleep while breastfeeding and you believe they have not received enough feeding, gently tap their back to burp and wake them up. Also, burping the baby after feedings and before putting them to sleep ensures no trapped gas may cause pain in babies (6).
2. Can a 1-month-old sleep through the night without feeding?
No. Newborn babies typically wake up every three to four hours to feed. However, if they are not waking up, ensure that the baby does not sleep for more than five hours at a stretch during the first month of life (7).
- K Uvnäs-Moberg et al.; (1993); Plasma cholecystokinin concentrations after breast feeding in healthy 4 day old infants.
- Learning to Breastfeed.
- Breastfeeding Q&A: What all moms should know.
- SUMI SEXTON et al.; (2009); Risks and Benefits of Pacifiers.
- Breastfeeding FAQs: Getting Started.
- Pacifiers: Satisfying Your Baby’s Needs.
- Baby basics: How to burp your baby.
- Sleep in Your Baby’s First Year.
- Breastfeeding FAQs :Sleep- Your and Your baby’s