October 18, 2022 4 min read
Can I sleep train my child while continuing to breastfeed? Will sleep training cause my breast milk supply to drop?
These are the questions that breastfeeding mothers often ask me when they are considering whether they should sleep train their child.
My name is Sheena. I am a mother of two, a breastfeeding enthusiast, and a sleep coach supporting families to have better sleep. My elder son learnt to sleep independently just shy of his first birthday, and I continued to breastfeed him beyond that.
As for my newborn, I am still enjoying cuddling him to sleep, as that’s what he needs right now.
Sheena carrying her newborn at 5 weeks old.
“Sleep training” seems to be the buzzword among parents these days. But what does it mean and how does it square up with breastfeeding?
“Sleep training” simply refers to teaching your child to sleep without the help of parents and/or caregivers. Some people refer to it as the ability to sleep independently.
However, a child is never fully able to sleep independently in the strictest sense of the word. This is because there will always be something that the child needs to associate with sleep to fall asleep. These sleep associations could come from the environment rather than from parents or caregivers.
Using a baby who is rocked to sleep as an example, sleeping independently would mean that the baby will start relying on environmental cues such as darkness, white noise, or a comfort toy to sleep rather than being rocked to sleep.
So can sleep training, or what I prefer to term as ‘Sleep Coaching’, co-exist with breastfeeding?
The answer is – it depends on what breastfeeding is used for!
There are many reasons babies nurse. The primary reason is nutrition. However, breastfeeding mums also swear by nursing for comfort and nursing to sleep.
A baby who nurses to sleep relies on her mother to sleep, so sleep coaching would mean teaching the baby to fall asleep in other ways instead. It does mean that those who decide to coach their child to sleep independently, should be nursing to sleep less to eventually phase it out completely. However, breastfeeding can and should still be continued for comfort and nutritive purposes.
What does this practically look like?
I believe that in most cases, gradual changes work better than the cold turkey approach.
The chilling picture that most naysayers have of sleep training is of a distressed child being locked up in a room crying for hours on end with no one attending to her. This can be incredibly traumatic for the baby!
If you are a nursing mother who would like your child to learn to sleep on her own, you could try nursing for a shorter duration each time before putting your baby down. Don’t worry about your breastmilk supply dipping as comfort nursing, which involves flutter sucking, results in very little removal of milk.
Doing away with comfort nursing is hence unlikely to drastically affect demand to the extent that supply tanks.
Helping the baby to settle and sleep.
Explore different ways of settling the baby to sleep such as patting, singing, shushing, carrying in arms or doing a combination of a few approaches. At the same time, introduce environmental sleep cues like darkness, white noise and a comfort toy to keep your bub company.
Give the baby the space to learn to sleep on her own.
As with learning a new skill, it is important for parents to step back from the picture and allow the child to try mastering the skill on her own.
If we sense that baby is getting increasingly distressed, we can defer this till later or step in to support her. Do less hands-on settling with each day that passes, and with time, patience, and a whole lot of consistency, the baby will eventually learn to sleep on her own.
Do expect some amount of crying as your baby adjusts to this new method of settling to sleep. She can’t communicate using words at this point so crying is her only way of expressing how she is feeling.
Be present and supportive, but know when to taper off your support progressively.
Sleep training and co-sleeping.
Often, mothers who nurse to sleep also co-sleep with their babies. They want to know if it is possible to continue co-sleeping while sleep training.
What they are actually asking is whether their child can learn to sleep without nursing to sleep, as the child will always continue to rely on her parents’ presence to fall asleep.
That is perfectly acceptable as long as this arrangement works for you and your spouse. Instead of turning to the side to nurse your baby back to sleep in the middle of the night, simply nurse for a shorter duration each time or pat your baby back to sleep. In time to come, she will learn to fall asleep with just a touch from you!
Summing it all up.
So for the breastfeeding mummies among us who want to teach your child to sleep independently, go for it!
You can continue to breastfeed your child when needed, for her meals, after a painful vaccination, or when your child needs some assurance in an unfamiliar setting.
If this is too daunting a task and you need someone to journey with you, reach out to an experienced sleep coach who has a philosophy on sleep that you resonate with. The idea of a Rested Nest is within reach.
All we need to do is to take brave baby steps towards achieving our sleep goals.
Author is Sheena Kang, Founder of Rested Nest Infant and Child Sleep Consultancy. She is a mum to two young children, so she is right in the trenches of motherhood with you. She loves listening to music, playing the piano, sipping hot tea on a rainy day, meeting new people and having deep conversations.
She is wearing Ellie Cruz Nursing Cami.
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