elevating child care

Breastfeeding For Comfort (The All-Night Diner)

A discussion I had with Annie from “PHD In Parenting” a while back (Attachment Parenting Debate – For Crying Out Loud!) sparked some interesting commentary. A couple of days ago I received this new comment and question…

I am beyond excited to have found your blog Janet, and this debate has been so revealing for me. My daughter is almost 1 year old and I have been practicing Attachment Parenting because it has made sense to me. This blog is my first more formal introduction to RIE and I am having a huge A-HA moment! Thank you so much, I can’t wait to learn more about this thinking and approach. I have a question I wonder if you would address. From a RIE approach how does a parent approach changing a pattern that has been set into place?

In our case I have gotten my daughter into being solely dependent on my breast during the nighttime hours. She still wakes several times every night and “needs” to have my breast to calm and return to sleep – sometimes this return to deep sleep happens INSTANTLY, and other times she actually nurses although she is usually in a certain level of sleep the whole time. That is to say, she is rarely truly awake. If I do not give her the breast she wakes fully and is soon screaming until she is returned to the breast. She always quickly returns to deep sleep after being put to the breast. Although most of the hours of our nights are spent in sleep, I am tired of waking so many times in the night, every night, and can clearly see that this is a pattern that I have created. But how to change it? Thankfully, I have not been so indiscriminate in daytime hours, although I have used the breast to comfort when I might have paid attention differently and tried other methods.

I am fascinated by human development and with the parenting process, so I can’t wait to start using RIE insights to help me parent better.

Thanks in advance for any help! Megan

          Hi Megan,

First, I just want to mention that the pattern you recognize (so astutely) you’ve created is a version of what most of us do — a perfectly understandable response to our baby’s cries, especially during the night. A baby’s cries are heart-wrenching for us to hear, designed by Nature to arouse us from a deep sleep. We are inclined to believe that every cry is a call to immediate resolution, and breastfeeding (or a pacifier) can appear to be the immediate answer. Our instincts tell us to make the crying stop, rather than to support our baby’s emotional health by hearing, acknowledging and understanding cries before we act.  Crying babies make us feel like bad parents.

When babies cry in my parent/infant classes for whatever reason, I try to reassure parents that crying is allowed at RIE, and that a baby’s cries are not a judgment against them — quite the contrary. It takes a brave and enlightened parent to remain calm, listen to their baby cries and offer an attuned, accurate response. Babies cry to communicate a variety of needs – and sometimes the need is to complain, or otherwise express feelings that the parent cannot necessarily “fix”.

Struggles at bedtime are particularly difficult for parents to endure. We’re tired and weary, and keeping the peace at night — getting everyone back to sleep as quickly and easily as possible — is a priority. We nurse, rock, use a pacifier…whatever it takes.

Some babies will eventually transition on their own to un-aided sleep, but most want to continue (and continue, and continue) going to sleep the way they are used to…who can blame them? And if the arrangement is comfortable for the parents, and the baby seems to be functioning well during the day, there’s little reason to make a change.

But you are an insightful mom (and tired), and you sound ready to help your baby find a healthier pattern. The great news is that babies are extremely adaptable, and once we commit to changing a habit of any kind and project confidence in our decision (the most important element for success) babies usually only need a few days to make a transition. I only wish that I could tell you it will be seamless and soundless!

Actually, helping our child change habits of any kind is usually much easier than we imagine it will be, once we are sure that the change is best for all concerned.  But if we (our child’s leader) are tentative, uneasy or uncertain, it is much more difficult for the child to transition comfortably. Children sense our ambivalence a mile away.

So, first make a plan and proceed with confidence. Since your baby has become accustomed to many feedings, I suggest reducing them gradually, one at a time. 

Then, give your baby a little preparation in advance. Infant expert Magda Gerber encouraged parents to talk honestly to babies about changes in their routines (and every other aspect of their lives, for that matter) and to include them in the process. “Tonight, if you wake up, we won’t be always be having milk. I want you to go back to sleep, so you get a really good rest.”

Believe your baby capable of falling asleep independently rather than worrying, or pitying her.

Then do less, and allow your baby to do more. Instead of nursing in the night, you might stroke your baby and talk softly, allow her feelings to be expressed and acknowledge them. “I hear you. You want milk to help you sleep and you’re upset. It’s time to go back to sleep. You can do it.” And she really and truly can with your support and belief in her.

For more support and information about crying and emotional health, sleep, and changing patterns, I highly recommend these articles:

Changing Toddler Sleep Habits and Baby’s “No Cry” Sleep Is Exhausting, guest posts here by sleep specialist Eileen Henry

Allowing Crying Without Crying It Out on Natural Parents Network and How Respect Is Getting Me More Sleep, both by Suchada Eickemeyer from “Mama Eve”, another Attachment Parenting enthusiast who has been recently introduced to and inspired by RIE.

Emotional Health And Development Of Self-Esteem In Infants by Roseann Murphy at Little River School Online

Interview With Aletha Solter On Crying And High-Needs Infants at Aware Parenting.com

My posts: Babies Breaking Habits, Toddlers Dealing With Change and Sleep On This

I love your enthusiasm for the RIE Approach, and I’ll do all I can to help.

Warmly,

 Janet

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19 Responses to “Breastfeeding For Comfort (The All-Night Diner)”

  1. avatar Lauren says:

    Hi Janet, Hi Megan

    Will be watching this post and comments with interest, thank you. My son is almost 8 mths and since he was (around) 3 months has woken once a night for a breastfeed, always sometime between 2.00am and 4.00am. Then always straight back to sleep.

    At this stage we are both happy with the arrangement; as I’ve been doing it for so long (and it’s just the one time each night) we are both well rested. However, as he increases his solids intake and gets older, I am conscious of keeping an eye on it that it doesn’t become just a comfort habit rather than genuine hunger. I suspect we’re just starting to approach that stage (I’ve noticed his ‘feeding’ is less enthusiastic), hence my interest in this topic!

    A couple of times we have tested the waters with my husband going in instead and quietly talking or stroking or allowing our son to hold his hand to quieten down. And this works for 10-30 mins but he soon calls out again. So for now we are keeping the feed.

    Just thought I’d also mention a friend with an older baby (now 12 mths) had a similar issue, though with much more frequent waking. What worked for them was for dad to take a few days off work (so he could sleep during the day!) and for him to replace mum going in at night. It took about 3 days of him going in and just calmly talking, etc to do the trick. I’ve read too that this is sometimes better as babies can get all revved up for milk if it’s mum that comes in (why not, seeing the milk has arrived) and that *sometimes* dads can have more success in this regard.

    Hope that is of help.

    Keep up the great blog, Janet. Have been following it with great interest for a few months now, down here in Australia
    :-)

    Lauren

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Lauren in Australia! Yes, I’ve noticed that it’s often easier for dads to help with a sleep transition. Thanks for mentioning that.

      I’m no sleep expert, but one night feeding at 8 months of age sounds typical to me… Great that you are proceeding with such awareness, though.

      Thanks for your kinds words about the blog! :)

  2. avatar amanda says:

    just want to say for your consideration that there may be some need (even comfort- especially if you are apart from each other during the day) that breastfeeding is fulfilling for your child. our son, now 27 months, continued waking in the night and only being comforted after nursing until he was a few months shy of two. and then, on his own, without any changes on our part, he slept through the night. i feel good about allowing our child to tell us when he was ready to do without rather than the other way around because it was inconvenient for my sleep. though, i realize not all parents feel this way about taking the longer road.

    • avatar janet says:

      Amanda, thank you. I really love that you shared this…a success story! It’s morale-boosting when our parenting choices end up working out as we hope they will. I would only add that my point is to be aware of the needs we create. All babies need comfort, but we are the ones who condition our babies to needing a specific comfort response, like breastfeeding. Our goals and “longer road” are not necessarily another parent’s longer road.

  3. Janet, thank you for linking to my articles. I’m going to spend some time today re-reading information about sleep, because we’re again struggling with night-waking (after a week of illness), and working to move back to routine that kept all of us happier.

    In response to Amanda, I agree that breastfeeding does fulfill a need for comfort that our children have at night. The difficulty many parents have is their own need to rest (which is also often a need of the child), and finding a solution that honors both needs. In many attachment parenting circles that I’m part of, the only option seems to be to sacrifice our own needs for the need of a child.

    I feel like a bad mother saying that option didn’t work for us, but it simply didn’t. When I sacrificed my own need for sleep to allow my son to have his first choice for comfort, I ended up sacrificing many other parts of our relationship, which wasn’t good for anyone.

    What I appreciate about the RIE approach is it encourages us to recognize and acknowledge our child’s needs, and then support them as they find alternative ways to fulfill them. Ultimately I believe this is healthier for everyone and our life-long relationships.

    • avatar janet says:

      Suchada, I hate hearing you say you could be a bad mother. I think we underestimate our baby’s ability to feel loved and comforted by our sensitive attention and caring presence. Babies sense all the things adults do, in fact they are even more sensitive. And babies are ready to begin learning that these people they are forming close bonds with — their parents — have self-respect. We are teaching what it means to be human. Our babies develop healthy personal boundaries with others when we model self-respect.

      I so appreciate this passage from Linda Ligane’s article about infants and self-esteem posted on Little River School Online (http://littleriverschool.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/emotional-health-and-development-of-self-esteem-in-infants/ )…

      Respecting yourself, the carer is the most difficult, most fundamental task. Respecting the needs of an infant is far easier than respecting one’s own needs. After all, the infant is brand new, and what you are doing with her is establishing new habits that replace no habits. That is not true of respecting one’s own needs. Becoming a parent challenges one’s development with the opportunity for personal growth. Why is it important to grow personally, when your whole life is settling down after birth of your child? Why is taking care of you important? Why take care of yourself before the baby when your job as a parent is defined as taking care of the baby? I can only offer my reasons…you must answer these questions for yourself. The quality of your family life depends on your answers.

      Parenting takes real work, especially if the philosophy and methodology I have described is different from what you would otherwise do. By definition, work is draining. It takes energy from you, and thus also from your child.

      It usually only takes a short time to take care of your immediate needs, and a longer time to take care of your child.

      You are the primary role model for your child, ad by respecting your own needs; you are setting a very important example for your child to later learn to respect his own needs.

      Only after we truly respect ourselves are we able to genuinely respect others.

      When you are able to satisfy your own needs on a regular basis, you are more able to nurture others

  4. Janet. I love you.

    The way you explain this is so so comforting and positive. Your blog should be mandatory reading for any parent!

    • avatar janet says:

      Awww… You made my day. Thank you, and the feeling is mutual!

  5. Great discussion. I love it.
    I hear Suchada echoing more the difficulty of judging oneself as a bad parent based on comparisons with others, or the culture, or things you pick up in the air, rather than really believing one is a bad mom. The eternal struggle with self-judgment and comparisons with perfection. The belief-system Suchada references where the thing that must be sacrificed is her needs I believe can often lead to resenting the child/baby and their needs. This is not a recipe for anyone’s health.
    In any case, I LOVE the quote about how respecting yourself is harder than respecting the needs of a brand new baby.

  6. avatar Aneela 786 says:

    Dear Janet

    I am so thankful to you. Because it’s been only two days I found this website and I seem to be on this all the time and learning so much. You are doing a wonderful job.
    I have few questions for you and it would be great if you could help me with them. I am facing similar problems as Kathleen mentioned above. My son ( ebraheem) is a lovely baby and has a good routine. He sleeps on time and doesn’t wake up in the night so often. Now the problem I have is he sleeps with me and wouldn’t sleep in his own cot. He is 10 months old, he started sleeping with me since he was 6 months and now I am having trouble shifting him back to his cot. I did try putting him in his bed while he was sleeping but unfortunately he wakes up and starts crying. Soon he wakes up he wants to have milk to fall back to sleep and wouldn’t sleep until I offer him milk again. Once he is asleep I would take the nipple out. He wouldn’t sleep without nipple in his mouth no matter how sleepy he is. It would be very helpful if you could help..
    Aneela

  7. Thank you for covering this topic. We had such a struggle with our first child (now almost 4yo) with breastfeeding at night.

    I pushed through the nightly discomfort til he was about 1.5yo and he started fondling my breasts while nursing- that was a clear cut off point for me.

    Communication really helped- my partner & I made a plan and then talked to our son about the change.

    He had a really hard time and it KILLED me inside to see him struggle. After more communication- particularly with baby sign language, we figured out he was actually still hungry in the middle of the night.

    So we started pushing for more protein at his dinner with a cup of cow milk at night if he really needed it. It didn’t make everything perfect, but definitely helped him eventually adjust.

    The biggest benefit to me, though, was with all the extra communication during this period, we learned a lot more about his personal needs and how to meet them in a sustainable way. Following this period, he started replacing the nursing sign for the food sign a lot more- not just at night, but also throughout the day.

    It also helped us differentiate when he was in emotional discomfort or physical discomfort.

    We are expecting another child this summer and even with the experience of our first son, I am dreading to go through this stage of drevelopment again. Thanks for the post- its a great reminder and I will definitely bookmark it.

  8. avatar Jessica Isles says:

    Sooo interesting and helpful. I just wanted to mention that not breastfeeding at all during the night often leads to a significant drop in milk supply which may hasten the end of the breastfeeding relationship. Many mothers dont know this. With this information we can choose how we change the night time habits to include feeds if we want to ensure a plentiful milk supply for the day as well.
    Also, many mothers are unaware that almost every baby that dies of SIDS dies when they are alone either in a bed or stroller or car seat etc (not co sleeping!). I mention this because our culture expects us to put the baby to sleep away from us even from the moment of birth. It’s almost a badge of honor to have a baby who sleeps through the night in their own bed. However, new babies depend on plentiful human contact. They regulate their temperature and breathing by being held by another human being – this is why skin to skin after birth is so important. And physical human contact is as much a part of the loving care we give our babies as food is, or the conscious respect that RIE so wonderfully advocates. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about how much physical comfort we give our babies – they need it. Yes, a new baby can be extremely tiring and many days the mothers needs will not necessarily be fully met. But, our needs are often determined by our expectations and our expectations are largely determined by the culture we live in. Finding out what our true needs are and meeting them in balance with the baby’s needs is a true skill!

  9. avatar Jenn says:

    Hello, I’ve been reading a few articles of yours the past few days and learning a lot. Some things I’ve already been doing, some seem natural but have to be learned, and others I am wrapping my head around still. I have read a similar approach to night nursing but I am forgetting where I read it. My son is 11 months and we both need better sleep. I have no issue with nursing him to sleep and since he was labeled failure to thrive, every drop of milk is crucial to his continued weight gain and growth. My issue is with his need to pacify at the breast in order to stay soundly asleep. I also still can’t set him down asleep no matter what technique I try. He is pretty high needs and intense. He has a hard time settling down if he gets worked up but has managed to settle (awake) from a fuss. Because he wants to pacify at the breast while he sleeps, he continues to trigger let downs (a glorious thing for me since we battled low supply and tongue and lip ties), which then cause him to rouse a bit from sleep. My ideal sleep situation would be nursing him to sleep, setting him down in his crib that is side-carred to my bed, then sleeping for 3-5 hours before needing to nurse again, setting him back down asleep and getting another 3-5 hours. I don’t know how to make this happen without him completely losing it. We have been working on less pacifying at the breast during the day but that usually means I need to keep the crying from escalating by distracting him or picking him up.

  10. avatar Dee says:

    Hi. I debated about chiming in, but I wanted to heartedly agree with Jessica Isles. For those women who want to keep up their milk supply, nursing at night is very important. I struggled with my milk supply for my first child and at 3 months began to co-sleep. And now co-sleep with our 2nd child. Yes, some nights he wakes more often and wants to nurse alot and then I don’t get much sleep that night. But it usually is associated with a growth spurt. With both children, I found that I received more sleep than my other friends (unless they adopted cry it out which I didn’t and don’t). When darling son wakes, I put him on the breast and we both fall gently back to sleep.

  11. avatar Randi says:

    We are in the same pattern. This is my second child and we night weaned gently and it worked great. My second is 12 months but we all share a bedroom which makes it very tricky to let the baby cry in bed. We can’t let our 3 year old wake up from the crying- any suggestions as to how we can help the baby not need to comfort nurse to get back to sleep in a 1 bedroom with 4 of us trying to sleep?
    Thanks!!!

  12. avatar Heidi says:

    I am presently still nursing my 22month old son to sleep but when he was about 18 months old I started to gently take the nipple out after he was in a deep sleep, but I would stay beside him and rub his back for a little while, or just talk to him gently. Now most of the time he can do this but there are still times when he needs to nurse to sleep.

    Both my kids settled in to a 5 – 3 pattern, is what I call it. Five hours of good solid sleep, then up to nurse and then back down for three hours. This kept on for my daughter(now 4) until she was about 2 and half.

    hope you find a pattern that works for you. I also started to give a snack before bed at about 20 months just to help them stay fuller when they went to sleep – something healthy but filling.

  13. avatar Heidi says:

    Hello Janet
    Your posts and links have been a godsend for me and I regularly share them on my business face book page.
    I am wondering whether you would treat babies and children who are in pain differently than those without sleeping and behavioural issues caused by physical stress.
    My second daughter has suffered from pain (mostly at night) pretty much since she was born (not life threatening, thank goodness). I am trying to practice the RIE method but it seems so futile and cruel to tell her over and over that i know she is in pain (especially as I can’t relieve it). Any advice would be gratefully received.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Heidi,
      How are you handling this now? And how old is your baby?

  14. avatar Katrina says:

    Hello. Im not sure how old this discussion is but I just found this site. I have a few questions I’m hoping someone might be able to answer. My baby is only 8 weeks (it’s my first). I pump on occasion and give her a bottle she has never had trouble taking it but doesn’t seem to like the pacifier. She sleeps in a bassinet beside our bed. And had been on a pretty regular 3 hour schedule but was very restless when she did sleep. However lately she cluster feeds every hour in the evenings and feeds every couple hour during the night. She has also become dependent on the breast it seems to be the only thing that calms her and now refuses to take a bottle. I return back to work in four weeks and I’m worried if I don’t fix these problems soon life will be very difficult for us. I am aware that babies at this age dont sleep through the night but I don’t know what to realistically expect. I have had a very difficult time breastfeeding and everyone tells me just to stick it out but I’m not sure if this is normal behavior or not. Thanks for any advice offered!!

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