Don’t feed or rock your baby to sleep is common advice. A new take on the same theory suggests that this advice is flawed. As detailed here, the dominant theory is that feeding or rocking can become associated with sleep. The concern is that the parent is then required for the baby to resettle after every sleep cycle. This assertion is not necessarily warranted.
To listen to a combination of the current post and this post (also on sleep associations) please check out my Sleep Associations Podcast Episode.
For an interview with Koa Whittingham, a co-author on the Possums Sleep Intervention, see The Possums Sleep Intervention Podcasts.
A new approach, called the Possums sleep intervention, suggests that the association between feeding, body contact, and sleep is biological, not learned. Rather than trying to break this very natural association, attempts should be made to retain the association between sleepiness and sleep. This is a very good point. When babies get sleepy while feeding or rocking, ripping them away in an attempt to lay them down “calm but awake” may build an association between sleepiness and sudden disruption and parental disappearance, and break the association with sleep. The possum sleep intervention authors argue that a disconnect between sleepiness and sleep underlies some adult insomnia, and may be problematic for infants.
The possum sleep intervention requires scientific testing, but fits with the research on a theoretical level. Recommendations for the first 6 months are as follows:
- Learn to interpret and respond as best you can to your babies cues.
- Don’t delay your response, or respond with something other than what your baby requests unless necessary.
- Encourage consolidated night sleep by setting the body clock.
- Provide sun exposure in the morning.
- Provide natural light and noise levels for all sleeps, such that daytime sleeps are light and night time sleeps are dark and quiet.
- Bring your baby along for pleasant, rewarding parental activities during the day to ensure sensory stimulation.
- Excessively frequent feeds may indicate a feeding issue – see a lactation consultant.
The possum sleep intervention does not aim to maximise the number of hours infants sleep at night but rather improve the quality of infant and parental sleep. This is a valid goal, but from a scientific perspective it may be hard to measure, and wouldn’t allow comparison with the sleep interventions already tested. The only testing of the approach to date did not include a control group. Therefore, the reductions in crying and improvements in the mother’s mood observed could just be due to maturation of the baby. I will post updates in the comments as they are released.
So where does this leave us in practice? Let’s assume that the possum sleep intervention receives some support. I believe it doesn’t have to contradict the advice of laying your baby down sleepy but awake, only moderates it. In the first 6 months, when your baby is sleepy, help him or her to sleep. If all the help required is placing him or her in a cot – great! Sometimes (or often), this will not work, in which case don’t beat yourself up about doing what comes naturally, whether that is feeding, rocking, or patting. As most experienced mothers will tell you, the same method doesn’t always work. Don’t limit your toolbox to cot-bound settling. This way you can retain the sleepy-sleep association and help your baby to experience a variety of sleeping conditions.
Have you fed your baby to sleep? How did that work out for you? Please share your experiences by adding a comment. Also, I have collated all my research on sleep. For a summary of what I have found see the sleep category page. To focus in on research-based practical approaches that are likely to fit with your family situation please consider the Sleep Options Wizard for 0-5 year olds.
Whittingham, K., & Douglas, P. (2014). Optimizing parent–infant sleep from birth to 6 months: A new paradigm. Infant Mental Health Journal. doi: 10.1002/imhj.21455
I have a 7-month old currently, and I feed him to sleep most of the time. It seems easier to me than rocking/soothing him to sleep because he always seems to resist that. After I have nursed him to sleep for the night, he usually wakes up two hours later — sometimes he is resettled simply by me patting him and sometimes requires another short nursing session to resettle. I love that feeding to sleep is so easy and cozy for both of us, but I suppose it puts a little more pressure on the mother since she is the only one of the couple who can do it (unless maybe you can bottle-feed to sleep?).
Hi Jennifer, I completely agree. Feeding to sleep is very pleasant and easy. A lot of people recommend against it because it can become a habit. It can mean that baby wakes up soon after, when they realise they are no longer in that happy feeding place as you found, and yes, it is more responsibility on the Mum. When one or all of these points become a problem, then you can work on building new associations, but in the meantime, I see no issue with enjoying the very natural, biological sleep association. Has anyone found bottle-feeding (expressed milk or formula) can have the same sleep-inducing effect? I have never tried. My suspicion is that milk expressed at night would be most sleep inducing, because it has the sleepy-making neucleotides (technical term). Nicky
My 9-month-old baby is bottle-fed to sleep every night along with close cuddles whilst drinking, seems to have a sleep-inducing effect
Feeding and cuddling is a very natural way to fall asleep for babies. Other parents and some sleep experts recommend against it because it forms a habit. My position is that parenting is hard enough without worrying too much about what might be. If it works for you and your baby at this time, great! It is a beautiful bonding opportunity. If it stops working for you or your baby, then you may need to invest energy in breaking that habit, but the older children get – the easier it becomes to communicate what you want and expect – and therefore break habits with fewer tears.
I’m currently trying this method for over a week now, and so far I have to say it has its benefits for now. 80 percent of the time that I breastfeed her with the intention of having her nap, she naps. Then I simply withdraw my boob and pat her back for a minute while I walk to the crib and lay her down still mostly asleep, and she will sleep for half an hour, very rarely an hour. If she wakes up crying, I pick her up and attempt to burp her for a minute, offer her some more boob to see if she was still hungry. At times she will drink some more and then be bright eyed and awake, other times she will nap for another half hour or so. If she doesn’t wake up crying then I assume she had enough sleep. It’s great in that I don’t have to endure her screams when rocking her to sleep for sometimes more than the time she eventually napped for! And not having to watch the clock and calculate and stress over it. It’s liberating! And even though she gets a little less nap time overall than when I was stressing it and forcing her(2 hrs a day vs 3 or 4 hrs) I feel a lot less stressed during the day, and as far as I can tell, her night sleep hasn’t changed much if at all. She still wakes 2 or 3 times to feed and goes right back to sleep. So-win win! My only concern is. … What about when it’s time to wean her? No more boob crutch! I worry about that. ..
I also found this sort of approach very liberating, and I’m glad you have too. It is true that the one constant is change, and what is working now won’t always work, but you’ll find that you will develop other strategies that work just as well, and fit with your child’s age as she grows. There will also be times when the current solution is no longer working for you or her for whatever reason. That’s pushes you into the next change until you find the next thing that works.
Something I learned from Koa is the importance of staying in the present. I get wound up when I’m thinking “if she doesn’t sleep now, she’ll be tired tomorrow, then we’ll have a horrible day…” that makes me tense and snappy, which makes everything worse. The thought that makes me tense is a whole lot of future concerns that may never eventuate. I’m much better off just focusing in the present (but I know from experience that is easier said than done).
All the best, and enjoy the moment especially while it is working, but even when it isn’t.
I can totally sympathise with this! after several people (and a rubbish book) ‘advisimg me’ that she ‘should be’ napping in her own cot for 2 hours, I tried to implement a more structured way to get my 8 month old to sleep in her cot for daytime naps, but ended up spending twice as long both stressed out than the length of her actual nap! (She also only sleeps for 30-40 minutes at a time then wide awake and smiling!) Both much happier cuddling up and feeding to sleep when it seems the right time for baby, not on schedule.
Hi there, I made the mistake of attempting the whole drowsy but awake thing and it made bedtime a fight and my baby really fights sleep now. I am hoping this can be undone as I feel badly about the whole thing and want to restore her good relationship with sleep. Thanks for any thoughts you may have!
Hi Nikki, we all make mistakes (I know I have made plenty). Babies and children also go through phases where they fight sleep, so you can’t know for sure whether it was your doing. It is really frustrating when children fight sleep. I’d start by making sure that when you are trying to get your child to sleep, she is biologically ready for sleep. You can use my free sleep mapping email series to figure that out. If getting your baby to sleep is not working for you (too long/ too involved), I’d look at ways to make that process more enjoyable/relaxing for you, or try gentle methods of changing the routine such as the “sensible sleep solution“. I hope this helps. Sorry I didn’t respond sooner.
I am a sleep researcher (adults only!) and new Mum and I am so pleased to read this article. I was so stressed out by advice given to me by maternal child health nurses and from books and blogs telling me not to feed to sleep. I truly believe that an increase in rates of anxiety and PND could be partly attributed to the contradictory and fear inducing advice given to new parents. I have a ‘catnapper’ and was so worried that this was abnormal. I was told not to feed to sleep, to force her to nap for longer in the day, to only do feed play sleep routines etc etc. None of it really worked and caused me a lot of anxiety. Now that I listen to my intuition and feed to sleep, life is so much better. I am sad that vulnerable new parents are given such rigid recommendations that have no scientific basis!
Thank you Alix, I totally agree. Catnaps are extremely natural and common, as is feeding to sleep. They are only problems if they aren’t working for you or for your baby – if they are – that is great! I am so glad you found this helpful!
I am most interested in this idea that daytime naps should be short/bright etc. Everything else i have read is about a dark room for daytime naps and trying to get up to a big daytime nap of two hours. `Sleep begets sleep etc… What is the evidence for the Possum approach? I’d love it to be true as it would be so much easier to just get out and about at let my guy (nearly 5 months) nap in the sling….
Great question Lauren. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much evidence either way – I couldn’t find any studies testing darkened daytime sleeps compared to light ones. Light has an important effect on the circadian rhythm that I don’t think is fully understood yet (for example they only recently discovered that the tone of light makes a difference). It certainly feels more natural for daytime naps to be in shaded light conditions (not full dark), in terms of the signal that would send to the circadian rhythm.
However, once babies start becoming aware of the world around them as your little guy would be, it can be hard for them to settle to sleep, and especially once they start dropping some naps, some kids won’t sleep unless they have a quiet room with minimal distractions. Also, practicing settling to sleep during the day, is still practice – and very few children don’t wake up at night – the difference between babies who “sleep through the night” and those who don’t is probably actually whether they settle back to sleep without disturbing parents or not. So settling practice in their cot during the day can be helpful.
Every child is different, so I’d do what suits you and observe whether it works for your little guy. You could use the sleep diary to observe what impact it has on your little guy’s mood and night-time sleep when he sleeps in the sling, versus when he has a darkened nap. I’d be really interested to hear what you find. You can access the sleep diary by signing up for the free sleep mapping email series at https://www.practicalresearchparenting.com/firststep.
On a personal note, I did both. Sometimes it suited me to get work done while my son slept for a long time in a darkened room, but sometimes, especially when he was younger, he’d spend most of the day feeding and sleeping in the baby carrier while I was out and about. All the best finding what works for you and the little guy!