Nursing vs. Not Nursing at Night

To nurse or not to nurse at night? PSP members share their experience and problems with nursing at night.


As a PSP member asks:


"I wonder if anyone could give some advice on the following situation: My son had a couple of great months for sleeping, especially after reading Healthy Sleep Habits and setting a nap schedule. At 5.5 months we also started letting him cry at night sometimes, and I was getting up only once between 7 pm and 6 am to nurse. The rest of the crying was mild and sleepy--and he always went back to sleep the couple of other times he woke up during the night. We went to his 6 month doctor visit and his doctor said he'd probably start waking up more--something about his sleep cycles changing?—and just to continue with our routine. Sure enough, a couple of days later, he started waking at 8, 9, 10:30, and crying as though his heart were breaking. He is so upset, leaving him to cry seems horrible, and going in to him to pat him or sit with him makes him even more hysterical. Only getting him out of his crib and nursing will settle him down and put him back to sleep. Maybe I've lost all my night-comforting techniques since it's been either crying-it-out or nursing for awhile, but I don't know what to do: how to help him sleep well again, and how to handle the middle-of-the-night decisions! Thanks!"




I asked for advice on sleeping issues with my seven month-old awhile ago (waking and screaming many times per night after weeks and weeks of good sleeping). I received many responses, and have posted most of them below. Sorry for the delay; I hope these thoughts are helpful to someone out there dealing with this issue. I found that people are all over the map on sleep, and most feel strongly one way or another. Update: my son at 8.5 months is waking less, but now standing up and screaming, which makes the whole thing harder; still no teeth; and we're trying sleep training again!


PSP member replies:


"I can pretty much tell the difference between a momentary murfle and the I-won't-go-back-to-sleep-without-some -boob cry, and I find that if I wait one minute to see if it stops before putting my son back on the boob, I can cut out one or two feedings. But the night nursing is the only way I can sleep. I also found that the night nursing actually increased to 3 to 4 between 7-10 months and is now back to only one (11 months). My advice: Just follow your gut. If he sounds sad, nurse. If he's just murfling, let him cry a bit.


"I am probably the worst person to ask since I night nursed until my son was almost two years old (and won't  have that luxury with #2), but I don't think that infants are wired to sleep alone or sleep through the night at 6 or 7 months. There are some that do and I envy their parents, but that's the minority, I believe. At about 7-9 months, separation anxiety sets in. Perhaps he is in a growth phase and more hungry than usual. I would try to ride this phase out by being responsive to your child's needs if your schedule allows it. If not, I guess you have to sleep-train him, probably more than once. If other parents have good suggestions, I'd love to read them on the list since I'll have to deal with the same issues in due time."


"Just so you know where I'm coming from...I have also read Weissbluth and subscribe to a milder form of his methods but firmly believe in the importance of sleep and protecting sleep schedules. I also like The Sleep Lady's book, which is a nice middle ground philosophy. When my son turned 6 months, he was a totally different creature than before: so much more alert, assertive, and AWARE. He had many new tricks, as I'm sure your son does, and sleeping became much less interesting than practicing all the cool new stunts. Also, I think it was genuinely harder for him to sleep. The sleep cycles do change, for sure, and the physical stuff is so compelling for them. It's very difficult to stay consistent when your baby is constantly changing. Just remember that things always keep changing. I try to balance my consistency with compassion--it will mean being less rigid but not so ever-changing that your baby won't know what to expect. I caution you to not backslide from your sleep routine, though it may be tempting to bring your baby back into your bed and/or just "nurse it out". Unless sick or teething or otherwise in pain or afraid, nursing your baby in the middle of the night is a slippery slope that happens very quickly ("oh, just this one night" quickly becomes "oh, god, not ANOTHER night of this!") and is so hard for both of you to break. I think it's also an unfair message to send to your baby unless you're prepared to do it every time. Consistency is the strongest message delivery system; sending mixed messages by responding differently each time he wakes is very confusing to all of you. If your baby is healthy, has a clean diaper, is a comfy temperature, etc., have your husband go in and do the soothing for a while. That way, you and your baby won't be tempted to nurse, which is certainly the easiest short-term fix but will present hard-to-break long-term issues."


"I had the same issue with my son at around the same age. I would just go to him when he would cry and give him a pacifier or pick him up and rock him but try not to nurse him. It worked for us, and now he sleeps beautifully. I never let him cry it out though. I personally do not believe in that technique at all; on the contrary, I firmly believe that comforting him whenever he needed gave him confidence to be able to stay by himself at night."


"My son was the same way. He gets hysterical if I try to soothe him at night (he is 17 months now and the sleep is fairly constant). I still have to stay with him at night until he falls asleep, but he falls asleep without crying so it works for me. I ended up having to let him scream it out when he woke up after I put him down for the night. It is terrible, and luckily for us he was usually quiet after 20 min., but he would scream that awful scream usually before he gave in and fell back asleep. Now he cries a bit when he wakes up but will usually put himself back to sleep in a few minutes. I gave myself 20 min., and if he was still crying I would go in. I found that if I went in I would be up for the next 1.5-2 hours trying to get him back to sleep, so if he fell asleep on his own it was much better. It helped thinking about that when I watched the clock for those 20 min. He never took a bottle so I couldn't give him a bottle, though that worked for some of my friends. If he is teething you can always try giving Tylenol before he goes to sleep and see if that helps. Consider Good Night, Sleep Tight (yes, another book)--but the bottom line is, consider putting him in bed, sitting down next to the crib, soothing him from the other side, hugging, engaging a bit, playing, making it obvious that you aren't going anywhere, but he isn't going to leave the crib. Sometimes that approach really ticked off our son around that age, but often and mostly it really helped--he would eventually settle down, play a little, commiserate, and eventually lie down and fall asleep, often looking over to be sure I'm still there. It sometimes takes more time than others but sometimes takes just seconds. The idea is, don't leave him to wail, but don't remove him from the crib, so there isn't abandonment or total capitulation. Sometimes I've had to take my son from the crib--if he really was hungry/thirsty, needed a little nursing, whatever --but most of the time this is what has worked and still does. Now he's almost 15 months old and has a cute habit of lying down--I think he's going to sleep but instead he starts sticking his little feet or arms out the sides of the crib, knowing I'm going to tickle them a bit (it's a game). I'll engage for a bit (it’s so cute) but then I stop and he goes to sleep. Hope this option helps a bit."


"The same thing is happening with my daughter who is a little over 6 months. I spoke with parents of older kids, and it seems it is sort of developmental. Kids start crawling, etc. and really interacting with the outside world around this time. That must be exciting and also scary and often produces restlessness, but in most cases it just goes away after a while. So try to take it easy and comfort your son when he seems to need it. I have found it to be the least nerve-wracking to just respond to crying at night with nursing. And I trust it will pass."


"We too read Healthy Sleep Habits, and we're big fans. My son has been a very good sleeper most of the time since we put him on a nap/bedtime schedule (he's now 12 months), but what I realize now is that sleep training and sleep changes are an ongoing thing--with each developmental milestone/sleep cycle change it seems his sleep changes. When he learned to crawl, he had night wakings; pulling up, night wakings; it has recently changed again, and he is fighting taking his second nap even though he's clearly tired. What we have done when he starts crying at night after weeks/months of sleeping straight through is to go to him, comfort him, etc. Then after a few nights, when we are convinced that he's no longer hurt/sick/extra emotionally needy for some reason, then we sleep train him again. It's much harder than when he was younger, since, as you point out, the crying is really intense at times and in our experience it takes a little longer since he's older now. What we do for the retraining is this: We put him to bed as usual with our bedtime routine. Then each time he wakes in the middle of the night, I go in and say in a soothing voice: "It's OK, go back to sleep. We love you, and we'll see you in the morning." We do this so he doesn't feel abandoned, since now he knows more about time passing and that his parents can come into the room or not. This is what our pediatrician recommended we do. After a few days of being very consistent, he sleeps through the night again with no wakings. One thing our doctor also mentioned about the crying is that when he wakes in the middle of the night (but he's not sick or in pain), he's crying because he just doesn't want to be awake. This helped give me the strength to let him cry--knowing that he wants to go back to sleep as much as we want him to. It also explains why we (and you, it seems, from what you write) have a lot of trouble comforting him when he wakes at night. He just wants to go back to sleep."


"Seems like nursing him is the thing to do. I remember that phase too (my son's now 6), and the most peaceful thing to do was to just put our son in the bed with us and nurse him. It let everybody fall back to sleep faster and more easily with a LOT less fuss. It may seem inconvenient or annoying at first, but these phases don't last that long in retrospect. And we all felt much less sleep-deprived and exhausted once we started doing it that way (maybe it's just me, but there's nothing more grating to me than listening to a baby cry in the middle of the night when I'm desperately exhausted to begin with). They DO start waking more, but twice, maybe 3 times a night isn't excessive--it's average. Just from my own experience, it seemed like the key to family sanity all around was to find the way to make the middle-of-the-night interruptions as brief and gentle as possible. And eventually you'll get your bed back, too."


"Check his ears. He may have an ear infection (something that kept my son from sleeping for 17 months!) or maybe it's teething? I felt the same way about letting him cry. I think as moms we know which cry we should attend to. The sleepy cry: let him CIO; the hysterical cry: go to him. Also, if you don't find anything physically wrong with him, i.e. teeth or ears, try the Fisher Price aquarium. A few friends of mine SWEAR by it. In fact, they were shocked I didn't have one."


"My daughter went through that phase as well. My husband and I couldn’t handle the crying it out method. We would pick her up and rock her or sing or let her lie in the bed with us until she fell asleep again. We didn’t feed her. Some nights were better than others. I would also try to tire her out before bedtime, so she would sleep more deeply. I also believe it was partly caused by teething (she cut her first teeth around that age) because, like your son, my daughter was on a great sleeping pattern , and then all of a sudden she was waking up way too many times. Then, just as it had started, it stopped, and she is back to her old sleeping patterns again. But she still has some nights where she will wake up almost every hour. I don’t know why, but it still happens although not too frequently, thank goodness.I think you just have to ride it out and hopefully it will change back."


"My pediatrician recommended that for that middle of the night feeding you have your husband/partner go to the baby (of course this only works if the child doesn't sleep with you I guess) with a bottle of water. That way the child learns if they get up in the middle of the night they don't get the 'good' stuff and go back to sleep."


"I agree with the poster who said take him out and nurse him. This too shall pass. I always considered parenting a 24-hour job, tough as that is, but they really need us at night. I nursed both my children through the night for the first two years, and they are now 5 and 7 and sleep fantastically. The crying it out is just so extreme and harsh. It never felt right to me."


Another member shares their "rules":

  1. I never (absolutely never) let my child sleep in bed with us.
  2. At around 3 months we started to let him cry it out. And from that first night we let him cry, he has slept through the night almost consistently. Although there were intervals at which he woke in the middle, we made sure he wasn't sick or teething and then let him cry it out to get back to sleep.
  3. We do not give milk in the middle of the night unless he is sick.
  4. Starting at around 6 months I made sure not to let him fall asleep on the breast during his last meal of the day just before bed. It was important that he learn to fall asleep on his own, in his crib. If he started to fall asleep I'd take him off the breast. Then if he wanted more I'd put him back on.