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Why feeding to sleep is not beneficial

Author Philippa Murphy

Why feeding to sleep is not beneficial

When you feed a newborn it sedates them for a while – we can liken this to the way we feel when we eat too much Christmas dinner and feel stonkered. This sedated feeling can have babies falling asleep straight away, especially within the first two to three weeks of life as they recuperate from the birth and adjust to their new world – such precious times.

However, when we feed a newborn to sleep they retain the air they swallowed while feeding, which all newborns naturally do. As adults our digestive systems can handle this but as babies and infants (this can still apply well after one year of age) the retained wind brings discomfort which can then cause:

  • short sleep cycles (10-45 minutes) and only sleeping for longer periods out of exhaustion from lack of sleep
  • mass reflux behaviours (reflux to a certain level is normal)
  • colic behaviours

One of these particular behaviours caused by the discomfort is rooting. Parents are mainly taught that rooting to suck only signifies hunger but rooting to suck has three purposes for a newborn:

  • rooting for hunger
  • rooting to suck to provide comfort and therefore aid the movement of food and air through the digestive system or in case of the air, out as a burp
  • rooting to swallow essential salivary enzymes to aid their digestion.

When a baby wakes from being fed to sleep they wake with discomfort from the wind that has been left to travel through the intestines and bowels. They then root to suck because of this, not necessarily from hunger. But because parents are widely taught that rooting only means hunger and because feeding a newborn brings calm or induces sleep, babies often end up being feed every two to three hours, cluster feeding and/or offering top-ups to enable sleep, which science tells us, doesn’t work with the baby’s biology. And let’s be honest, it sometimes does not work for the mother’s mental and physical health either. So what are some things you can do to nurture developmental sleep for a baby?

Do not feed them to sleep, instead….
Release the optimum amount of wind for their age during their awake time which should happen straight after a feed for the appropriate amount of time for their age (these aspects and how to do this are detailed in my book). When we do this baby is awake during their calm time, making it easier for them to burp because their bodies are generally relaxed and not tense (if they are not showing what I call the 3rd Degree of Digestive Communication - this is when a baby is experiencing extreme digestive overload).

By working alongside the digestion in this way your baby does not wake crying from discomfort. They wake ready for more food and grizzling from feeling hungr. It also means they do not spend the majority of their awake time upset which is known to elevate cortisol levels and may lead to a child that has an uptight disposition.

Some advantages of winding to optimum levels straight after a feed:

  • provides calm digestive practices for all newborns
  • creates healthy, deep developmental sleep patterns for your baby which enables breaks for you
  • if breastfeeding these breaks aid milk supply and feeding is often more relaxed because a baby feels less discomfort
  • stimulates calmer awake times which is hugely beneficial for a newborns mental and physical development and a parents mental health
  • enhances a peaceful, responsive and secure relationship between child and parent.

Consistent practices that are responsive to what you feel in your newborns body and you read from their digestive cues, creates an understanding of unity and, as time passes your baby learns to relax within this unity.

Last Updated: 22 April 2015