Let’s Talk About Bad Habits (and Baby and Child Sleep)

Bad habits. Rocking to sleep, feeding to sleep, cuddling to sleep, bedsharing…there are so many potholes and pitfalls to be avoided as a new parent. If you commit any of these heinous sins you are sure to end up with a child who is unable to sleep alone and you’ll still be rocking or breastfeeding a teenager. These bad habits must be broken, ASAP, if you ever want your child to sleep through the night or go to sleep independently. They must learn to self soothe and you must teach them how to sleep without you.

Have you ever heard such a load of twaddle? Widespread twaddle though. Have you ever been advised to “break the bad habits” with your baby or toddler? The fear of God put into your if you dare to ignore the advice. It’s your duty as a parent to teach your child to sleep, it’s not a natural skill for them and if you continue to mollycoddle them you’ll disadvantage them for life.

Honestly, I do wonder where this eye rollingly awful advice originates. What research is there to back it up? Where are the studies of teenagers still breastfeeding to sleep or needing to be bounced, rocked or walked in college? Where is the evidence of the dire consequences of these bad habits? There is none? That’ll be because they are not bad habits then! That’ll be because those fear mongering, do-gooder baby trainers are just repeating the same old myths to try to scare parents into sleep training. I say ignore them. I say there are no ‘bad habits’. I say rock or feed your baby to sleep all you want!

When is Something a ‘Bad Habit’?

In my opinion a ‘bad habit’ is something that causes (or may cause) potential harm to somebody. Something that may be detrimental in some way in the long-term. If all parties involved in ‘the habit’ are happy and content and there is no negative consequence then what is so bad about it? In this instance surely it’s a ‘good habit’?

Is it Really a Habit at All?

The definition of a habit is: “an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary:”

There is an important point here, the word “acquired”. This presumes that the habit previously didn’t exist. It’s something new. To my knowledge babies have always: 1. fallen asleep while feeding or sucking, 2. fallen asleep while being rocked and 3. fallen asleep in physical contact with their mother. Surely from birth these are all normal and beneficial behaviours. It goes beyond that though, these three things all happen in utero. While in the womb babies ALL fall asleep while sucking (or receiving nutrients via the umbilical cord), while being rocked (think about the movement they experience while the mother walks, climbs up stairs, dances or runs) and while in constant physical contact with the mother. Indeed there is no point during pregnancy that they have ever fallen asleep alone. The assertion by many that “they need to learn to fall asleep” is ridiculous, they have been falling asleep for months before they were born without the need for sleep training.

If none of these behaviours are new, or acquired, technically they do not meet the definition of being ‘a habit’.

When Supposed ‘Bad Habits’ are Actually Beneficial

When babies suckle and nurse a chain of positive events happens:

  1. the sucking action helps their cranial bones to re-align and reduce cranial pressure and tension that may remain from the birth
  2. the sucking action helps to relieve discomfort and pressure around the jaw from teething
  3. baby and mother secrete oxytocin, the bonding and calming hormone
  4. baby and mother secrete endorphins, the pain relieving and feel good hormone
  5. if the baby is breastfed at night they will receive melatonin, the sleep hormone, via the mother’s milk

The result is a calm, relaxed and soothed baby who drifts of to sleep more easily. Win, win for both mother and baby I’d say, wouldn’t you? The extra special bonus here is that these effects don’t ever wear off, they remain for as long as the baby feeds or suckles to sleep, whatever age.

The same is true of cuddling and rocking. The movement and physical contact with the parent acts to help the baby feel calm, safe and relaxed – sleep comes more easily. Another win. win.

But You’ll Have to Rock/Feed/Cuddle to Sleep Forever

Not forever. Maybe a year, maybe two, maybe three. Or maybe a month, or three, or six. At some point, two important things will happen naturally.

  1. Any physical discomfort the baby feels will pass
  2. The baby will begin to develop the brain connectivity necessary to be able to self-calm and self-soothe 

When these development stages occur the need for external soothing measures will naturally pass. Just as all babies will eventually grow out of needing nappies, prams/strollers/buggies or slings and carriers. They will become developmentally redundant.

Won’t They Never Sleep Through the Night Unless You Stop Doing X/Y/Z Though?

Babies don’t sleep through the night because they are babies, not because they are fed or rocked to sleep. If you remove the feeding and the rocking you cannot change the fact that your little bundle just does not sleep like and adult and won’t do for several more months or years.

That said, when they and you are ready to move on it is possible to slowly introduce other calming measures that will allow you a little more freedom and perhaps a little more unbroken sleep. I have worked with hundreds, if not thousands of parents who still happily rock or feed their children to sleep at night and yet still have several hours, or perhaps even a whole night, of unbroken sleep.

The takeaway message? Next time somebody tells you that you are “creating bad habits” understand that what they’re saying tells you much more about them than you. They are telling you that they don’t truly understand baby sleep. They are telling you that they perhaps missed out on the wonder of snuggling a sleeping baby in their arms. Don’t allow their loss to cause you and your child to lose out too.

The NEWLY UPDATED Gentle Sleep Book – out now! If you would like to understand and learn how to improve your baby, toddler, or pre-schooler’s sleep WITHOUT cry-based conventional sleep training, this is the book for you!


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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