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 yoarmsu 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.


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About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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8 Responses to Let’s Talk About Bad Habits (and Baby and Child Sleep)

  1. Bear and Cardigan says:

    How refreshing! I’m a grandmother to a 10 month old and we love the time we have when he’s rocked to almost sleep, it’s the only time he lets me cuddle him. Thankyou

    • Deb Coleman says:

      I am so glad I’m not the only grandmother who feels this way! I love rocking my 16 month old grandson to sleep. He goes to sleep faster and just looks so much more peaceful when he does go to sleep. I am sharing these articles with my daughter who thinks he should cry it out and learn to “self-soothe”. I firmly believe letting babies cry it out is so stressful, not only to the baby, but to the parents (and grandparents!) who listen to it, too.

  2. Trains and planes and running boys says:

    My 3 year old is recently weaned and has been sleeping through in his own little bed voluntarily for a few months. Hard to believe that it was just last Christmas I was getting very anxious that I’d believed the wrong set of advisers in going for gentle, intimate mothering… Sarah’s right. It is twaddle. Babies stop needing to behave like babies, at some point when their brain gets there. I now have the proof, personally. (Mind you, he still sticks his hand down my bra, which is irritating sometimes!)

  3. Carie says:

    Hear hear! All three of mine have nursed to sleep until they were ready not to; it works for our family and the four and two year old snuggle down and sleep through the night, we’re still in the waking bit with the one year old!

  4. Ruth Cross says:

    Our daughter has always been a good sleeper, especially at night. But since about 4 months her day naps have been harder to achieve, we have now got into a routine which works for us. She is now 7 months and growing her first two teeth, she needs a lot of extra comfort at the moment and I have to feed her to calm her before her naps. Her first nap is in her cot, then we do her second in the sling if we’re not going out and the third I lie down on our bed with her and feed her until she’s drowsy, at least I also manage a nap too. Reading your books and blog is so reassuring Sarah, you know it works for you but there is always that little voice in your head trying to say I shouldn’t be feeding her to sleep or she’ll think food and sleep always go together!!

  5. Amy says:

    I rocked, fed and cuddled my baby to sleep as long as she wanted. As a matter of fact, still do. Granted, she doesnt need to be rocked at 5 years old. But we continue to bedshare and if she needs a good cuddle, I am not afraid to give it to her. She has her own room, which is essentially a playroom, until she’s ready to sleep in it.

  6. Kelly says:

    Simply- bloody brilliant! You’ve just removed an immense amount of guilt from my shoulders – how refreshing.

  7. Sushine says:

    This is so refreshing to hear. My 8.5 mth old is still breastfed and she feeds for naps/bed and so through the night a couple of times. A few times over the past few months people have passed comment on how I should be introducing formula now because she’s becoming clingy etc. Sometimes you doubt yourself but thank god I didn’t listen. We have a lovely breastfeeding relationship and as many have said the separation anxiety is normal. I go back to work when she’s just over 1. I am just putting it to the back of my mind for now because we still have 3.5 mths off to enjoy. I will continue to feed her now and when I return. I have not come across this website before but I am so happy I found it. It’s so good go hear your not alone with your “bad habits” Haha.. Enjoy Sx

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