Why do mammals stop producing milk at some point?

Falling asleep on the chest: habit or basic need?

Falling asleep on the chest: babies are “programmed” for this (© Oksana Kuzmina)

In many cases, new mothers are warned against breastfeeding their baby to sleep or to calm down - they would develop a bad habit for their baby that is difficult to get rid of later. At the same time, they experience how effectively their babies are calmed down by breastfeeding and how relaxed and quickly they can fall asleep. Because of this discrepancy between the advice and the reality experienced, mothers find themselves in a difficult predicament.

Author Sibylle Lüpold, sleep and lactation consultant, and Dr. Bauer, the operator of the breastfeeding lexicon, explain in the following article why the warnings are unfounded and give reasons that speak clearly in favor of breastfeeding. Then they show ways how common challenges related to calming asleep can be mastered.

Breastfeeding supports milk production and extends the duration of breastfeeding

In Germany and most other European countries, breastfeeding rates and breastfeeding duration are still lagging behind the official recommendations (Brettschneider et al., 2018; Zakarija-Grkovic et al., 2020). Although most women would be able to produce enough milk for their babies without any time constraints, many experience that their milk supply appears to be insufficient. Most breastfeeding problems are "man-made": In addition to suboptimal framework conditions in many maternity clinics, it is primarily dubious beliefs and practices that make it difficult to achieve recommended breastfeeding goals. These include warnings against taking the baby to the parents' bed and breastfeeding it to calm down and fall asleep again. Today there is clear evidence that frequent breastfeeding around the clock, including nocturnal breastfeeding in bed, facilitates the establishment of breastfeeding, increases the rate of exclusive breastfeeding and extends the duration of breastfeeding (overview in Blair et al., 2020; see Bedsharing promotes breastfeeding). The support of breastfeeding to sleep is therefore an indispensable element of breastfeeding promotion.

Silence to sleep corresponds to the evolutionary "programming" of human children

Falling asleep on your chest: the evolutionary biological norm since the common ancestors of apes and humans. (© Arisara Tongdonnoi)

Anthropological studies of existing hunter-gatherer societies and of great apes indicate that very frequent and long breastfeeding, co-sleeping, continuous body contact and need-oriented care of infants with immediate reaction to screams and restlessness already occurs in the common ancestors of humans and Monkeys existed 30–40 million years ago and have been part of human history since then (Kontier, 2017). In the course of the Neolithic Revolution and particularly industrialization, the handling of infants has moved away from the evolutionary legacy. When babies are born, however, they instinctively expect to be carried continuously, to be breastfed frequently and as needed, and to be allowed to fall asleep while they are breastfeeding. Human babies are evolutionarily "programmed" for this. James McKenna, head of a research center on the sleep behavior of mother and child, speaks of "Breastsleeping" as the oldest and most successful sleep and feeding arrangement known to man (2018). Because sleeping and breastfeeding are inseparable in infancy and toddlerhood.

Breastfeeding as a "sleeping aid"

Warmth, protection, satiety: the perfect place to fall asleep (© Pavel Volkov)

Ancestors of modern humans lived in the savannah and jungle - without their parents, babies and toddlers would not have survived long. Breastfeeding gave them the greatest security in this dangerous world: they were in direct physical contact with their mother, were warmed, protected and satiated. So it is easy to understand that breastfeeding helps children relax and fall asleep. Various ingredients in breast milk also have a calming effect and promote sleep. These include various amino acids, including tryptophan, which is converted into melatonin in the child's organism, a hormone that promotes sleep. In addition to numerous other functions, breastfeeding also appears to be a kind of “sleeping aid” - in this respect, from a biological point of view, it is extremely useful to breastfeed a child to sleep.

Breastfeeding supports growth and development

Reduction of weight gain by refraining from sleeping breastfeeding, night breastfeeding and the associated number of daily breastfeeding meals from 14 to 6 (modified from Guóth-Gumberger, 2018)

If mothers “breastfeed their children as required” as recommended (ie every time the child expresses its need for it, be it out of hunger, thirst, pain, fear, fatigue, etc.), they easily come to the recommended 8 to 12 breastfeeding meals within 24 hours. Frequent breastfeeding around the clock, including at night, allows babies to thrive better. Conversely, large intervals between breastfeeding and sleeping through the night can have a negative effect on the age-appropriate weight gain of the child (Guóth-Gumberger, 2018). James McKenna also emphasizes that the size of a child's brain triples in the first year of life (McKenna, 2008). In addition, babies are much more likely to be in REM sleep than adults: During this sleep phase, brain activity runs at full speed (Ball, 2019). Frequent meals around the clock can seamlessly supply the growing brain with energy and nutrients. This could provide an explanation for why breastfeeding is associated with increased intelligence in later life (Horta el al., 2018).

All of the hunter-gatherer societies observed breastfeed their babies at least twice an hour, some, like! Kung, four times an hour (Kontier, 2017). Breast milk is digested much faster than cow milk or artificial breast milk substitutes: within about 90 minutes (Ball, 2019). Regular replenishment through frequent breastfeeding around the clock can help ensure that the baby develops optimally. The increased attention at night, the additional body contact and the associated relaxation undoubtedly have a positive effect on the child's development.

Breastfeeding makes everyday life with babies and toddlers easier

Breastfeeding is also recovery time for the mother (© Evgeny Atamanenko)

Unfortunately, many experts still believe that breastfeeding is a bad habit, a "too easy" path that the "unreasonable" parents would sooner or later regret. Due to the numerous warnings, many parents try laboriously to accompany their baby to sleep other than at the breast. However, this usually takes longer and is increasingly associated with screaming and stress on both sides. Exactly this second point prevents a relaxed falling asleep and can make family life very difficult. Breastfeeding is a wonderful way to make everyday family life easier:

  • As a rule, babies are not yet able to sleep peacefully in bed alone without physical contact or movement: For our ancestors in the wilderness, being alone meant an acute danger to their lives. Most mothers report that your child best falls asleep on the breastwhile falling asleep takes much longer and is more arduous in other ways.
  • Mothers who are able to accompany their baby to sleep easily and quickly, feel empowered in their role - unless the environment unsettles you.
  • Not only babies and toddlers are easiest to sleep through breastfeeding. The mother can also relax while breastfeeding - provided this is stress-free and pain-free. Many mothers find that breastfeeding makes it easy for them to fall asleep. If a mother learns from the beginning to breastfeed comfortably lying down, these quiet times with the child are an optimal opportunity to recover. So will Breastfeeding also for the mother. Recovery time.
  • As a result of the immediate nocturnal breastfeeding, the nocturnal screaming phases reducedif not entirely prevented.
  • Breastfeeding is an ideal option, especially at night, to quickly eliminate physical discomfort andmeet emotional needs. Breastfeeding quenches thirst, leads to relaxation, lowers blood pressure, optimizes breathing, improves well-being, helps with illnesses, relieves pain and provides comfort.

Falling asleep without mom

Fathers and other caregivers have their own ways of accompanying the baby to sleep. (© Tatyana Tomsickova)

Many mothers try to wean their child from falling asleep with their breasts so that they can fall asleep in their absence, e.g. when they go back to work. This is not necessary at all. The mother can still breastfeed her child as usual when she is present. If she is not there, the caregiver (assuming she is also the attachment person) will find a way to make the child fall asleep without a breast. Carrying is probably the alternative that works best and can also be taken over by the father or other caregivers. With older children, the caregiver can lie down with the child and offer them closeness and physical contact. Children can cope very well with the fact that things are different at dad, grandma or in daycare. It is very unfortunate - and unnecessary - if the mother breaks the sleep-feeding because of this. While the mother is absent, other people take care of the child's sleep; once she is back she can breastfeed day and night as needed.

Many families find it helpful to get the child to sleep with a cuddly toy or a "cuddle cloth", which can give the child a feeling of security in the absence of the mother. That's perfectly fine - but it would be naive to think that there would be no tears with such an object. There are tears when mom is gone - and that's how it should be! The child wants to be seen in the pain of separation and not distracted. It makes sense that parents leave everything that is going well unchanged and then face the moment of "crisis": That means, accepting the child's feelings and accompanying them - as calmly as possible -. Dad can say: “I understand so well that you are sad. Just cry, I'm here and accompany you! " It's not about avoiding the tears, but about giving them space. Nothing needs to change about breastfeeding.

Frequent night waking

While nocturnal breastfeeding is generally accepted in the first 6 months, in the western world it is often expected that babies will sleep through the night from around the 6th month. If this does not happen, mothers are sometimes confronted with the accusation that they have brought about this condition through the “unreasonable” sleep-feeding. Yes, this accusation is not justified. The development of sleep is not linear, but wavelike, with large fluctuations in the frequency of waking up. Many parents (including those whose child has already been weaned) who are happy that their baby, who is just a few months old, has been sleeping through the night for several hours at a time, find between 6 and 12 months unsettled that it is now waking up more often. The more frequent waking up from the second half of the year is not an indication of a “wrong” upbringing, but rather a positive developmental leap. Brazelton speaks of so-called "touchpoints", i.e. critical milestones in child development. This also includes waking up more at night. When parents understand this change, they can cope better with it.

It is not possible to predict with certainty when a toddler will wake up less often at night. Some children do not wake up as often by the age of two. Mothers of the African hunter-gatherer society! Kung stated in turn that at the age of three they still breastfeed their children between twice and “all night” without being woken up (Kontier, 2017). Frequent nocturnal breastfeeding into infancy seems to be the evolutionary norm in Homo sapiens - the associated exhaustion experienced by mothers can be brought into connection with Western civilization and, with the help of certain precautions, can be partially avoided (see Advantages of night breastfeeding - even after the first birthday).

Many parents hope that by weaning them off from falling asleep, their children will finally sleep through the night and become autonomous when they fall asleep. Indeed, some mothers who have chosen not to sleep their child after their first birthday report that they have stopped waking them at night (as often) from then on. However, weaning off sleep is not a guarantee for peaceful nights: In the course of their development, many children wake up again at night for various reasons - such as teething, developmental steps, disturbing events - and need their parents. When breastfeeding is stopped to relax and sleep, other calming strategies are required that are not necessarily easier than breastfeeding.

Don't be afraid of habits

All babies prefer a certain way of getting to sleep. In the case of breastfed babies this is the breast, in others it is the carrying, the bottle, the pacifier or something completely different. If a child is always fed to sleep for a long time, they will logically be dissatisfied when their parents want to change their usual sleep ritual. It is not justified to accuse these parents of having trained their child in an "annoying habit". A child who has become accustomed to falling asleep with a bottle or in a carrier will find it just as difficult if their parents want to change this. None of these habits are bad. Habits are there to make our everyday lives easier. As long as they are experienced as coherent and do not harm us, it makes a lot of sense to stick to habits. When this is no longer the case, we can change it. The only - and legitimate - reason to stop breastfeeding is when the mother is no longer willing to continue the practice.

Wean yourself from sleeping

Breastfeeding to calm down, to fall asleep and to continue sleeping plays a central role in the breastfeeding relationship and in maintaining milk production. If a child is no longer breastfed in order to calm down and fall asleep, it usually loses interest in the breast, at the latest when it can eat large amounts of complementary food. If a mother decides to stop her child from sleeping asleep, the breastfeeding period will gradually come to an end.

Silence to sleep is a non-negotiable basic need in the first few years of life and can only be weaned off with the help of substitute objects and substitute actions. (© bubutu)

While the natural weaning process begins around the 6th month of life with the introduction of complementary food, it is usually the very last thing that children do not want to do is breastfeeding. From around the second birthday, it becomes easier for children with increasing age to gradually break away from this last bastion without substitute objects and substitute actions, while younger children need, for example, a bottle, a pacifier, a "comforter" or a thumb so that they can click Being able to do without breastfeeding (see also The weaning process).

Longer breastfeeding has significant advantages for the child and mother: for their health as well as for everyday family life (see also Advantages of Longer Breastfeeding - an argumentation aid). The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months and, in addition to adequate complementary food, to continue breastfeeding until at least the 2nd birthday as required (see WHO recommendations). In line with this, hunter-gatherer societies usually breastfeed their children between 2 and 4 years of age during the subsequent pregnancy, the last-born children at the age of 5 years or later. According to estimates by anthropologist Katherine Dettwyler, the natural duration of breastfeeding in humans is approximately 2.5–7 years, also from a biological point of view (1995 and 2004). Several years of breastfeeding is therefore something that even today's children instinctively expect. If they are given the time they need for their development, sooner or later all children learn to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own, even those who needed their breasts for this in the first few years (McKenna, 2008).

As children get older, they accept attractive alternatives. (© Alina Demidenko)

Nevertheless, it is perfectly legitimate to actively wean off breastfeeding if it is no longer right for the mother. It is important to know that changes that are not initiated by the child are usually not possible without protest. Expecting a small child to be able to fall asleep all at once alone or without support is too much to ask if it has previously been able to rely on the mother's closeness and the calming sucking on the breast. But that doesn't mean that his parents aren't allowed to make changes. As long as the parents lovingly accompany their child, they can replace an old habit with a new one (see the article Weaning at night).

With increasing language development, falling asleep can be planned and negotiated together with the child. In the evening, the parents offer the child attractive alternatives instead of the breast: looking at a picture book together, telling a story or singing together are tried and tested methods. If the child is still allowed to fall asleep in the presence of a close caregiver, it will be better able to accept the abandonment of the breast.

Breastfeeding is by no means a bad habit that will be regretted later. Rather, it is a highly sensible and wonderful possibility to accompany a child to sleep over and over again: an ingenious device of nature. The child learns and internalizes something that is also of central importance later in life: to find a relaxed way to sleep.


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