The Dangers of Comfort Feeding!

Being fed to sleep is what we call a Sleep Association.

A Sleep Association is where a baby/child has a reliance on something or someone in order to get off to sleep.

Being fed to sleep often becomes a quick fix for parents dealing with a child who is unable to settle themselves to sleep independently. I get it… when you are running on empty, nothing is working to improve the situation, then it’s survival. You gotta do what you gotta do right?

If feeding appears to be a method by which the little one will settle fairly easily and go back to sleep, then it’s common for parents to also conclude that perhaps baby is still hungry during the night and requires these feeds for nutritional purposes and will therefore continue to offer this as a response to broken sleep.

It can be difficult to know exactly what a child needs in terms of encouraging longer stages of sleep through the night, however there are preventative ways in which to gradually approach this to ensure that a child’s sleep is unlikely to be disrupted due to waking hungry.

When to stop?

However… in my experience and as provided in NHS guidelines, from the age of 6 -12months, babies will start to need less night feeds. Nutritionally, there is no reason that a child shouldn’t be able to achieve a full night of sleep without milk offerings. At this stage in their development, the weaning process should be well under way. Children will be getting all their calories during the day at various meal times and will have no requirement for extra calories from milk during the night.

The only exception to this would be if parents/health professionals had any concerns about a child’s weight, or if the child was refusing food during the day which was impacting on the calorie intake meaning that some extra calories from milk feeds during the night might be essential to addressing any hunger issues during the night. This is something that is really important to consider with any sleep training program, as feeding does come as a priority and a child will not be able to work on improving their sleep if they are hungry!

Sleep Survival – we’ve all been there!

The feeding to sleep association is a common challenge for new parents. The main reason is that new-born babies require feeds and sleep in small, frequent doses, and this makes it very likely that they will fall asleep anywhere and everywhere. At this stage, it is amazing to soak up every little cuddle and enjoy the tranquility that comes with feeding a baby to sleep in your arms and having them close to you at every opportunity! It is of course important to establish a bond and a secure attachment with your child.

From the age of 4 months, your child’s needs start to change and as the requirement to feed frequently reduces and their need to sleep for longer stretches increases, it becomes a bit of a balancing act in knowing how to get them to sleep without offering the feed they need to help them drift off. Which, by the way… is standing in the way of those all important self-settling skills which a child is required to develop and practice in order to be able to fall asleep independently.

When this change takes place, parents often aren’t equipped in knowing how to tackle this transition and the ways in which to encourage more independent sleep.

Before you know it, your child is still relying on milk feeds through the night at 2 years old! Which results in lots of frustrated and exhausted parents who are at the mercy of ongoing comfort feeds throughout the night. When a child is having a milk feed that they don’t require for nutritional reasons, this is then referred to as a comfort feed.

Dental Dangers

Comfort night feeds have the potential to create not only bad sleep habits, but also bad dental hygiene. Sugar can be found in all forms of milk. Bacteria uses sugar to produce acid which causes decay… and the effects on children’s teeth can be quite serious if regular brushing to remove the plaque build up is not happening. It is highly unlikely that once a milk feed is offered by means of encouragement to return to sleep that once the milk is finished that the child will be encouraged to brush their teeth… in which case the build up will continue overnight. And that’s not all…

Babies often breathe through their mouths and therefore sleep with their mouths open during the stages of sleep. During the day, we have a steady flow of saliva which helps to neutralise acids in an almost “self-cleaning” capacity. At night, an open mouth becomes dry and the saliva flow is less, meaning this is a prime time for more damage and decay to occur.

Anya Drummond (BDS), Dentist at Torwood Dental Practice in Inverness shares my concerns about poor dental hygiene in babies and children as a result of quick fix comfort feeds.

Anya told me about the problems she sees on a day to day basis - in the worst cases, surgery under general anesthetic is required to remove damaged teeth. Sometimes resulting in 50% of teeth having to be extracted as Dentists are reluctant to perform more than 1 operation under general anesthetic, so any teeth likely to become problematic in the future will be removed in a preventative measure at the same time.

By the age of 2.5 years, children will have a full mouth of baby teeth. They will rely on this set until the age of about 6 years old when the adult teeth will start to come in, so it’s really important to ensure that the baby teeth are well looked after and protected from unnecessary decay in connection to bad sleep habits!

What is the solution?

Ultimately, recognising that what you are offering is a comfort feed and not a nutritional requirement is the first step. Then it’s a case of considering what can be offered as a replacement. A child who has been continually reliant on milk feeds in order to achieve sleep is unlikely to have establish any self-settling skills. Regardless how old they are. If a “sleep crutch” has been part of their routine for a significant period of time, then they will not be fully self-settling to sleep.

There are several options which I usually recommend, but ultimately, which approach is the best fit for you would be your decision. There are many variables to consider such as a child’s temperament, how heavy the reliance is, and the detail of each response and comfort feed. I work with families to guide them to the right approaches which are in line with their parenting style and suitable to their child’s specific needs in being able to achieve realistic sleep goals. This is the reason that I choose to offer a personalised 1-1 plan tailored to each individual set of circumstances in order to achieve the very best long-term results.

Help is here!

If you are concerned about your child’s reliance on milk feeds and are unsure about how to break the habit, lookout for upcoming webinars which I am hosting, free of charge, or get in touch to find out more about how to start your journey to a better night’s sleep! Also be sure to have regular check-ups with your dentist to ensure that your child’s teeth are well looked after!