Breastfeeding and Sleep

By Krista Gray, IBCLC. Last updated July 28, 2017.

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Though many jokes are made when a woman is pregnant about the sleepless years she has coming, no mother can be completely prepared for what life will be like with a new baby. While having a baby is a huge blessing, it may not always seem that way -especially in the middle of a night when a mother is exhausted but still awake with her nursing baby. And yet, while a lack of sleep is a huge issue in our western culture today there are many things mothers can do to maximize sleep at night. Here are 6 important reminders about sleep and a new baby.

  1. Babies aren’t supposed to sleep through the night.
    Their bodies need nutrition and physical touch at very regular intervals throughout the day and night to grow and develop properly. Breast milk is created to be digested quickly (twice as fast as formula) because babies need to eat often to grow their bodies and brains. Did you know a baby’s brain will triple in size during the first year of life? Breast milk is uniquely designed for rapid brain growth. If newborns slept through the night they wouldn’t get the nutrition they need to grow and develop as they should.
  2. We need to adjust our mindset.There is not a problem with your new baby who is up all the time wanting to nurse. This is how she was designed! Wanting to nurse all the time is not a problem that must be fixed but a reality that must be embraced. Rather than trying to change our babies, we need to change our expectations. The challenge is to figure out how meet your baby’s needs while meeting your need for sleep as well. Rather than buying into our culture’s belief that breastfeeding has to be synonymous with lack of sleep, we need to help new moms figure out how to do both well.
  3. If your newborn does sleep through the night regularly this should be a red flag.
    Sleepy babies can be babies in distress. They may be reserving their energy and sleeping more when what they really need is more food so they can grow and thrive. When someone says their new baby sleeps through the night, we shouldn’t wish ours would too. Rather, we should be concerned about the baby that sleeps so much!
  4. Co-sleeping does not carry the same risk factors for every situation.
    Fear has driven mothers today to do everything possible to keep their babies out of their bed. Doctors and health care workers actively tell mothers that their babies could die if they fall asleep together. While this is true and, sadly, happens far too often in western culture, it is also true that many breastfeeding families fall into an extremely low risk category when bed sharing is practiced using the “Safe Sleep Seven.” 1 What the western establishment has failed to tell mothers is that, under certain specific criteria, bed sharing with your baby may be the least risky option for your family.  Parents must be given all the facts to make an educated and informed decision. Families should know the following information:
    • 70%-80% of breastfeeding mothers will fall asleep with their babies at some point and creating a safe environment is much better than falling asleep on a couch, recliner, or other unsafe surface 2 In fact, even if a breastfeeding mom decides she never wants to fall asleep with her baby, it is imperative to create the safest nighttime breastfeeding environment possible, in the event that mom falls asleep while nursing.
    • Mothers who don’t co-sleep are at significantly higher risk of early weaning (and there are many known and well documented risks to formula feeding that can affect a child’s health over the course of his lifetime)
    • Situations where we hear of babies being smothered by sleeping in an adult bed usually have not followed the “Safe Sleep Seven” bed sharing guidelines. (Bed sharing should only occur if all of the “Safe Sleep Seven” criteria are met: exclusive breastfeeding; no drugs, alcohol, or tobacco use by either parent; no pets or other siblings in bed; covers are low on the bed and there are no cracks, unsafe surfaces, or possibility of baby falling out; baby sleeps on back when not nursing; unswaddled; and he was a full-term, healthy baby. Mothers instinctively use the cuddle curl position to protect baby as she sleeps (which is an innate protection mechanism). 3
    • When a mother and baby sleep beside one another (not in a side cot attached to a bed) their breathing patterns mimic one another so that mother is aware of baby’s sleep cycle and they sleep/wake together. This greatly reduces the risk of SIDS. 4
    • The very act of breastfeeding reduces a baby’s chances of SIDS …and since we know that mothers and babies who co sleep will breastfeed longer and that they will fall asleep together at some point whether planned or not, perhaps we should change our mindset. Rather than saying bed sharing is always dangerous, and then having exhausted moms fall asleep in very unsafe environments with their babies, we must do all we can to inform parents about the dangers of SIDS and how to create safe sleeping environments that encourage breastfeeding and bed sharing so both mothers and babies can get sleep. (The four biggest risk factors for SIDS are baby sleeping on stomach, smoking in household, leaving baby unattended, and formula-feeding.) 5
  1. Co-sleeping does not spoil your baby.
    Your baby has just spent the last nine months in the most amazing “bed sharing” space possible. And now we expect this new baby, who entered a new and unknown world, to not only sleep at night but sleep in her own space? Sleeping together or nearby will not spoil your baby or teach him bad sleeping habits. Babies need to be with their mothers. Babies need breast milk. And babies need lots and lots of physical touch. Mothers need sleep. It just makes sense that these can be safely combined for many families, just as has been done throughout the history of the world.
  2. Night nursing establishes a mother’s milk supply and helps her sleep.
    Night nursing is not only important for babies’ growth and development but also for a mother’s milk supply. Prolactin is a hormone that helps to build and maintain a mother’s milk supply and prolactin levels are higher at night. Nighttime nursing helps to establish a strong milk supply for the duration of breastfeeding. 6 The act of breastfeeding also produces oxytocin in a mother’s body, which helps her to relax. So not only does nighttime nursing help establish and maintain a mother’s milk supply, she is also more relaxed and can dose back off to sleep easier.

So, new mama, relax. Follow your maternal instincts. Don’t worry what the sleep experts and parenting books say…your baby hasn’t read them anyway. Enjoy your baby. Cuddle your baby. Nurse your baby. Hold your baby. Unwrap that tight swaddle and embrace all the hours each day you get to spend bonding and breastfeeding. Contrary to what our pop culture might try to convince you of, you are not spoiling your baby. All too soon you will be on the other end of raising your children and will wonder what happened to these early days.

You may also enjoy reading Getting Rest with a Newborn and Nighttime Nursing: My Story.

Show 6 footnotes

  1. Wiessinger, D. T. (2014). Sweet Sleep. Random House LLC, p. 335.
  2. Fetherston, C. (2013) Safety first: reducing the risks of sleeping with your baby. The Conversation. http://theconversation.com/safety-first-reducing-the-risks-of-sleeping-with-your-baby-13802.
  3. Wiessinger, D., et al. (2014). Sweet Sleep. Random House LLC
  4. ISIS (Infant Sleep Information Source) accessed 5 October 2013 via www.isisonline.org.uk/where­_babies_sleep/parents_bed/
  5. Moon, R.Y., et al. (2011). SIDS and other sleep-related infant deaths: expansion of recommendations for a safe infant sleeping environment. Pediatrics. 128, no 5: 1030-1039.
  6. Riordan, J. & Wambach, K. (2010) Breastfeeding and Human Lactation 4th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.
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