Breastfeeding and Sleep

By Krista Gray, IBCLC. Last updated October 8, 2013.

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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. Perhaps bed sharing is not the evil that modern medicine has made it out to be.
    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. And what mother wants to do anything that could harm her new baby? What the medical establishment has failed to also tell mothers is criminal and hasn’t allowed parents to make an educated and informed decision about what is best for their family. Parents also need to know:
    • 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 1
    • 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 bed sharing guidelines (Bed sharing should only occur if baby is exclusively breastfed; there are no drugs, alcohol, are tobacco used by either parent; mother and father agree; there are no pets or other children in bed; baby is on a flat surface without heavy covers or pillows that could smother; baby is protected by mother who sleeps curled around baby (which is an innate protection mechanism); there are no cracks or edges baby could fall in or off bed)
    • 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. 2
    • 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 villainizing bed sharing maybe we should we do all we can to create safe sleeping environments that encourage breastfeeding and bed sharing so both mothers and babies can get sleep.
  1. Bed sharing and Co-sleeping do 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. 3 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 3 footnotes

  1. Fetherston, C. (2013) Safety first: reducing the risks of sleeping with your baby. The Conversation.
  2. ISIS (Infant Sleep Information Source) accessed 5 October 2013 via­_babies_sleep/parents_bed/
  3. Riordan, J. & Wambach, K. (2010) Breastfeeding and Human Lactation 4th ed. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.