Nighttime Nursing

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

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Nighttime nursing is a hot topic among new moms, primarily because it seems to be synonymous with lack of sleep. This was certainly true for me with my first three kids! When I had my daughter in 2006 I had read and prepared not only for her birth but also parenting. Most of what I read strongly urged helping your baby “learn” to sleep and finding a “sleep schedule” quite early on. There was even great evidence stated as to how babies who sleep better are smarter and perform better in school. I was sold. I mean, who doesn’t want to help their child achieve their fullest potential?! At the same time, I was also sold on breastfeeding and knew that I was not about to supplement with any formula.

After my daughter was born, it quickly became apparent she had not read those same baby scheduling books. In fact, not only was she up all night wanting to nurse but this was also the time when she wanted to smile, coo, and play! Thankfully, she was my first child so I actually could sleep during the day when she slept. Each night I would nurse her and then put her in her bassinet, which was in our bedroom. I was determined she was not going to sleep in our bed, but by the second or third feed in the early hours of the night that seemed silly and by morning I would wake up with her beside me, snuggling away. As wonderful as it seemed, I still thought the “experts” had to be right and wanted to have her sleep in her bed. What I didn’t know is that babies consume 20% of their total daily milk intake during the night. Her nighttime nursing was perfectly normal for a new baby. Over the months she stretched out the length she slept before waking until she was pretty regularly sleeping from 11 p.m. until 6 a.m. Around 6 months old I moved her to a crib in her room and when she woke in the morning I’d nurse her on an extra bed in her room where we’d both fall back asleep together. This lasted until she was almost two years old.

When our twins were born my world was turned upside down. They were 7 ½ weeks premature, we were living in Egypt, and we brought them home when they were just one week old. Since they were preemies, they slept all the time and I had to wake them for every single feeding. Night nursing really wasn’t the issue – it was 24/7 feeds, pumping, feeding that led to total exhaustion. I’ve written more about their birth and nursing stories in other posts.

As our fourth child was on the way I knew I was going to have to get sleep at night if I wanted to be able to parent my other, very active, children. From the very first night this little one slept in bed with me. I made sure we met all of the criteria of the “Safe Sleep Seven” to create a safe sleeping environment (exclusive breastfeeding; no drugs, alcohol, or tobacco use in the home; no pets or other siblings in bed; covers were low on the bed and there were no cracks, unsafe surfaces, or possibility of baby falling out; he slept on his back when he wasn’t nursing; unswaddled; and he was a full-term, healthy baby ). 1 Being an experienced nursing mom, breastfeeding while lying down came easy. I would rouse from sleep enough to help him latch on and then fall right back to sleep. I felt well rested each morning (even though he nursed throughout the night) and had many people volunteer that I didn’t look like I had a new baby. The very next statement was typically about whether he was sleeping at night. Most would then look at me with pity, as if they felt sorry for me my child was in our bed and not on a parent-led sleep schedule. Our culture thinks breastfeeding and sleep are contradictory for a new mom, and prizes scheduling a baby in order to sleep. Yet, babies haven’t read these books, nor were they designed to sleep through the night at early ages.  Babies are made to breastfeed and,  current research shows that nursing moms get more sleep than their formula-feeding counterparts. 2

Having done it both ways, I can surely say that creating a safe sleep environment and tucking my baby in bed with me was much easier and less stressful for our situation. I neither had to worry about getting my child on a sleep schedule nor get up and down throughout the night in order to breastfeed. We both got sleep, he got as much breast milk at night as he needed, and we both woke up rested and ready for the day.

Show 2 footnotes

  1. Wiessinger, D., West, D., Smith, L., & Pitman, T. (2014). Sweet Sleep. Random House LLC
  2. Kendall-Tackett K. (2010) Nighttime breastfeeding and maternal mental health. Hale Publishing http://www.ibreastfeeding.com/content/newsletter/nighttime-breastfeeding-and-maternal-mental-health
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