Why Breastfeed at Night

By Krista Gray, IBCLC. Last updated June 10, 2013.

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Sleep is something our bodies need and yet something that most new moms seem to feel deprived of.   Worrying about not getting enough sleep once your baby comes and then worrying about how to sleep more after your baby arrives can dominate a mother’s thoughts.

And then there’s breastfeeding and sleep.  These can seem to be completely contradictory.  Though the majority of moms want to breastfeed, many also want the “freedom” to have others give bottles at night because they believe they will get more sleep.  Breastfeeding is important and has lifelong health implications for both you and your baby.  The sweet cuddles and precious moments shared while feeding your baby at your breast will forever forge a bond between you and this new life.  So hang in there…because it is possible to not only get sleep with a breastfeeding baby, but also get more sleep than your formula-feeding counterpart!

Why is it important to nurse at night?

Nursing at night is important for a variety of reasons, here’s 5:

  1. To regulate your milk supply.
    Every time your baby breastfeeds your body gets the message to continue to make milk.  It’s the law of supply and demand.  An empty breast makes more milk.  If your baby nurses when she’s hungry your body knows to continue to make milk.  However, if your baby takes a bottle, then your body doesn’t get the message to make milk (unless, of course, you pump in which case you will not be sleeping) and your supply can be negatively impacted. The first six weeks or so after birth are critical in establishing your milk supply.  When supplements are given, your milk supply could be affected to the point that you never develop a full supply to feed your baby. (Conversely, always feeding on demand – and waking a sleepy baby – will allow your body to regulate enough milk for your baby…increasing enough to exclusively nurse twins or triplets even!)
  2. Prolactin levels are higher at night.
    Prolactin is a hormone that helps build and maintain your milk supply.  In the early weeks of breastfeeding, prolactin receptors are being laid down in your breasts to help regulate the amount of milk your body needs to make to feed your baby.  The more prolactin you have, the more milk your body makes. Prolactin levels rise with suckling; the more a baby nurses the higher the prolactin levels. 1 Prolactin levels are higher at night and nursing at night helps to establish a strong milk supply for the duration of breastfeeding.
  3. Babies consume 20% of milk at night.
    Feeding your baby throughout the night is important.  Babies take in 20% of their daily milk volume during the night! 2  Not only is this important to building and maintaining a mother’s milk supply but it also is important for proper growth and development of a new baby. Nearly 2/3 of babies are waking up at night when they are 6 months old. 3 Nursing at night is a need for your baby.  So, the question is not about how to schedule a baby so she can sleep at night, but how to manage night nursing so both mother and baby can nurse and get sleep. There are many strategies for getting rest with a newborn.
  4. If your baby begins waking at night again after sleeping through, he may still need milk.
    Some mothers find that their babies begin to sleep for a long stretch or through the night entirely by the time their babies are a couple months old, only to then begin to wake again a few weeks/months later.  As babies grow they become more interested in the world around them and many begin to nurse less during the day because they are so interested in all that is going on.  Nighttime is their time to catch up on milk intake and so they begin to wake again because they need milk.  It is not a matter of scheduling your baby and helping him “learn to sleep” thinking that since he has proven he can do it he should continue.  Instead, your baby may be waking because he truly needs to nurse at night.
  5. Essential for using LAM as birth control.
    The Lactational Amenorrhea Method is a very effective form of birth control during the first six months following birth when your baby is exclusively breastfed and nurses on demand both day and night.

Why not nurse during the day and give a bottle at night?

  1. Exclusively breastfeeding mothers get MORE sleep.
    Nursing mothers are able to help their babies latch while lying down, then enjoy a burst of oxytocin to help them relax and fall back to sleep.  Conversely, mothers who are not nursing still wake and think about, sometimes even worry about, their babies. 4  Even if mother is never the one who is responsible for giving a bottle at night, research shows that mothers wake when their babies eat – it has to do with the harmony between mother and baby. In one study, exclusively breastfeeding mothers got on average 20 minutes more of sleep each night. 5  Kendall-Tackett’s research even suggests that mother’s who are not exclusively breastfeeding not only have more disrupted sleep but also higher rates of depression. 6 Bottle-feeding at night is not associated with better sleep; conversely, breastfeeding is not only associated with better sleep, but better quality sleep.
  2. Milk supply can decrease.
    Nighttime nursing helps to establish and maintain a mother’s milk supply.  Without night nursing, some mothers would not be able to produce enough breast milk to continue to exclusively breastfeed.  Once supplements are introduced, a mother’s supply can continue to decrease, even to the point where she no longer makes enough milk to feed her baby.
  3. Formula is difficult to digest.
    Not only does formula lack much of the nutrition that is in breast milk, it also takes twice as long to digest.  This may seem like a positive as babies tend to sleep more and go longer stretches between feeds when formula-fed.  In actuality, a baby’s body is having to work harder to digest a foreign substance, which is one of the reasons why she feeds less frequently when given formula.
  4. Overfeeding with bottles is common.
    It is easy to overfeed with a bottle as it is more of an effortless suck than the breast – tilt the bottle and milk comes out.   This can lead to obesity as well as a further decrease in a mother’s milk supply as baby is taking a disproportionate about of milk from bottles and then consumes less during the day.
  5. Someone still has to feed baby at night.
    The mechanics of giving a bottle are also more demanding than nursing.  A bottle must be mixed, adult and baby have to be in a more alert state to feed, and then bottles must be cleaned and sterilized afterwards.  Formula that is mixed and not eaten is wasted.  Compare this to arousing enough to help a baby latch while lying down and mother resting or falling back to sleep while baby is able to nurse.

How can I nurse at night and still get sleep?

  1. Practice safe bed sharing.
    Around the world and all throughout history, mothers and babies have slept together.  It is only in our “modern” world that issues have risen about nursing mothers and babies resting side by side.  Up to ¾ of all nursing mothers in the West will sleep with their babies at some point during the night. 7 Proper precautions in bed sharing should be taken, but, when practiced safely and while breastfeeding, it can allow both mother and baby to get more sleep and nurse more frequently.
  2. Get help with diaper changes, etc.
    Only you, the mother, can nurse your baby.  However, your partner can be responsible for changing a baby’s diaper, tending to needs you may have (a glass of water maybe?), and/or picking baby up from his crib and bringing him to you in bed.  Having help with these things can allow you to rest comfortably in bed throughout the night without having to get up or rousing until you are fully awake.
  3. Keep baby in your room and nurse lying down.
    If you are not comfortable with bed sharing, co-sleep by keeping your baby close by – perhaps in a cot in your room – as this will make it easier to know when he wakes.  Having a safe bed area to nurse – firm surface, no other pets/children in bed, covers that aren’t too warm, etc. – can allow you to at least rest/dose while nursing before returning your baby to his space for sleep.
  4. Sleep when your baby does during the day. 
    Whenever possible, try to catch a few zzz’s during the day when your baby does.  This can be extra challenging if you have older children as well, but during those times when the house is calm and baby is sleeping, try to rest yourself rather than surfing the internet, chatting with friends, etc.
  5. Remember the big picture. 
    If you have tried some/all of these tips and still feel sleep deprived, remember that you have a new baby and he will grow up all too fast.  One day you’ll look back and wish you could just hold that tiny baby during the night.  The sleepless nights feel long but the years in parenting are way too short.

Show 7 footnotes

  1. Riordan, J. & Wambach, K. (2010)  Breastfeeding and Human Lactation 4th ed. Jones and Bartlett, p. 89.
  2. Kent, JC, et al. (2006) Volume and frequency of breastfeedings and fat content of breast milk throughout the day. Pediatrics 117(3):387-395.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Kendall-Tackett, K. (2010) Nighttime Breastfeeding and Maternal Mental Health. Science & Sensibility http://www.scienceandsensibility.org/?p=1398
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. McKenna, J.J., and McDade T. (2005) Why babies should never sleep alone: a review of the co-sleeping controversy in relation to SIDS, bedsharing and breast feeding. Paediatric Respiratory Reviews 6(2):134-152.
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