So, you’re home with your new baby. How’s she sleeping? Awake at midnight… 2:00am… 4:00am… 6:30am… maybe more, who knows.
It all runs together when you’re sleep deprived.
When you’re dealing with interrupted sleep night after night, you can start to question the wisdom of breastfeeding.
But nighttime nursing is important for your baby and your milk supply.
#1: Babies Have Tiny Tummies
Did you know that a newborn’s stomach can only hold approximately 20ml of fluid? If the fluid is human milk, then it’s digested in about one hour.
It’s not until about day 10 that baby’s tummy is the size of a golf ball – or able to hold about 60ml. So, the one to two hourly feeding pattern many new babies adopt is likely pre-programmed and appropriate. But this means feeding more often at night, too. One benefit? The more feeding, the better the milk supply.
#2: Babies Consume More Milk At Night
One study showed that babies take more milk during the nighttime feedings than at any other time interval – about 20% of their daily intake was during the night. The majority of infants in this study nursed at night (64%) and they nursed between one and three times during this period. For babies whose weight is faltering, nighttime feedings may make a huge difference since more feedings equals more calories equals better growth.
#3: Breastfeeding At Night Helps Baby Sleep
Breastmilk contains tryptophan, a sleep inducing amino acid, moreso in the evening than at other times. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, which is the hormone that regulates mood as well as sleep cycles. Not only that, it improves brain development and function. You’re building your baby’s brain and helping him get to sleep by breastfeeding.
#4: Prolactin Levels Are Higher At Night
Prolactin, the milk-making hormone, has a diurnal pattern with higher levels noted at night. So nighttime nursing takes advantage of this natural variation to help keep your milk supply steady, or may even help if your supply is flagging.
#5: Nighttime Nursing Is Necessary For Lactational Amenorrhea
LAM, or the Lactational Amenorrhea Method, is a form of birth control that is 98% effective as long as it’s used correctly. If your baby is younger than 6 months old, your periods haven’t returned, and your baby is receiving nothing but breastmilk (day and night), you can use LAM as birth control. Researchers think that prolactin and nighttime breastfeeding may be two factors for suppressing the return of menses in breastfeeding mothers.
Some mothers find their menstrual cycle returns once they cease (or significantly reduce) nighttime feeding. However, like most methods, it’s not foolproof. So if you’re absolutely trying to avoid a pregnancy, keep an eye on your cervical mucus as well, or use condoms.
#6: Babies’ Circadian Rhythms Are Still Developing
Whether or not you’re breastfeeding, your baby may not have sleep consolidated into the nighttime hours until about 3-4 months of age. Long periods of uninterrupted sleep aren’t the result of whether you are breast or formula feeding, but rather a developmental milestone that all babies reach at a different rate.
#7: Breastfeeding Is Protective Against SIDS
Perhaps one of the most important reasons for breastfeeding at night is the reduction in risk of a sudden, unexplained infant death. It’s a hard thing to hear, but necessary to know.
An analysis of the results of eighteen studies have shown that the risk of sudden and unexpected infant death is significantly reduced — by around 50% — for mothers who exclusively breastfeed and for a longer duration of breastfeeding. The findings resulted in Sids and Kids adding, ‘breastfeeding if you can,’ into their SIDS protection guidelines. From their website: “According to research, breastfeeding babies more than halves the chances of a baby dying suddenly and unexpectedly.”
Sleep researchers believe that infant arousals are an important mechanism for survival, and these arousals are more frequent for breastfeeding babies.
#8: Breastfeeding Mothers Actually Get More Sleep
In their study about maternal mood and postpartum depression, Kendall-Tackett and colleagues found that breastfeeding mothers reported more sleep than mothers who were formula feeding or mixed feeding. Even with night waking, these breastfeeding mothers reported more daytime energy – a must when caring for a newborn. Other researches found that, on average, breastfeeding mothers get 40-45 minutes more of sleep at night, even though their sleep is still fragmented. While this may not seem like much, it makes a huge difference when dealing with sleep deprivation.
Babies need to eat at night and your sleep will be interrupted regardless. If you are formula feeding, you will need to get up and prepare a bottle. If you’re breastfeeding, you may just be able to bring baby into your bed and fall back to sleep while breastfeeding (follow these guidelines for safe cosleeping, though).
Sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone unrelated to breastfeeding. So embrace your night waking with mindfulness – gaze at your baby, stay present in the moment while breastfeeding, and drift back to sleep, knowing you’re one of a multitude of women around the world waking at night to care for her baby.
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- Cubero, J., Valero, V., Sanchez, J., Rivero, M., Parvez, H., Rodríguez, A. B., & Barriga, C. (2005). The circadian rhythm of tryptophan in breast milk affects the rhythms of 6-sulfatoxymelatonin and sleep in newborn. Neuroendocrinology Letters, 26(6), 657-662.
- Doan, T., Gay, C. L., Kennedy, H. P., Newman, J., & Lee, K. A. (2013). Nighttime Breastfeeding Behavior Is Associated with More Nocturnal Sleep among First-Time Mothers at One Month Postpartum. Journal of clinical sleep medicine: JCSM: official publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 10(3), 313-319.
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- Kendall-Tackett, K., Cong, Z., & Hale, T. W. (2011). The effect of feeding method on sleep duration, maternal well-being, and postpartum depression. Clinical Lactation, 2(2), 22-26.
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- West D & Marasco L. (2009). The Breastfeeding Mother’s Guide to Making More Milk. New York: McGraw-Hill.