One of the most difficult aspects of caring for a newborn baby is the sleep deprivation that comes with it. Each night feed just seems to roll into the next.
As you start each day feeling as though you’ve barely slept a wink, you might start to question the wisdom of breastfeeding. The truth is, though, no matter how your baby is fed, nighttime feeds can be exhausting.
Understanding why nighttime breastfeeding is important for your baby and your milk supply can help you cope better with the lack of sleep.
Here are 7 reasons why nighttime breastfeeding is so important:
#1: Babies have tiny tummies
For some newborns, a pattern of feeding every one to two hours is common, and well within the wide range of normal. The good news is that frequent breastfeeds (and therefore milk removal) in the early days and weeks help to maximize your milk-producing capability later on.
#2: Nighttime breastmilk intake makes an important contribution to babies’ total intake
Breastmilk that babies consume through the night makes up an important part of their total 24-hour intake.
Research has shown that most (64%) of breastfed babies between 1-6 months of age feed between one and three times at night (from 10 pm to 4 am), and that about 20% of their 24-hour intake is from these night feeds.
#3: Breastfeeding at night helps babies sleep
Circadian rhythms are our internal body clocks. They are regulated by hormones which help us wake up and feel energetic during the day, and enable us to fall asleep easily at night.
Breastmilk contains tryptophan, an amino acid used by the body to make melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that helps induce and regulate sleep. Tryptophan levels in breastmilk rise and fall according to maternal circadian rhythms. Breastfeeding can help develop babies’ circadian rhythms and help them to settle to sleep better at night.
#4: Babies’ circadian rhythms are still developing
While breastfeeding might help establish a baby’s circadian rhythm, research has shown that the rhythm isn’t usually established until after 2 months of age. Therefore, it’s only after this time that your baby will have any significant physiological hormonal influence helping her body to know whether it’s daytime or nighttime.
So, regardless of whether babies are breastfed or formula-fed, sleeping longer stretches at nighttime is a developmental milestone that all babies reach at a different rate.
#5: Nighttime breastfeeding is necessary for lactational amenorrhea
LAM, or the Lactational Amenorrhea Method, is a form of birth control that is 98% effective if used correctly. If your baby is younger than 6 months and is being exclusively breastfed (day and night), and if your menstrual cycle hasn’t returned, you can use LAM as birth control. It’s not uncommon for mothers to find their menstrual cycle returns when they cease (or significantly reduce) nighttime breastfeeding.
It’s possible to fall pregnant using most forms of birth control, even if the risk is small. If you’re strongly against falling pregnant too soon, you might like to consider using additional forms of birth control, for example, condoms. Here are some things to think about if you’re considering using the pill.
#6: Breastfeeding is protective against SIDS
Perhaps one of the most important reasons for nighttime breastfeeding might be to help reduce the risk of sudden, unexplained death in infancy (SIDS). It might be that infant arousals are an important mechanism for survival, and these arousals are more frequent for breastfeeding babies.
Since breastfeeding is the normal way to feed babies, it should be the benchmark, or the control, with which other forms of infant feeding are compared. From this point of view, while breastfeeding doesn’t reduce the risk of SIDS, formula feeding increases it.
Australia’s leading health organization, the National Health and Medical Research Council, indicates that not breastfeeding increases the risk of SIDS by 56%. Putting this into perspective, in Australia, the risk of SIDS is currently around 1 in 3000 births. Therefore, if all babies were formula-fed, the 56% increase in SIDS would then mean that the risk of SIDS would increase to around 3 in 6000 births.
#7: Breastfeeding mothers actually get more sleep
Research shows that mixed feeding or formula-feeding reduces a mother’s total sleep time, and increases the time it takes to go to sleep when compared with exclusive breastfeeding.
Other research has shown that mothers who exclusively breastfeed get 40-45 minutes more sleep than mothers whose babies are given formula. While 40-45 minutes might not seem like much, it can make a big difference to women dealing with sleep deprivation.
Sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone for your baby, and is unrelated to how your baby is fed. In the meantime, embrace breastfeeding your baby at nighttime, knowing there are many good reasons for doing so. Before you know it your baby will be all grown up, and you might find that you miss those cuddly, peaceful nighttime feeds.