Newborn babies sleep a lot – sometimes 20 hours a day! But that sleep can occasionally interfere with eating. If your baby falls asleep quickly when breastfeeding, or sleeps for more than three hours without waking to feed, you may need to be more proactive about getting baby to wake and nurse.
Newborns need to nurse eight to twelve times per day. Your newborn may be extra sleepy if he was born early, he is jaundiced, or he isn’t getting enough calories. These babies need to eat often to grow and to stay healthy, but they will sleep more to conserve energy, and will signal to eat less often. This can start a downward spiral leading to poor weight gain and low milk supply.
If you’ve got a sleepy baby, be sure you are offering the breast every few hours around the clock. Even if he’s latched, he may not be actively nursing, so make sure you hear or see many bursts of sucks and swallows.
If your baby falls asleep quickly at the breast:
- Use breast compressions to keep baby actively sucking and swallowing. When his sucking slows and he starts to pause more often, grasp your breast (without pulling the nipple from his mouth), and squeeze gently. He should begin to suck and swallow, since you’re hand expressing milk into his mouth. This gets more milk into baby at each feeding, which can be especially useful if your baby isn’t gaining weight appropriately.
- Stroke your baby’s head, spine, palms of his hands, or soles of his feet – anything to stimulate him to wake enough to feed.
- Switch sides several times during the feeding, burping baby in between to wake him a little.
- Support your breast underneath. Sometimes the weight of your full breast will cause your little one’s jaw to fatigue, and he will stop nursing. Support your breast with your fingers (keeping them well back from the areola so he can latch effectively) or with a rolled towel or washcloth under the breast against your chest wall.
Other ideas to wake baby to nurse include:
- Dim the lights or close the curtains if the room is sunny. Bright lights may overstimulate baby, and he may start to rouse if a darker room.
- Unswaddle baby, or even strip him down to his diaper. Once he is nursing, you can certainly throw a blanket over him. But the cool air may invigorate him to nurse, and the skin-to-skin contact may awaken his feeding reflexes.
- Talk to baby, sing to him, and make eye contact.
- Hold him upright – rather than cradling baby horizontally, sit him facing you with his neck well supported as you talk to him.
- Change his diaper (which is enough to wake even the most stubborn baby!).
- Manipulate his hands and legs – gently bicycle his limbs, or play a gentle game of “pat-a-cake.” Do some baby “sit-ups”: with his neck supported, gently raise and lower baby’s head and shoulders while he’s sitting on your lap. Just a little bit of movement may be enough to get him to wake.