Waking every couple of hours all night to nurse can be discouraging. A lack of sleep can make even the most patient person cranky! You might blame breastfeeding and think if you just gave one bottle of formula at night you would all get more sleep. But before you decide to do that, here are some important facts about nighttime nursing:
- Babies have tiny tummies: A newborn’s tummy holds about 20ml (about 2/3 of an ounce), and it takes about one hour to digest that amount of breastmilk. So frequent nursing is probably a product of baby’s anatomy and physiology. Formula is more difficult to digest, taking more of baby’s energy. While this may make baby sleep longer, it may also lead to a decrease in mom’s milk supply.
- Babies have sleep cycles that differ from adults’ sleep cycles: A sleep cycle for an adult is about 90 minutes. It starts with deep sleep, and ends with REM sleep. But babies have shorter cycles (about 60 minutes) and start off in REM sleep. Babies wake at the end of each cycle, and may need parental help to get back to sleep (thus interrupting your longer cycle).
- Newborns have no circadian rhythm: It’s not until about 3 to 4 months of age that your baby will start to develop some sort of daily rhythm, and this doesn’t begin to mature until about 6 to 12 months of age.
- Prolactin levels are higher at night: Levels of prolactin, the milk-making hormone, are higher during the nighttime hours. In addition, any long periods of not nursing – such as when mom or baby sleeps for a long stretch – signals to the body that not as much milk is needed. So your body slows production. But frequent milk removal - especially at night when prolactin levels are higher – means more milk production.
- Night waking may be protective: SIDS researchers believe that frequent night waking keeps babies from sleeping too deeply, and helps them learn to navigate breathing, sleeping and waking. As the caretaker, you will teach your baby how to get back to sleep until baby’s brain is mature enough to do so on its own.
So, frequent waking is NORMAL for a breastfed baby. Your baby doesn’t need sleep training – you do! When parents change their expectations, everyone gets better sleep even if the overall amount of sleep doesn’t change. Yes, fragmented sleep is not fun. Yes, sleep deprivation is torture. But, as an adult, you do have control over how you react and how you manage your sleep deficit. Be sure you:
- Nap when your baby naps – or at least lie down and rest during baby’s naptime.
- Make an earlier bedtime for yourself, maybe nursing baby one last time before you shut your eyes (you don’t even need to wake baby – simply put him to the breast and allow him to nurse back to sleep).
- Eat a healthy diet, stay well-hydrated and exercise regularly.
Finally, remember that as your baby grows, he will start to sleep longer stretches and you will naturally catch up on lost sleep.
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Bergman NJ. (2013). Neonatal stomach volume and physiology suggest feeding at 1-h intervals. Acta Paediatr 102(8):773-7.
Mosko S, Richard C, and McKenna JJ. (1997). Infant Arousals During Mother-Infant Bed Sharing: Implications for Infant Sleep and SIDS Research. Pediatrics 100(2): 841-849.
West D & Marasco L. (2009). The Breastfeeding Mother’s Guide to Making More Milk