Sleeping Like A Baby (Breastfeeding & Sleep)

When you were pregnant, someone likely told you, “You’d better sleep now while you can. Once your baby is here, you won’t be getting much sleep. Hahahaha!” You shrugged your shoulders, took a nap, and moved on. But now your new baby is waking every 2 hours all night long to feed, some nights every hour. You can’t put her down after she’s done because she wakes, and you’re walking around like a zombie all day long. And it seems like everyone you know has a baby who is sleeping through the night. So, what’s going on with your baby?

Many people will instantly blame breastfeeding for nighttime woes. But these nighttime feedings may be necessary to keep up a good milk supply. Prolactin – the milk-making hormone – surges during the night. In fact, both males and females have higher levels of prolactin at night. One of the first things a lactation consultant might ask if your milk supply is faltering is whether your baby is still nursing at night.

Night waking is normal

Additionally, night waking is NORMAL for the human baby. Sleeping long stretches at night is a developmental milestone unrelated to feeding method. And every baby reaches such milestones on their own timetable.

Did you know …

A baby’s sleep cycle is much different than an adult’s. While adults have a 90 minute sleep cycle which typically begins with deep sleep and ends with light (or REM) sleep, babies have only a 60 minute sleep cycle which starts with a short period of REM sleep followed by a longer period of deep sleep. Which means, your baby is likely waking you before you’ve had a full sleep cycle, causing you to feel worse about the interrupted sleep. Interestingly, when a breastfeeding baby sleeps with her mom, their sleep cycles start to get in sync, making for a better night’s sleep for everyone.

When will she sleep through the night?

Newborns sleep a lot – 12 to 20 hours each day. But they do so in small stretches with frequent wakings. In addition, babies are born without a circadian rhythm – that internal 24-hour clock that tells us when to eat, sleep, play. Only when infants reach about 3 months of age does this start to develop, and it doesn’t start to mature until 6 to 12 months of age. In fact, this biological clock continues to mature over the years of childhood. So your baby (or even toddler or preschooler) doesn’t have the biological drive to consolidate sleep into a long stretch during the nighttime hours. But, around 3 or 4 months of age, your baby might start to sleep more when you want to be sleeping.

How can I manage on so much interrupted sleep?

Think for a minute about how you sleep as an adult. Do you wake occasionally as your turn over to get more comfortable? Do you need a sip of water or a trip to the bathroom? Do you wake and snuggle closer to your partner? Your baby needs these same things during the night. Your baby isn’t trying to manipulate you, but is simply looking for comfort and security.

The best way to manage fragmented sleep is to change your own way of thinking about it. Your baby doesn’t need sleep training – you do! First, learn as much as you can about normal infant sleep patterns. Read a good book (see the list below). Don’t be afraid to nap when your baby sleeps during the day – the housekeeping and emails can wait. Go to bed earlier each evening. Try ‘dream feeding’ your baby right before you go to bed – don’t fully wake her, but put her to the breast for a drowsy feeding to fill her tank. Be sure you’re staying hydrated and eating well. Get regular exercise – which will help you sleep better and will keep you energized when you are awake. And remind yourself that eventually you baby will sleep for longer stretches.

Some breastfeeding-friendly infant sleep books to consider:

  • Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family by La Leche League International
  • Helping Baby Sleep by Anni Gethin and Beth Macgregor
  • Sleeping with your Baby by James McKenna (great source for co-sleeping safety information)
  • Good Nights by Jay Gordon
  • Sweet Dreams by Paul M. Fleiss
  • Nighttime Parenting and The Baby Sleep Book by William Sears
  • The No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley

Have a visit with a Lactation Consultant from your mobile, tablet, or computer. Click HERE to begin!

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  1. Kelbi 4 years ago

    Thank you for the resources!! My baby has slept good until I started back to work. He would only wake up once a night. I knew his nights would get messed up in the beginning. But he hasn’t started sleeping better yet. Is there anything I can try??

    • Author
      Michelle L. Roth 4 years ago

      The books I mention have suggestions for the older nursling, too. Try to go to bed when baby goes to bed so you can get a couple of extra hours of sleep. Nap when you can. Let yourself be lazy on weekends.

      Sometimes more frequent night nursing is referred to as reverse cycling. Reverse cycling is most likely to happen in situations where mom and baby are apart during the day, but together at night (for instance, when a mom returns to work). Sometimes a working mom will find that her baby drinks only enough during the day to take the edge off his hunger, but then spends the evening nursing non-stop and wakes several times throughout the night to nurse. This pattern shows a strong mother-baby attachment. While you may be losing sleep, reverse cycling is actually good for you milk supply.

      Going back to work is a big adjustment – for your baby and for you. And while you can manage the adjustment, your baby likely doesn’t understand what’s going on – only that mom is away. Be patient. It may take time but you’ll both eventually find a new normal.

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