Breastfeeding is a rewarding but demanding job; you might be wondering how sleep is possible when your baby needs to be fed so often. Below is a quick guide to getting more sleep for new mothers and their breastfed babies, followed by a more in-depth exploration of breastfeeding and sleep.

Quick guide: How can I get more sleep as a breastfeeding mother?

Keep baby close at night:

Set up baby’s cot or bassinet next to your bed. This not only decreases their risk of Sudden Unexplained Death in Infancy (SUDI) and follows safe-sleeping guidelines, but also means you can respond to baby faster at night. You may also choose to safely bedshare.

During the day, practice breastfeeding in a side-lying position.

This position will be helpful to you resting while breastfeeding during the night. The above image gives an example of how this might look. And this is a helpful article helping you get in position. It can take some practice to get everyone comfy.

Set up your bed safely so that you can breastfeed your baby side-lying at night.

Even if you do not intend to fall asleep with your baby, preparing a shared surface ahead of time can reduce risk in case you unintentionally fall asleep. Learn more about safer shared sleep

Breastfeed baby until they are asleep.

Do not wake baby to burp them, just let them sleep. Transfer baby back to their cot or bassinet, or continue to safely bedshare.

Keep lights low.

Avoid switching on bright, overhead lights as this may interfere with baby’s developing circadian rhythm.

Rock your baby

If your baby doesn’t go back to sleep after feeding, then rocking them in the darkened room against your bare chest may help. Avoid taking them out into a room with bright, artificial lights.

Feed baby with every wake-up.

Do not look at the clock. 

Commonly-asked questions about breastfeeding and sleep

Why does my breastfeeding baby wake so regularly during the night?

It is normal for a breastfed baby to wake regularly through the day, as well as through the night. It is also normal for your breastfed baby to only settle back to sleep with a feed. This could be as frequently as every 45 minutes! Breastmilk is easily digested. It is low in protein and in fat (1), which indicates that it is a milk biologically designed to be fed continuously, rather than at set intervals throughout the day and night. Your baby’s stomach has been shown to empty about 45 minutes after a breastfeed, so they really don’t stay full for very long (2).

There is also strong evidence to suggest that breastfeeding is protective against SIDS/SUDI, and one of the reasons for this may be breastfed babies’ more frequent arousals during the night (3).

With my baby waking so often, what is the best way for me to get the most sleep?

To respond quickly to your baby’s need for frequent feeds, and also to optimise your own sleep, you may find it helpful to learn how to breastfeed lying down. When this is combined with safe bedsharing, breastfeeding in a side-lying position can mean more rest and sleep for you and your baby (4). Mothers who safely bedshare are also more likely to breastfeed for longer (5), so this may be a good way to help you to meet your long-term breastfeeding goals.

Will my baby sleep for longer if I feed them formula before bedtime?

The reality is that most breastfed babies feed more frequently than formula-fed babies. This is probably due to faster gastric emptying, as mentioned above. But keep in mind that babies also wake for reasons other than hunger, so filling them up with formula is no guarantee that they will sleep for longer. Your baby may also wake for reassurance that their mother is close, and to feel the warmth of your body while they sleep. Most young mammals seek security from their mother at night, and humans are no different (6).

There is also evidence to suggest that the mothers of breastfeeding babies actually get more sleep, and better quality sleep, than parents who formula feed (7). This may be due to the role of prolactin, which induces more frequent periods of deep sleep (8), or it may just be due to breastfeeding mothers sleeping in close proximity to their babies and feeding them without fully waking themselves.

How can my partner help during the night if they can’t feed the baby?

There are lots of ways your partner can help you that don’t involve feeding the baby. They could change baby’s nappy, or if your baby doesn’t settle straight away after the feed, they could help to rock and soothe them. However, sometimes the most helpful thing your partner can do during the night is getting enough sleep themselves so that they have the energy to support you and help you during the day. This might include them waking early in the morning and taking baby for a carrier walk or a play so that you can use that time to catch up on sleep.

I’m worried that my breastfed baby will never sleep well during the night!

Rest assured that your breastfed baby will eventually sleep for longer stretches at night and in the meantime, breastfeeding actually helps to prime and develop your baby’s circadian rhythm (9,10).

So, by exclusively breastfeeding, you are helping to support their sleep rhythm in the long-term.

Breastfeeding through the night can be tiring, so it is important to accept help and support from people around you during the day so that you can use the daylight hours to rest as much as possible.

If you have any concerns about your baby’s breastfeeding patterns, or if you need support with breastfeeding, you should seek out the help of an IBCLC, or contact the Australian Breastfeeding Association.

Wanting to improve your sleep?

Look into your sleep hygiene

Contributed by: Georgina Dowden, IBCLC, Registered Nurse, Registered Midwife, Little Sparklers Director

Image credit: Baby Sleep Info Source safe co-sleeping image archive

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REFERENCES:

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  2. Van Den Driessche, Mieke; Peeters, Kristel; Marien, Paul*; Ghoos, Yvo†; Devlieger, Hugo‡; Veereman-Wauters, Gigi Gastric Emptying in Formula-Fed and Breast-Fed Infants Measured with the 13C-Octanoic Acid Breath Test, Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology & Nutrition: July 1999 - Volume 29 - Issue 1 - p 46-51
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