Breastfeeding significantly influences both baby’s and mother’s sleep patterns. The composition of breast milk, containing sleep-inducing hormones, helps develop a baby’s circadian rhythm. For mothers, hormones released during breastfeeding aid in relaxation and sleep. However, managing feeding sessions effectively and understanding the baby’s unique needs are crucial for optimal sleep benefits.
Quality sleep can feel like a distant dream to most first-time mothers. For the first few months, your little one will tend to fall asleep at your breast while feeding, making babies feel calm and secure.
Most mothers are familiar with the many different development phases their little ones go through, and some can be very taxing on mothers. This first phase, where your baby simply feeds and sleeps, can literally turn your world upside down. A good night’s sleep will seem so far away!
Sleep is vital for your little one’s early development. Taking care of your health and well-being is equally important, as sleep or the lack thereof will impact your breast milk production.
Many breastfeeding moms are not aware of the effect breast milk has on their little one’s sleep. Breastfeeding helps greatly develop your baby’s sleep-wake cycle, better known as circadian rhythm.
Once you grasp the importance of breastfeeding and learn how to manage your baby’s feeding routine, your little one’s sleep pattern and yours will bring that distant dream of a good night’s sleep to fruition.
Let’s delve deeper and discover the lesser-known wonders of breastfeeding.
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Breastfeeding and baby’s sleep
Newborn babies are not born with a circadian rhythm which only starts developing when your baby is between three to four months old. Breast milk plays a very important role in this development as it contains sleep-inducing hormones.
The composition of breastmilk changes throughout the day to meet your baby’s needs. This fact can help mothers who express milk manage and contribute to the development of their little one’s circadian rhythm.
For working mothers, you will mostly be expressing breast milk for the next day, and recording the date and time you expressed will help you manage which milk is fed to your baby at what time.
Your morning breast milk comprises all the necessary nutrients for your little one, plus cortisol. This hormone helps infants be alert and awake during the day. On the other hand, your evening breast milk contains a hormone called melatonin which helps your baby fall asleep.
These hormones are crucial to developing your baby’s circadian rhythm, which helps to develop your baby’s sleep pattern.
If you are not breastfeeding but expressing breast milk, the successful development of your baby’s circadian rhythm lies in what milk is fed to your little one and at what time during the day.
It’s also imperative to know that cortisol and melatonin are not contained in infant formula, but there are several nutrients, micronutrients, and fat that help to develop a baby’s circadian rhythm.
Having said this, your baby’s developmental stages play a more fundamental role in their sleep compared to how much they eat.
📌 A newborn will typically feed 3 to 5 times each night until about two months old. This will reduce slightly between three and four months old to about 3 or 4 nightly feedings.
Your little one should feed up to 8 times daily for the first 4 months. After that, feedings will vary between 6 and 8 times per day.
Your baby’s sleep cycles will lengthen with age, and at about 9 months old, your baby will be on solids as well and may only feed about 4 times per day, but this could still be more.
Breastfeeding and mother’s sleep
There are two hormones that help moms fall asleep easier while breastfeeding, namely, prolactin and oxytocin.
Prolactin in breast milk helps you fall asleep quickly to maximize sleep between feeding sessions. Prolactin is released into your bloodstream during breastfeeding and works for short naps or a few hours of sleep before the next feeding.
Prolactin also has a calming effect on your nervous system, which helps you to fall asleep easier and remain asleep. A lack of sleep can contribute to a lower breast milk supply.
Oxytocin helps you relax and causes your milk to flow from your breasts. With less sleep, you become stressed, and your body releases adrenaline, hindering your system’s oxytocin.
Sleep deprivation, stress, or anxiety may negatively impact your breast milk supply. Besides the nutritional goodness and antibodies in breast milk, it’s pretty clear why mothers are urged to breastfeed for the first year or at least six months.
Sleep is crucial for both mother and baby.
Breastfeeding vs. formula milk
A study has shown that mothers who breastfeed exclusively averaged 30 minutes more sleep than women who used formula at night; however, sleep fragmentation did not differ.
To date, only one laboratory study indicated that lactating mothers have more deep sleep than mothers who formula-feed their babies, as studies in this field are not promoted.
There is a common belief that infant formula makes an infant feel fuller, leading to longer sleep sessions at night. This means better sleep for mom as well. As a result, formula supplementation at night for breastfed infants has become a popular practice in the United States.
As early as two days after birth, approximately 25% of breastfed infants in the U.S. are supplemented with infant formula, increasing to 37% at 3 months old and 44% at 6 months old.
However, no evidence indicates that formula supplementation increases infant sleep time or reduces sleep fragmentation.
More deep sleep time among lactating women may be due to higher prolactin levels, but this has not been definitively established.
Understanding your baby’s sleep cycle
In the first two months of life, babies feed regularly and tend to fall asleep at your breast. Close physical contact and rhythmic suckling are comforting and often lull your little one to sleep.
Studies have also shown that an increase in a hormone called cholecystokinin regulates the feeling of being full in infants, which triggers drowsiness.
As stated earlier, oxytocin promotes relaxation, while melatonin regulates sleep patterns. These hormones make your baby fall asleep during breastfeeding, which is perfectly normal.
It’s important to ensure your little one gets enough breast milk during a feeding session. Your baby may fall asleep while still hungry, but he or she will typically wake up after a short period of sleep to feed again.
Babies mostly fall asleep during feedings because they are comfortable and relaxed, but sometimes your little one will just be plain tired. Health issues like jaundice or infections can also make a baby more sleepy than usual.
Effective feeding tips to ensure your little one feeds properly:
- Stimulation: Gently stimulate your baby by stroking his or her back or the soles of their feet. This type of gentle stimulation will help keep your baby awake and actively feeding.
- Proper latch: Ensure your baby is properly latched and not struggling to feed.
- Switch Breasts: The movement of switching breasts and burping your baby in between will wake your baby and encourage feeding.
- Feeding position: Your baby will be less likely to doze off if fed in a slanted or near vertical position.
- Body temperature: Slightly changing your baby’s body temperature can rouse them from sleep. Changing your baby’s diaper before a feed may help. You can also try removing one layer of their clothing during feedings.
- Time your feeding sessions: You will have a fairly good idea of how long your baby feeds on each breast. If your baby snoozes off earlier, you should try stimulating your baby. Babies may remain latched and suckle while asleep. If you are happy that your baby has fed enough, gently unlatch your little one.
- Monitor your milk supply: If your baby begins feeding less than usual due to illness, it’s a good idea to express milk after nursing to ensure that it meets demand when your baby recovers.
- Talk to your baby: Having a conversation with your will helps to keep your baby awake.
- Lighting: Feed your baby in a well-lit room or area, as he or she will most likely feel less drowsy.
When to Seek Help
If your baby consistently falls asleep shortly after starting to feed and is not gaining weight properly, you should speak to your doctor or lactation specialist.
Do breastfed babies sleep longer than bottle-fed babies?
According to one study, breastfed babies under three months old sleep about 40-45 minutes longer than formula-fed babies.
Can I nurse my baby to sleep?
It is perfectly normal for your baby to periodically fall asleep while feeding, but you should try and separate feeding and sleeping as the association might develop into a habit.
In the long term, your baby will not learn to self-soothe, and putting your baby to bed will become difficult, particularly during the weaning phase.
What are the signs that my baby has finished breastfeeding?
Your baby will look satisfied and content, unlatching and turning his or her head away from your breast. You may also feel your breast getting softer as your supply empties.
Other signs that are not immediate include noting a healthy weight gain and having six to eight wet diapers per day.