Breastfeeding Tips for Better Sleep
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Taking care of an infant is exhausting! Not only can it be difficult to follow the “sleep when the baby sleeps” advice, newborns naturally wake often at night. And if you’re breastfeeding, you may find yourself waking to nurse every two or three hours in the first few weeks. (That’s because babies digest breastmilk faster than formula.) While research shows that by 6 months old, nighttime wake-ups are the same for breastfed and formula fed babies, you don’t have to wait that long to improve your sleep and your baby’s sleep. Here are my best breastfeeding tips for better sleep.
The Breastmilk-Sleep Connection
Breastmilk is fascinating stuff! It changes dramatically over the course of a feeding. The first milk to spurt out (foremilk) is loaded with protein and antibodies, and it has extra water to satisfy your baby’s thirst.
How long should a baby nurse to get hindmilk?
After about 10 to 15 minutes of breastfeeding, the milk flow slows and transitions to the sweet and creamy hindmilk, which contains vitamins A and E, and has more fat and calories than foremilk.
Some experts worry that feeding a baby for 5 to 10 minutes alternating between each breast will fill the baby with the more watery foremilk and lead to more night waking. They think that babies must get the rich hindmilk to make them sleepy, (like how a heavy meal makes us drowsy. Others believe that babies drink down more milk when you alternate breasts during each feed. That’s because more milk flows quickly during the first minutes of a feeding, then it slows down to a slow drip, drip, drip.
Interestingly, there’s absolutely zero difference between the first gulp of infant formula and the last…so, maybe the foremilk/hindmilk issue isn’t that important. My personal recommendation: Try both ways to see what’s best for your baby!
How long should newborns nurse?
If one breast keeps your little one sleeping for four hours at night, there’s no need to switch. But if your baby seems hungry too often or they’re gaining weight too slowly, give five minutes on one side and then 10 to 15 minutes (or even longer) on the other. That way, your baby will get the foremilk from both breasts and still get all the hindmilk from the second side. (And any hindmilk left in the breast at the end of a feeding will stay there and just boost the calories of the next meal.)
Breastfeeding Tips for Better Sleep
Rethink daytime feeds.
Breastfed newborns need at least 10 to 12 feeds a day, and if your little one isn’t getting enough, well, they let you know all night long! To help keep your baby full and snoozing at night, feed them every 1.5 to 2 hours during the day for the first few months. If your nugget’s daytime snooze fest hits the 2-hour mark…wake your little one up for a feed. This during-the-day practice should help get you a couple of back-to-back longer stretches of sleep (3, 4, or even 5 hours) at night…and by 3 months, you’ll hopefully nab a blissful 7-hour stretch of ZZZ’s.
If combo feeding, stick to the breast before bed.
Did you know that breastmilk has its own circadian rhythm? For example, there’s three times more of the alertness-promoting hormone cortisol in morning breastmilk than in evening breastmilk. And while the sleepytime hormone melatonin is barely detectable in daytime milk, it rises in the evening and peaks around midnight. Nighttime breastmilk also contains higher levels of certain DNA building blocks that help promote sleep. If you’re pumping your breastmilk, no worries, your baby can still reap the yawn-inducing rewards of evening milk. Simply label your expressed breastmilk with the time it was pumped so that you use evening breastmilk at night. (Learn more about combo feeding your baby.)
Try swaddling before breastfeeding.
I prefer swaddling babies before they breastfeed. But every baby is different! Some infants get so cozy and sleepy when swaddled that they fall asleep while nursing and don’t get enough to eat. (Remember, having a full tummy helps little ones sleep longer.) For other babies, swaddling after a feeding might agitate them so much that they struggle to fall asleep. So, it’s best to see what your baby does best with. Either way, remember that the American Academy of Pediatrics attests that wrapping your baby in a swaddle calms babies and promotes sleep. And that in and of itself can be key to breastfeeding success. If your baby cries a lot, it can bring up subtle worries that perhaps your breastmilk is not satisfying your baby…which can drive parents to give up on breastfeeding. If you’re having difficulty putting your baby to sleep before or after feedings, my SNOO Smart Sleeper can help. That’s because its built-in snug swaddle combined with all-night white noise, and gentle responsive swinging work even better together to soothe crying babies and boost sleep.
Consider a dream feed.
A dream feed is like topping your car’s gas tank off so there's no need to refuel during the journey ahead. Offering your baby a dream feed will eliminate—or at least delay—one of the top reasons babies wake through the night: a rumbling tummy. To do a dream feed, gently rouse your baby—without fully waking them—to feed them one more time before you turn in for the night between 10pm and midnight. Shoot for a 10- to 20-minute nursing session then burp your bub and place them safely back in the bassinet. Sneaking in this extra feed usually reduces night wakings, helping babies stay asleep until a more “reasonable” time of the morning. But if your baby often rouses again around 3:30am—even after swaddling, white noise, and a dream feed—consider adding a second dream feed into the mix at 3am. The idea is to feed your little one before they wake, so they’re getting the nourishment they need, without getting rewarded for waking and crying. (Learn more about dream feeds.)
Overcome Common Breastfeeding Challenges
The most common reasons new parents struggle with breastfeeding are technical, like you may have flat nipples, or your baby is struggling to latch. Here are some facts—and solutions—that can help you nurse your bub to better sleep:
Newborns lose interest. Many new parents don’t know that babies want to suck right when they’re born, but their interest decreases for the next 18 hours or so. The good news is, babies are born with an extra pound of food and water in their bodies, so they actually don’t need sustenance right away.
Milk takes time to come in. In your baby’s first few days, your breasts release colostrum—not milk—one drip at a time. (Colostrum is a thick cream packed with nutrients, antibodies, and white blood cells designed to boost protection against germs and microbes.) Your baby’s sucking is what brings in your breastmilk. So, once your milk arrives, breastfeeding often becomes much easier. (If you had a c-section, know that it usually takes a day longer for your milk to come in.)
Babies sometimes need help opening up. Babies’ bodies are quite stiff at birth. The snug fit of the womb has their arms, legs, and jaw muscles tight, which makes it hard for newborns to open their mouths fully. But wide-open, like a gulping fish, is exactly what’s needed to get your nipple high up against your baby’s palate and away from their tongue. A trained lactation professional can teach you to get your baby’s mouth open and positioned properly on your breast.
Addressing flat nipples can improve your latch. If you have flat nipples, use a breast pump soon after delivery to help stretches your nipples. At the same time, nipple shields can be temporarily used while nursing to stimulate your baby’s palate and trigger the sucking reflex. Nipple shields are shaped like extended nipples and offer your bub a larger area to latch onto. (Still pregnant? Wearing nipple shells under your bra can help elongate your nipples before Baby arrives.)
Your sleep is important! Losing sleep with a newborn can pushes certain hormones, like cortisol, up, which can dramatically reduce your breastmilk supply. That means, prioritizing your own well-being and sleep helps breastfeeding. And that’s one reason I’ve spent my career helping new parents master the skills needed to calm their baby’s fussing and get more sleep themselves. Happiest Baby’s videos and classes (available in 20+ nations) teach parents the 5 S’s for soothing babies, which calm little ones in no time, promotes sleep…and encourages nursing success. And my SNOO Smart Sleeper, which is based on the same principles of the 5 S’s, can help stretch Baby sleep even longer to give parents some much-needed rest, too.
More Sleep Tips From Dr. Harvey Karp:
- Is White Noise Bad For Babies?
- A Sleep Schedule for Your Baby’s First Year
- How Much Do Newborns Sleep?
- Good Baby Sleep Cues vs. Bad Baby Sleep Cues
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.