When a baby is born, their internal clock is still under construction. They don’t know the difference between day and night, or how to move from one sleep cycle to the next…basically, they’re still learning how and when to sleep.
Breastfeeding plays a direct role in yours and your baby’s sleep. It both helps them sleep and causes them to wake up throughout the night. Chaya Lighten, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), helps us get to the bottom of this biological conundrum.
Meet our expert
Physician Assistant, internationally board-certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), and co-founder of Lactation Central, Chaya Lighten.
How breastfeeding impacts baby’s sleep
Ask any new parent and they’ll tell you that day and night mean nothing to their newborn. In fact, babies are not born with an established circadian rhythm and don’t develop one until sometime between 3 and 4 months old. Therefore, babies don’t excrete melatonin, the hormone that makes us sleepy and relaxes the gastrointestinal tract.
But here’s a fun-fact: night time breastmilk contains melatonin, A.K.A the “sleep hormone”—so it can help babies clear up the day/night confusion, sleep better, and has even been shown to reduce colic.
However, breast milk is much more easily digested than formula, which means they’ll be hungry more often. Typically, breastfed babies eat every few hours, sometimes even more frequently, especially in the first few weeks.
From the expert
“The human species is nomadic or semi-nomadic— women carried their babies throughout the day and fed on demand. Adults and older children also fed frequently throughout the day as food became available. The natural feeding patterns of babies are like other mammals that graze throughout the day.”Chaya Lighten, MHA, RPA-C, IBCLC
So…when will my baby start sleeping through the night?
Nearly 50% of moms will breastfeed their baby for at least 12 to 18 months—but that doesn’t mean they’re waking up every 2 hours for an entire year or more.
As healthy weight-gain is established and your baby grows, they’ll be able to go longer periods without being fed. Some newborns can sleep up to 5 hours between feeds and that amount of time will only increase as they get older.
How breastfeeding impacts mom’s sleep
Most breastfeeding moms feed on demand—which means they’re on-call for their baby 24/7. And if you’re exclusively breastfeeding (EBF), nursing duties can’t be shared with a partner or family member before bottles are introduced, so mom is taking the brunt of the work much of the time.
Ironically, studies have shown that EBF moms get more sleep than bottle-feeding parents. In fact, EBF moms report getting more hours of sleep, more daily energy, better overall physical health, and even show a lower risk for depression than moms who formula-feed. 
The hormone oxytocin is secreted during breastfeeding. This is often referred to as the “love hormone”, but it can also make a breastfeeding mother feed sleepy and relaxed—these recent studies have shown that parents of breastfed babies actually get more hours of sleep.
But that doesn’t mean that breastfeeding mothers are always getting enough sleep. Balancing breastfeeding with your other parenting duties, household chores, life, etc. can get overwhelming and often leads to sleep deprivation.
Breastfeeding itself should not be exhausting. If feeds are taking a long time or the interval between feeds is very short, it may be a sign of poor milk transfer and this is a reason for mom to reach out to a board-certified lactation consultant. While there are times that “cluster” feeding is expected, for example during growth spurts, if baby is needing to nurse “constantly” this is a matter that should be brought up with the pediatrician.
How to get enough sleep while breastfeeding
Making sure you and your baby get enough sleep is vital to both your health and overall wellbeing. Plus, avoiding sleep deprivation will make it easier to breastfeed for longer—providing numerous health benefits to your little one.
To make sure you’re getting enough sleep while breastfeeding, you should:
- Prepare yourself: know what to expect and plan ahead. Read 6 things no one tells you about breastfeeding.
- Save nighttime breastmilk for bedtime: if you’re pumping, make sure you’re giving your baby breastmilk that was expressed at night, so it will contain that “sleep hormone”, melatonin.
- Maximize time between feeds: while nothing will (and shouldn’t) keep your baby from waking up to feed, gently weighted Zen Sleepwear helps babies calm and relax, so you’ll spend less time helping your baby fall asleep and more time getting some rest yourself.
- Get advice from an expert: Start by reading 7 tips for better sleep while breastfeeding. And if you feel like you’re really struggling, consider seeing an IBCLC that can help you achieve your breastfeeding goals.
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