Breastfeeding – Does your baby really need night feeds?

It’s dark and still. The world is sleeping. At least, the world of people without babies is asleep. Your baby is awake, snuggled at your breast, slurping the good stuff. Mostly, night time breastfeeds feel precious and beautiful. You know in your heart that these sweet moonlight cuddles will end soon but there are niggling doubts about night time nursing, especially if your baby is a ‘certain age’.

There is so much conflicting advice about when to stop night time breastfeeds: One book says, ‘when your baby weighs ten pounds he will no longer need night feeds’ (Three of my own babies wouldn’t have had night feeds from birth). Another says,’ your baby should sleep 12 hours without a feed at 12 weeks’ (try telling that to a baby who hasn’t read this book!).This advice is fairly extreme, but it’ s common to be told by a health professional, that your baby doesn’t need night feeds after four to six months.

In reality, many babies DO need night feeds up to and beyond six months. From a baby’s perspective, there are a number of reasons for breastfeeding at night – hunger of course is the first reason but night nursing is about so much more than food. Breastfeeding is about comfort, connection and immunity, as well as food. It is also nutrition for a baby’s brain and this means that as your baby enters new developmental stages, he will most likely go on a feeding binge to fuel his growing brain. When he has been exposed to a bug, he will need to ‘tank up’ on the amazing immune factors in your milk and when he is in pain or uncomfortable, perhaps from teething, the relaxing chemicals in breast milk will soothe your little one. Also, as your baby goes through normal stages of experiencing separation anxiety, he will want to connect to ‘the source’ through the security of your arms and the comfort of breastfeeding. At night time too, prolactin, the hormone that facilitates breast milk production as well as bonding and attachment reaches the highest levels during night time breastfeeds. This means your baby will probably get the ‘best milk’ at night. Recent research also shows that eighty percent of our seratonin receptors are in the gut and night time breastmilk is rich in tryptophan, a precursor to seratonin – so this magic mummy milk is also helping the development of seratonin receptors and a healthy foundation for future well-being.

When we consider hunger as a reason for night time feeding, we tend to think of small babies with tiny tummies that need frequent refills to get their quota of nutrition. However, older babies can be hungry too – around 5 months most babies become so easily distracted from feeds during the day when there is so much to look at in the big exciting world around that they get into a ‘reverse cycling’ feeding pattern – taking short feeds during the day and ‘tanking up’ during the night. Babies who are developing new skills also have powerful innate urges to practise rolling, crawling and pulling themselves up all day long so their day feeds become short. It’s as though they can’t stop to feed because there is so much ‘work’ to do. Also, think how many calories a mobile baby burns as he does endless ‘push ups’ or hurtles around the floor! These babies will often wake at night to satisfy hunger and to fuel their developing brains. There is no evidence that feeding your baby full of solids will be an answer either because, even if they are eating family foods, milk is still the most important source of nutrition for babies under a year old. Also, if little tummies are stressed by too much food or upset by new foods (constipation is fairly common if solids are pushed too hard), your baby could be more even more wakeful and wanting to suck for comfort.

Besides baby reasons for night feeds, the most important ‘mummy reason’ is maintaining your milk supply. In the early days, your breasts need frequent stimulation to ‘set’ your milk production capacity as your milk supply is influenced by post birth hormones. Also, in the first three months after birth, there is more breast development happening – you are developing more prolactin receptors, which will encourage your ongoing milk supply. Although most women (without medical conditions that may inhibit milk production), make a similar amount of milk, women have different breast milk storage capacities. This simply means that some women will need to feed more frequently than others, rather like pouring fluid into a smaller glass or a larger one. If you have a smaller ‘storage capacity’ you will need to empty your breasts more often so that your body is signalled to make more milk. US Lactation consultant Nancy Morhbacher explains: A mother with a large storage capacity has the room in her milk-making glands to comfortably store more milk at night before it exerts the amount of internal pressure needed to slow her milk production. On the other hand, if the baby of the small-capacity mother sleeps for too long at night, her breasts become so full that her milk production slows.”

If you are a mother with a smaller milk storage capacity (this isn’t necessarily related to the size of your breasts) or if you have a medical condition such as PCOS, Diabetes, Insufficient Glandular Tissue or Thyroid conditions that may make your milk supply more fragile, night feeds may need to continue for many months for you to maintain your milk supply and for your baby to thrive.

The important thing is not how much milk your baby gets at each feed, but how much he gets over twenty four hours. This means that if you schedule your baby’s feeds and space out feeds during the day, your baby will wake for feeds at night. If you have a smaller milk storage capacity, a vulnerable milk supply, a baby who is distracted or busy during the day, or a baby who has any sort of feeding issue such as low muscle tone or perhaps a tongue tie that affects how effectively he feeds, your baby may take less milk at each feed so he will need more feeds over a day (and night) to get his ‘quota’.

You can try offering more feeds during the day or several feeds closer together before bed to help your little one (and you!) make it longer through the night. Meanwhile, enjoy those sweet snuggles, learn how to breastfeed lying down so you get more rest, gather support so you can rest during the day if night feeds are tiring you out and remember the mummy mantra for when the going gets tough – ‘this too shall pass.’ It will, I promise – your little one may like to snuggle up to a warm breast at night when he’s eighteen, but it won’t be yours!


An Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant, infant massage instructor and best-selling baby care author, Pinky McKay is the author of 4 books, including ‘Sleeping Like a Baby ‘ which offers research, evidence and gentle sleep solutions from birth to three years

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  1. kez evans Says Reply

    I need to thank you for writing exactly what I needed to hear at this point of my life… I have a rambunctious 5 and a half year old and a 10 mth old, I am 43 and feeling every moment of raising my 2 precious girls, on hardly any sleep and relentless demands (and fun!) during the day…

    Our babe slept well (day and night) until she was about 5/6 mths old, but since then she does 2 half hr sleeps (or abit more on a lucky day) and wakes after 4 hrs into her night sleeping every 1 or 2 hrs… This has been a pattern happening for about 5 mths now, I feel like I am constantly jet lagged and I struggle not to be too grumpy all the time!!! So to ‘survive’ I have moved the babes cot into our room, and hubby into the spare room as she sleeps (or should I say snuggles) with me for most of the night, which I both love and hate, sleep deprivation is a killer…

    I don’t feel understood, and I mostly feel judged that our babe is a crap sleeper, and when I took the step towards the professionals (QEC) for ‘gentle’ help, what I got was what your recent email explained, harsh advice to let her cry it out, and co sleeping will lead to more problems later on. Luckily I have an exceptional friend, an ABA counsellor, who directed me your way, along with other gentle approach authors/presenters. She also has listened to me, understood, made me feel not alone and given me facts which make me feel like I am doing the best I can. I love her for this and I love you for providing ‘gentle’ information that makes so much sense, and coming from a professional makes you feel normal!!!

    so thankyou Pinky, your words mean the world to me and my family : )

    • Jess Says Reply

      I’m very curious to hear the advice you have been given – my 10 month old son sounds very much the same!

      • Nessa Saurus Says Reply

        My older boy sounds exactly the same when was that age, until well over 1 year (sorry). I was going out of my mind and all I heard was “you need to look after yourself”, “he needs more sleep!” etc, all translating to “leave him to cry”. Eventually, what helped was reading the phrase (can’t remember where) “it’s not a problem until it’s a problem”. He was fine with the amount of sleep he got, so I just had to let it go. I stopped looking at the clock. I stopped recording wake ups, I stopped counting them. I started encouraging myself to sleep through nursing him. I started asking for help during the day/evening do I could rest. I stopped listening to everyone else and started listening to me and him.

      • Danielle Says Reply

        I wish my 6 month old would sleep 4 hours in a row!

  2. Sabella Fuss Says Reply

    I could repeat every word that Kez said above! I have a very similar situation with my 7 months old, and when I feel myself edging closer to thinking about the cry it out approach which is everywhere the more you ask for advice, reading articles like this give me the strength to carry on. So many of your points ring true – my little one is so distractable, currently learning to crawl and really move, and so go go go I suspect she doesn’t take her fill during the day. So night times it it!

  3. Louise Jones Says Reply

    Kez could of been talking about me and my 11mth old daughter. We co sleep, feed to sleep and for the past few nights dd was waking every 2 hrs for a feed. I was thinking something I was doing wrong was the cause – forgetting that bf is still key I’d actually dropped a couple of day feeds to make room for solids, but i added 2 more day feeds and well last night we got a couple less night wakings and a bit more sleep. DD also put herself back to sleep a couple of times as well. Thank you pinky for this post!!

  4. Dani Says Reply

    Such a relief to read these articles my son is 13 n a half months and has 2-3 night feeds! Its exhausting but we dont have these moments forever!!

  5. Sleepless Says Reply

    I’ve read this post four or five times now – often at4:00am. I believe in every word of it. But we are week 5 now of our 6 month old waking around every hour. We co sleep but sometimes she seems more comfortable alone so I move her to her hammock next to the bed. She wakes crying and won’t resettle without breastfeeding. I want to keep going and allow her to make changes when she’s ready but I think I’ve only had 3 hours of unbroken sleep in weeks. Is this normal? Do we need to make changes or be patient? She’s a very happy girl when awake.

  6. Exhausted Says Reply

    Reading this article is reassuring but I am worried as my 6 month old use to feed to sleep and then sleep all night now she wakes every 2 hours and will only settle in I feed her. I am exhausted and have to return to work in 3 weeks. I xant bear the thought of leaving her to cry. Will this change, is it me feeding her to sleep that is causing her to constantly wake? Any suggestions would be great!

    • Exhausted Says Reply

      I haven’t got any advice I’m afraid but I could have written your post. My little one just wants to feed all the time and her sleeping is getting shorter and shorter. I feel like I’ve done something wrong…

    • Veri Says Reply

      I am on the same boat! I’m so sleep deprived, I think I’m gonna crack. Has your situation gotten any better? Have you thought about controlled crying yet? I’ve tried, but don’t think I can do it again I’m afraid!

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  8. Shelly Says Reply

    Hello, just wanted to comment on that first paragraph. Not all moms find be to be warm and fuzzy. And that’s okay. A small portion of moms experience DMER (dysphoric milk ejection reflex) which is s negative feeling just prior to milk let down. It’s caused due to the hormones dropping to far, too fast in some women. Just s heads up to let any mothers know about this condition if they just feel weird and can’t work out why it doesn’t feel good. Thanks

  9. Meg Says Reply

    I read articles like this and they don’t help the issue

    When the list of feeding to sleep pros is a small list of bullet points and the cons is elaborate (and not what I would consider cons either) and obviously authored by some one with no scientific basis other than her own opinion and anecdotal experience. These subtle anti breastfeeding messages are quite frustrating!!

  10. monicawoodlm Says Reply

    Hi nice article, thanks for sharing this information with me. I am so relaxed after reading this post. Keep posting such useful articles.

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