You are exhausted, you are recovering from growing and birthing your beautiful baby. And no, he doesn’t sleep ‘all night ‘ yet (in infant sleep studies ‘all night’ is defined as five hours).
If even five uninterrupted hours sleep sounds like a dream come true and the pressure to ‘teach’ your baby to sleep for much longer right from the early days has you doubting your mothering skills, your milk supply and your baby’s ‘goodness’ take heart. Your baby isn’t being a dick if he wakes every couple of hours through the night wanting a boob.
Check out these very important things you need to know about night time feeds – they will settle all those niggling doubts and help you believe in your self, your baby and your boobs.
1) Breastfeeding at night will boost your milk supply
Prolactin, the hormone that influences your milk making capacity is at its highest levels over night, especially in the very early morning. Research studies show that the more your baby sucks over a 24 hour period, the higher your serum levels of prolactin. This means that not only will your baby get more milk when he breastfeeds in the wee small hours, but you will be maintaining your levels of milk making hormones around the clock (no hormonal dips that can gradually affect your milk supply). Also, because your milk supply is regulated on a supply and demand basis – the more milk you remove, the more your body is signaled to make – your milk supply will be more robust in the longer term if you respond to your baby’s needs for night feeds. This is especially important in the early weeks and months as your breast are undergoing more development of prolactin receptors that will encourage better milk production for longer.
2) Breastfeeding at night will help your baby develop his circadian rhythm
Your newborn won’t be able to distinguish night from day for a few months because he doesn’t yet have a circadian rhythm. Your baby won’t produce his own melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone that is released at night time for many months. However, your evening and night time breast milk not only has melatonin but other proteins that will help your baby fall asleep more easily – this is why most young babies fall asleep quickly after a night time feed. It’s also thought that the melatonin in your night milk will help your baby establish his circadian rhythm (day night cycle) and start stretching out his night time sleeps sooner.
3) Breastfeeding at night will boost your baby’s brain
Evening and night-time breast milk is rich in tryptophan, a sleep inducing amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin. Night time breast milk also has amino acids that promote serotonin synthesis. Seratonin is a vital hormone for brain function and development that makes the brain work better, keeps one in a good mood and helps with sleep cycles. We now know that ingestion of tryptophan in infancy leads to more serotonin development, creating the potential for life-long well-being.
So, instead of wishing your baby would just ‘sleep through’, it can help to try and consider night milk as ‘smart milk’ and see those snuggly night feeds as priming your baby’s brain for long-term health and happiness.
4) Breastfeeding at night could delay your periods
Frequent suckling at the breast – day and night – can delay ovulation and the return of menstruation for six months or longer Woohoo!). This delay in getting periods means that your body can recover the iron stores that were depleted during pregnancy. So, although you are waking to feed your baby, you are healing your own body and getting back your mama mojo as you nurture your little one. Some women can go up to two years without a period while breastfeeding, although other women are less fortunate and find their periods return after just a few months of breastfeeding.
Delaying your return to fertility and postponing periods is more likely if your baby relies completely on breast-feeding for nourishment and for all of his sucking needs – frequency of sucking makes the difference to your hormonal response. This means exclusive breastfeeding day and night, no dummies or bottles, breastfeeding for comfort and keeping baby close/co-sleeping so you can notice and respond to feeding cues promptly.
5) Breastfeeding at night will help you get more sleep
While you may think breastfeeding will mean you get less sleep, one study of over 6000 women showed that infants who were breastfed in the evening and/or at night slept an average of 40-45 minutes more than parents of infants given formula. And while you may think 45 minutes isn’t a big deal, try doing the maths – 45 minutes every night over just one month (multiply by 30 nights), could really have an effect on your energy levels and day-time functioning. So snuggle up, turn the clock to the wall and stop counting how much sleep you may be missing.
Instead, relax, breathe in that beautiful baby smell and try to see these night breastfeeds as an investment in your child’s wellbeing and your own, and the precious connection between you.
Pinky McKay is an IBCLC lactation consultant and best selling author of Sleeping Like a Baby and Parenting by Heart (Penguin Random House). She is also the creator of Boobie Bikkies, all natural and organic cookies to boost energy and support a healthy milk supply.