Breastfeeding and Sleep

Promoting breastfeeding with 6 ways that stop the night wakings

By Maria Besini | September 14, 2020

Are you a breastfeeding mama? Are you incredibly happy with your decision to breastfeed, but also exhausted from waking up constantly at night ending up with breastfeeding your baby back to sleep? If you are wondering whether any of this is normal, I hear you. I have been there, and I know how hard and challenging that is, even if I couldn’t admit it at the time.

If you’ve made it through the “fourth trimester” but still wake up numerous times at night and are wondering whether there is something you can do to minimize those night wakings, this article is for you. You will find that there are some powerful solutions that can help you get more sleep and feel better rested without risking the breastfeeding relationship. Our sleep doesn’t have to suffer when we breastfeed.

The problem is that many moms give up breastfeeding because of exhaustion, as they lack the tools to overcome some challenges specifically associated with night feedings. Some of the moms who finally decide to give up breastfeeding may feel guilty or inadequate, or blame themselves for not being capable of seeing it through, or for not reaching the breastfeeding target they had set themselves.

On the other hand, more and more moms somehow manage to find the strength to carry on, pull through, and reach the goal they had set themselves, even if they haven’t slept properly for months. But those moms may be putting their physical, mental and emotional health at great risk because of extreme fatigue and sleep deprivation. In some cases, this can lead to autoimmune diseases, postpartum depression and countless other health issues.

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There are many obstacles keeping moms from creating a joyful breastfeeding experience while also enjoying a good night’s sleep; as a sleep consultant, I have identified here the most important and common ones. I often hear mothers expressing similar concerns: “Breastfeeding to sleep every time she wakes up is so stressful for me, I don’t think I can handle it. I want it to stop”, or “Maybe if I switch to formula she would make longer stretches of sleep”. Of course there is a flipside, too: “I have to keep breastfeeding no matter how exhausted I feel”, or “What kind of mother would I be if I gave up breastfeeding because I lost some sleep?”. And let’s not forget that moms are constantly bombarded with limited beliefs like “your baby is manipulating you”, or “you should stop breastfeed if you want them to sleep and be independent”.

Additionally, there are some moms who struggle with challenges like limited resources, financial difficulties, life in a foreign country or an unsupportive environment.

The solution I suggest to start by understanding which obstacles stand in your way. And whatever the obstacle might be, my message to you is this: “Listen to your heart and body, and trust what they are telling you.” If you choose to breastfeed your baby, there are ways to make it pleasurable for both of you. It can be an amazing experience and there is absolutely nothing to be afraid of with regards to sleep. On the contrary, you can use sleep as your ally to make this experience even better. It is time to bust the myth that bad sleep is an inevitable side effect of breastfeeding.

Before we go on, I feel I need to note that breastfeeding is, of course, a very personal decision. So is the decision to stop breastfeeding, or the decision to avoid the breastfeeding path altogether. I am not against any of those choices – there are often very good reasons behind them, and my role is to support young moms 100%, regardless of their choice.

However, I do want to help young moms make this choice consciously, and for the right reasons. And in order to be a conscious choice, it has to take under consideration some facts, like the baby’s developmental stage and unique needs, but also the mother’s unique needs. Young moms need to be informed of all the alternatives, without external pressure based on outdated ideas and mixed societal messages. If a young mom believes that breastfeeding will lead to poor sleep and exhaustion, she will be less likely to give it a good go – but I am here to tell you that breastfeeding and sleep deprivation don’t go hand in hand.

Now, let’s see the SIX POWERFUL WAYS that will help you reduce those wakings.

1. Assess any health issues/deficiencies

Food allergies/intolerances/reflux/eczema etc. are major factors when it comes to night wakings. Addressing them also hugely improves the breastfeeding relationship.

A baby suffering from inflammation, intense gas or reflux, can go through a vicious circle of feeding-sleeping-hurting-waking up.

This situation can make mom suffer, not only physically (by not getting enough sleep) but also emotionally, because her baby is in pain. It can also damage the breastfeeding relationship; many mothers develop feelings of resentment towards breastfeeding, or decide to turn to formula.

If you suspect that maybe this is your case, inform your pediatrician and don’t hesitate to consult additionally a specialist i.e. an allergist or gastroenterologist.

A special diet for mother and baby (if your little one has started solids), recommended by a medical specialist, in conjunction with some other solutions (probiotics, tummy massages, burping, holding upright, and various alternative therapeutic practices such as naturopathy, acupuncture, etc.), can help with the specific issue your baby might have. This way you can avoid turning to formula and maintain a healthy breastfeeding relationship.

Low level of iron, lack of Vitamin D, or other deficiencies can also cause babies to wake up at night. If you suspect something like that, check with your pediatrician. If your child has already started eating solids, make sure you provide her every day with foods rich in iron, as well as all the other nutrients and minerals that she needs.

A tongue tie or a lip tie. According to the Mayo Clinic, “breast-feeding requires a baby to keep his or her tongue over the lower gum while sucking. If unable to move the tongue or keep it in the right position, the baby might chew instead of suck on the nipple. This can cause significant nipple pain and interfere with a baby’s ability to get breast milk. Ultimately, poor breast-feeding can lead to inadequate nutrition and failure to thrive.” And I would like to add that this also means more wakings! If you suspect your baby may have a tongue or lip tie, consult a specialist as soon as possible.

Craniosacral therapy. “Craniosacral therapy eases the tightness in the baby’s mouth, head and neck, leading to breastfeeding success. Birth also effects the alignment of the baby’s head and body. CST aligns the body structurally and gets all the systems working properly — eating, pooping, sleeping,” says CST therapist, Barbara Coon, LMT.

If you had a difficult pregnancy or labor, if you had a C-section, if your baby was in a difficult position, or if things overall didn’t go as you wished, consider seeing an osteopath with your little one. A few sessions could do wonders for your baby’s sleep.

Assessing mom’s health (physical and emotional) is one of the most important aspects as well. Considering that mother and child affect one another in so many ways, they both need to be healthy and happy. A mom who is not feeling well or is suffering from health issues won’t sleep well. Babies’ sleep is greatly influenced by parents’ sleep, potentially leading to multiple wakings at night. Don’t leave yourself behind. You can offer a lot more to your baby when you are strong and healthy.

2. Know your baby’s biological and developmental needs.

Knowing what to expect from your baby or toddler with regards to sleep can make those night wakings much easier and less emotionally charged. Understanding the science behind why your infant has such short naps, knowing when he is ready to start sleeping for longer stretches at night, being aware of how many feeds he needs throughout the night, and so on, can help you make better decisions and more conscious choices.

But these are not the only benefits. Knowing when her circadian rhythms develop can help you be prepared about what you can practically do to promote the sync of her biological clock within the day/night cycle. It can also help you establish healthy sleep habits from early on, such as at 3 or 4 months, promoting longer stretches of sleep and smoother transitions as she grows up and her biological needs change. Another benefit is that learning the science behind your baby’s developmental stage will give you the confidence to counter all those limited beliefs and ideas that you may be bombarded with.

3. Maintain a consistent schedule and make a bedtime routine that rocks

Having a consistent schedule creates a sense of safety in babies and children, so it is considered to be one of the greatest factors promoting uninterrupted sleep. Keep a consistent schedule every day. Grab a pen and paper and work out a schedule according to your baby’s developmental needs (you can easily find charts from reliable sources online) combined with the sleep cues and communication language (behaviour) of your baby, and adjust it to your family’s lifestyle. This can do wonders for her sleep at night. Stick to a schedule that suits you best, but also be creative and keep some level of flexibility in order to avoid getting stressed or miss opportunities that can be more beneficial for your family. Try to maintain a balance to keep your family happy without sacrificing your baby’s need for sleep or your wellbeing. Finally, remember to review this schedule every once in a while; needs and behaviour change very quickly in babies and children as they grow up.

A relaxing, calm and predictable bedtime routine, including perhaps a warm bath, comfy pj’s, storytelling or singing etc, along with maintaining a peaceful atmosphere throughout this time, can prepare your baby’s nervous system for sleep within a context of love and safety. Grab this chance to spend some undistracted and connected time with each other. It can help the baby but also the mother to reduce stress which is a risk factor for low milk production and multiple wakings as well.

4. Environment

Other reasons why a baby can wake up during night have to do with the sleep environment. Maybe she is hot or cold; maybe there is too much light in the room, or maybe something else in her environment is making her uncomfortable. When we make sure we can eliminate those disturbing factors by creating an ideal environment to promote sleep, we automatically improve sleep and reduce night wakings. One of the most important tips of that article is to ensure plenty of exposure to natural light (for example, by planning a morning walk outside) for both mother and baby, which has multiple benefits:

All the above mean less wakings and therefore more uninterrupted sleep.

5. Emotional wellbeing and Attachment

By creating a safe and peaceful space within our home and within the members of our family, we can ensure our baby that he is welcome in this world.

Meeting your baby’s emotional needs – and not just the physical needs – (and the process of healing any kind of trauma, if any) creates a safe context for the baby, which means she will feel more relaxed and wake up less.

Remember that the best place for your baby is beside you – or even on you – smelling you, tasting you, hearing your voice and looking into your eyes. Use approaches that promote attachment like skin-to-skin contact, bathing together, bed-sharing or co-sleeping, baby-wearing, eye contact, one-to-one time, planning activities when she is awake and alert and introducing different kinds of play. In case of trauma, you can use therapeutic play, therapy for parents and other approaches to trauma resolution. And don’t forget to offer lots of cuddles and affection. Lean towards your baby, listen to him and learn to read his signs. All these methods can benefit both of you, by promoting a good night’s sleep and a healthy breastfeeding relationship at the same time. Needless to say that if any of the above bonding techniques doesn’t feel right for you or your baby, no problem at all! Choose what makes you both feel great.

And again, let’s not forget mom’s needs either. Listen to your needs, show compassion to yourself and ask for support whenever you need it. Put dad in the game -if he is not already in- and ask for external support in the areas where you need it the most. If you struggle emotionally, consider therapy. If you struggle to meet your needs, or you struggle with meeting all your baby’s needs, don’t hesitate to ask for help. You are not supposed to handle it all alone. Get the right support for you.

You could also find some relaxation techniques that suit your personality. There are so many to choose from – mindfulness, iRest, yoga or even just breathing. Try it! It can be more helpful than you’d think.

6. Nutrition

Following a diet that promotes sleep can help both of you. Wakings that are due to hunger, thirst, missing nutrients or the discomfort you will experience if you eat the wrong types of food at night before bed, will probably lead to you breastfeeding your little one back to sleep. Maintaining a healthy diet, and eating foods before bed that have been proven to promote sleep, can reduce those wakings. Choose protein-rich foods that can boost your milk supply and promote good sleep, as well as foods that contain tryptophan, an amino-acid that converts into melatonin, the “sleep hormone”.

Whatever kind of diet you choose for your baby or toddler, make sure you are providing him with all the nutrients he needs in order to be healthy and thriving. If you are not sure you’re doing it right, consult your pediatrician or a nutritionist. Try to make conscious choices when it comes to nutrition, as it is one of the most important factors that influence sleep.

If, after making changes and maintaining them for a couple of weeks, your child still wakes up too many times, maybe it is time to consider alternative options. For example, you could consider night-weaning if the child’s age is appropriate (and if there aren’t any other reasons to keep night feeding). A night-weaning method that I find very gentle for toddlers and does not put breastfeeding in danger, is Jay Gordon’s method, which you can read about here.

Remember to strengthen your attachment and connection to your baby, and make sure she gets plenty of food throughout the day (increase day-time breastfeeding and provide nutrient-rich meals) to make the transition easier for her.

However, keep in mind that your baby may still wake up once until around the age of 3. This is absolutely normal developmentally and you don’t “need” to do something to change that. The important element that makes those wakings normal though is that your baby or toddler is able to fall back to sleep within some minutes.

If you are unsure about what decisions to make, you can always ask for professional guidance and support to help you identify the root causes of your child’s sleep challenges and provide you with the right tools to resolve them.

I hope you found these suggestions useful. You can always get in touch with me if you have any questions.

One thought that I would like to leave you with:

The happier and more restful you are, the better your breastfeeding experience, and the better your relationship to yourself and your child. So there’s no time like today to change what is not working.

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