Sleep Training and Breastfeeding

Why your baby’s frequent night wakings are important for breastfeeding success

When you have a new baby, sleep deprivation is no joke. But those middle-of-the-night feedings serve a purpose. Not only do they help your baby grow and thrive, but they contribute to your long-term breastfeeding success. For more info, we turned to Joan Kessler, RN, LCCE, IBCLC, to discuss everything from how sleep training can undermine the breastfeeding relationship to how breastfeeding moms can get more sleep.

Why do babies wake so often at night?

Babies aren’t physiologically designed to sleep through the night for the first several months of life, so your newborn breastfed baby will wake often overnight to eat. “Western society views infant sleep very differently than much of the world,” said Kessler. “Parents are intensely focused on how many hours their babies are sleeping and when they will sleep through the night.” Rather than viewing your baby waking up at night as a problem that requires a solution like sleep training, try to think of it as a healthy, physiologically normal occurrence—one that will pass in time.

How does sleep training affect milk supply?

While those frequent night wakings can contribute to very real sleep deprivation, overnight feedings are important for your milk supply and your long-term breastfeeding success. “In these first weeks of life, a mother’s milk supply is highly dependent on the amount of milk that is removed from her breasts each calendar day,” said Kessler. She explains it as a supply-and-demand relationship: “When demand is decreased, or shut off [as in the case of sleep training], the breasts decrease the amount of milk they are producing. When the process of decreasing feedings over a 24-hour period happens gradually and is driven by the infant’s feeding needs, a mother has a much better chance of achieving long-term breastfeeding success.”

What effects does sleep training have on breastfeeding moms and babies?

As a result of sleep training, moms may experience a decline in milk production, or even early and undesired weaning. It can also contribute to slow weight gain for babies, and in more extreme cases, weight loss. “Sleep training in young babies defies the science and evidence-based research that exists on newborn and infant sleep. We, as IBCLCs, also see the repercussions of sleep training in terms of undermining the breastfeeding relationship,” said Kessler. “We tend to be the ones to field the calls from the mother of the four-month-old baby, as an example, who has gained poorly between the two- and four-month check-up. When unpacking the details of what changed in the baby’s feeding pattern between those time frames, the length of overnight sleep is often a contributing, if not determining, factor.”

How can new moms and babies get more sleep?

Newborns sleep about eight to nine hours during the day and about eight hours at night, though that sleep is typically in very short increments. While night wakings are normal, that doesn’t mean your baby’s sleep habits are totally out of your hands. During the newborn stage, you can take steps to help you and your baby sleep better:

1. Read your baby’s cues

Avoid the dreaded overtired phase by paying attention to sleep cues that indicate your baby is tired, like rubbing eyes and yawning and putting her to bed at the first signs. Sharing a room also allows you to read and respond to your baby’s cues throughout the night. “Overnight, mothers and babies sleep better when they are close to one another. Sensory cues, breathing cues, and feeding cues are shared throughout the night,” said Kessler. Responding to these cues helps nurture your parent-child relationship and is crucial for your baby’s healthy development.

2. Create a sleep environment that encourages quality sleep

Use blackout curtains and skip any night lights to make the room as dark as possible. Add white noise from a sound machine or fan, and wrap your baby in a snug swaddle (but release his arms once he learns to roll over). Basically, you’re aiming to create a womb-like experience. No matter what, make sure to place your baby on his back in a safe sleep space—a firm, flat surface that is free from any soft blankets, bumpers or toys.

3. Establish a consistent bedtime routine

To encourage quality sleep, make the bedtime routine as consistent as you can. Include elements that work for you and your baby—maybe a warm bath, a soothing book or song, and of course, a nursing session or bottle. Moving through the same steps before each sleep time will help cue your baby that it’s time to settle down and rest.

4. Enlist help

Sleep deprivation is hard, but you don’t have to handle it alone. Trade-off with your partner and take naps when you can. “Good support in the home cannot be overstated,” said Kessler. “Allowing a family member or a girlfriend to clean your kitchen, prepare a meal, or do some laundry for a tired mama, is invaluable. There are also wonderful postpartum doulas that provide daytime and/or overnight support in the home.”

5. Trust your gut

If you decide to enlist professional help, work with a qualified individual who respects and understands the breastfeeding relationship and will recommend safe, practical ways to nurture sleep. “Please be leery of any resources that invoke rigid, drastic means to facilitate sleep in your precious babies,” said Kessler. “I always ask the parents I work with to trust their own ‘gut.’ Listen to that little voice inside; trust your instincts. Make parenting choices that feel right for your own unique family, and make those choices based in love.”

As moms ourselves, we at Ashland Breast Pumps knows that running on very little sleep is hard. But rest assured, it won’t last forever. If you have questions about breastfeeding and sleep training, get in touch with us. We can connect you with an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant who can help you and your baby establish a breastfeeding relationship that encourages quality sleep.