Babies wake up and drink breast milk at night because it is what nature intends them to do. Breastfed babies wake more frequently than their formula fed counterparts, because breast milk gets digested more quickly, thus making them hungry. When we nurse them back to sleep, not only are we satiating their hunger, we are letting them know that they are safe and that their cries will be heeded. We are building a trusting connection with our babies based on respect and responsiveness.
The Importance of Night Feeding
This natural night waking often takes its toll on new moms. Sometimes with the best of intentions they give formula to their infants before bed in hopes that they will sleep longer. However, nighttime feeds are very important for “informing the breasts” how much milk to make for the next day. When a mom doesn’t nighttime breastfeed, she risks decreasing her milk supply to the point of not being able to continue breastfeeding. If a woman is not producing enough milk and she’s not nursing at night, she can co-sleep with her child and breastfeed on cue to restore her supply.
Prolactin, the hormone responsible for helping the alveolar cells in the breast to make breast milk, is released from the pituitary gland during letdown. Research has shown the level of prolactin in breast milk is higher during times of highest milk production and that the highest prolactin levels occur in the middle of the night. Conversely, prolactin levels in the breast are lowest when the breasts are the most engorged.1 This means that babies who are allowed to nurse on demand will nurse with the frequency in order to ensure the correct milk supply for its unique growing needs.
Night waking is also nature’s way of helping to keep our babies safe from SIDS. A hungry baby wakes up and we attend to them. We rearrange their blankets and their sleeping position, and we breastfeed them. This is all a part of SIDS prevention. When my babies didn’t wake up every two hours, I used to get antsy and would check on their breathing. Sometimes they would wake up from all my fussing, but if so, I was secretly glad, just to know they were okay.
The Science of Mothering
Mothering Magazine did a feature article on the “Science of Sharing Sleep” in its January-February 2009 issue. In a subsequent issue there were a number of letters to the editor is regards to it. One in particular caught my attention, and I just quickly want to share two parts of it with you.
In this letter, the authors of the “Science of Sharing Sleep” article respond to criticism from two doctors who co-chair the Baltimore County Child Fatality Review team, which reviews all infant deaths in their county. Both letters were long, but worth mentioning is that the authors share a finding about the significant differences between how bottle-feeding moms and breastfeeding moms and baby pairs relate to their infants, behaviorally and physiologically. They make a pretty good argument against bedsharing between bottle-fed infants and their parents, as studies have shown that these pairs do not rouse as often to each others’ sounds and movements, and that exhibited sleeping positions are different and more problematic for safe sleeping.
What caught my attention the most though was this quote: “if it is true, as a recent national survey indicates, that breastfeeding mothers are three times more likely to bedshare than bottle feeding mothers, safe bedsharing combined with breastfeeding could itself eventually be statistically shown to be protective [from SIDS]“.
So not only can bed sharing and breastfeeding at night help protect your infant from SIDS, those nighttime feeds can maintain a correct milk supply as well as help meet your child’s attachment needs. Hopefully next time you’re bleary eyed and weary you will remember this. Especially in the early days and weeks it can make all the difference in the world to your baby’s health and wellness.
When done with care, co-sleeping is best for mother and child.2
Photo credit: sleeping by iandeth
Melodie is the mom of two girls (ages 3 and 6) and the author of Breastfeeding Moms Unite! where she talks a lot about breastfeeding a pre-schooler, but also provides tips and education about breastfeeding in general. She is also passionate about mom-to-mom support, natural/attachment parenting, real food, and vegetarianism. Melodie is also home schooling her oldest daughter, and has just returned to her mental health career after 6 years of being a SAHM.
This post has been edited from its original form, which was posted at Breastfeeding Moms Unite!
- The Breastfeeding Answer Book, La Leche League, 2003 ↩
- Here are the co-sleeping guidelines from Attachment Parenting International.
I also recommend The No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley for parents who are having sleep difficulties with their baby or toddler. Also see my post called Transitioning a Breastfeeding Toddler to Her Own Bed. ↩