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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Merino

Breastfeeding and Better Sleep: How breastmilk helps your newborn sleep

Guest blog post written by: Rhiannon Phillips, RN, IBCLC 

When you become a parent, sleep often becomes a hot topic. Questions like “Is he a good baby? Does she sleep well? Are you getting any sleep?” are usually the first ones asked by friends and family after baby’s arrival. We are willing to do just about anything to get good sleep especially in those early newborn days, so let’s explore the relationship between breastfeeding and infant sleep and share some tips about how to get better rest for everyone. And spoiler alert: ALL babies are good babies! 

Why doesn’t my baby sleep all night?

Misconceptions when it comes to breastfeeding and newborn sleep can be confusing and might lead to early weaning. There is not enough evidence that supports formula-fed babies sleeping better. Or, that night waking is a sign of low milk supply. The truth: babies are born with no circadian rhythm, meaning no sense of day or night. This doesn’t get regulated until about 4 months of age. It is completely normal newborn behaviour to wake at night to eat or just to be comforted. The same is true for older babies. In a study of babies aged 6-12 months, 57% of them were still waking at night and needed help to go back to sleep. 

Breastmilk and its influence on sleep 

There are several components of breastmilk that help promote infant sleep. Nighttime breastmilk contains an abundance of melatonin which babies do not secrete on their own. This has a relaxing, hypnotic effect which makes your baby sleepy. Since newborns cannot differentiate between day and night, breastfeeding at night will help them regulate this aspect. While some formula-fed babies might be sleeping longer stretches, research shows that exclusively breastfed infants have a tendency for longer overall nighttime sleep and less colic, due to the presence of substantial melatonin in nighttime breastmilk. 

Prolactin and oxytocin are other important hormones involved in breastfeeding which influence sleep. Prolactin levels are higher overnight, so night feeds in the early newborn period are especially beneficial in establishing your milk supply. These hormones have sleep-inducing properties for you and your baby. They also relax your nervous system, soothe stress and anxiety, helping you fall asleep quickly and stay asleep. 

Sleep tips for breastfeeding families

Helping your baby sleep well and establishing good sleep habits does not have to come at the cost of weaning breastfeeding early or supplementing unnecessarily. Here are some tips to promote good sleep for you and your little one: 

  1. Ensure breastfeeding is going well. Meet with a lactation consultant to assess latching, length, and quality of feeds. Suboptimal breastfeeding can cause an imbalance between foremilk and hindmilk, which can affect latch, milk supply, and cause more frequent night waking. 

  2. If you are combination feeding breastmilk and formula, try to do a breastfeed at bedtime, or consider a dream feed at night. This milk will have more melatonin to encourage sleep. 

  3. Promoting and protecting your own well-being is just as important, so find ways you can rest and sleep when you can. The well-known saying of “sleep when the baby sleeps” isn’t always practical and in that case, you can find other activities to promote self-care like taking a walk, having a bath, or reading a good book. 

Having postpartum support is essential and when new mamas and babies are sleeping well, everyone thrives. Our teams at PUSH Mama Care and Sleeping Beautiezzz are here to support you in this wonderful new journey, mama! 

Rhiannon is a Registered Nurse and Internationally Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) with PUSH Mama Care based in Toronto, Ontario. The team at PUSH specializes in providing expert perinatal care to expectant families and new parents across Canada. Contact us today for private virtual or in-home care including breastfeeding and lactation support, prenatal and newborn courses, nutrition support, and infant/pediatric CPR and choking workshops.

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