Sleep deprivation and breastfeeding

Sleep deprivation and breastfeeding

Feeding for baby |  2 mins reading time

A baby sucking on their mom's breast in dim lighting

During the first months their newborn’s life, parental sleep deprivation can have a big impact. A newborn’s rhythm of feeding and sleeping means parents can find themselves forced to function on nothing more than short bursts of light sleep – which clashes with an adult’s need for 7-9 hours1 of continuous sleep.

Strong emotions and deep insecurity often arise as parents try to find ways to cope with night feedings – even among parents who have already experienced newborns. Midwives and related healthcare professionals play an important role in building confidence and reassuring parents.

Feeling bad about being exhausted

Informing mothers of the physiology of sleep is a good place to start. Because they aren’t able to sleep for longer periods of time, they are often missing that all-important REM phase of sleep, which begins after about 90 minutes. And a lack of REM sleep lessens one’s resilience to stress and the ability to think clearly. So it’s only natural that they feel exhausted and flustered.

Midwives report that mothers want to respect their baby’s nocturnal feeding patterns, but they also seriously crave a good night’s sleep. Moms often feel guilty about transitioning to bottle feeding – even if it’s a way to share the night feedings with their partner. They may worry that bottle feeding will interfere with bonding, and that they will negatively impact baby’s development if they don’t always respond to their newborn’s feeding pattern.

Tips from fellow midwives

Parents value the support of midwives, and recommendations based on the mother’s specific situation. Your experience and knowledge strengthens them, by offering security and confidence. Tips from fellow midwives include:

  • Look at parents’ and baby’s sleeping conditions, to see if any adjustments can be made. For example, bedrooms that are too hot or too cold can disturb baby’s sleep2, so they wake up and need more attention at night.
  • Explain the pros and cons of using bottles for night feeds, so parents can make a well-informed decision – and possibly share the responsibility.
  • Suggest not letting baby fall asleep at the breast at night – and to replace this with plenty of physical contact.
  • Reassure moms that they are great mothers, even if they (or their partner) feed their baby by bottle.

And when mothers worry about losing contact with their baby, assure them that feeding is not their only bond. As partners help with bottle feeding, and night feeding lessens, physical contact with baby should become a conscious part of their day. Together they will find their common biological rhythm, so all family members can be happy.

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Nemours Foundation. A Guide for First-Time Parents: Sleeping Basics.

Read more

National Sleep Foundation. Helping Yourself to a Good Night's Sleep.

Brown A, Harries V. Infant sleep and night feeding patterns during later infancy: association with breastfeeding frequency, daytime complementary food intake, and infant weight. Breastfeed Med. 2015 Jun;10(5):246-52. doi: 10.1089/bfm.2014.0153. Epub 2015 May 14. PMID: 25973527.

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