Night nursing presents a sometimes challenging time for breastfeeding moms. We all want to give our babies the amazing benefits of breast milk, but sometimes we just need some sleep. Remember that in the first 8-12 weeks of breastfeeding, it really is important to nurse 8-12 times each 24 hour period, which will inevitably mean some feedings in the wee hours. For facts about Night Nursing, see my article "Night Nursing and Sleep Deprivation" in related links at the end of this article.
But if babies are nursing very frequently and efficiently during the day, or as babies grow, there are ways to maximize sleep. There is no “magic age” when babies are ready to sleep longer, but here are some tips and tricks that to try out and see if you can eke out at least a little more sleep for you and your baby.
• For younger babies, try swaddling to increase length of sleep periods. If you can't get the baby to stay in the swaddle, or you feel like they hate it, it's ironically often because you are not swaddling them tightly enough. Try Harvey Karp's method of swaddling from The Happiest Baby on the Block, or we had great success with a Miracle Blanket swaddler (also nice in warmer months, because you can leave their lower body out of the blanket). This alone may increase their stretches of sleep. We did it until about 7 months, and our daughter slept longer stretches then than she does now! You can also pick the baby up and nurse them swaddled, which helps them learn the difference between night and day, so even if they nurse frequently at night, they go back to sleep. For a breastfed baby, "sleeping through the night" does not mean going without nursing, it means to go the night *only* nursing and sleeping, but without a period of play/wakefulness.
• Consider co-sleeping if the sleep deprivation is really knocking you out, particularly if you work or have other children (be sure to follow guidelines for safe co-sleeping). The period when I co-slept with my daughters is the best sleep I ever got since having kids. Somewhere between 1-4 months, you baby will be big enough and well-established enough on the breast to nurse in the side-lying position. As some point, the baby can even find the nipple and latch on by themselves! I used to sleep through many nursings, if not the whole thing, at least I could fall back asleep once the baby got started. Even smaller-breasted women can often nurse from both sides without flipping the baby to the other side of the body (trust me, if I can, almost anybody can!). And despite what you may be told by well-meaning friends and pediatricians, bringing a baby into your bed is not a lifetime bedsharing sentence. My daughters both co-slept until about 9 months, after which their active sleep patterns created poor sleep for all of us. It was not hard to transition them into their own space and their own room without tears. If your bed or sleep situation makes it impossible to co-sleep safely, consider a bedside co-sleeper or even just a bassinet or pack-n-play in your room.
• Try a dreamfeed. It may take several tries to get the pattern going, but after the first couple weeks most babies (especially swaddled babies) can be picked up when sleeping, will nurse in their sleep, and stay asleep when done. That way you can maximize the stretch of sleep you get right after you go to bed until baby needs to nurse again.
• Send in reinforcements. Babies need to feed frequently at night, both for the milk and for the connection with you, especially if you are not co-sleeping. However, after about 6 months or so, if you need longer stretches, try sending in Daddy or another family member to see if they will go back to sleep without nursing. If my daughter wakes before about 2 ˝ hours, it's often because she's had a little gas. Daddy can just pat her back and she'll calm back down, but I'd never get away with that – once she smells the milk in the room, she's got to nurse. Eventually, you can extend the time threshold and you may find that it's habit and not nutrition that's causing the frequent wakings. Usually it only takes a week or less to see a change, so if you can get your husband on board for that time frame, it can make a difference.
If something doesn’t work but still seems like it might be a fit for your family, wait a few days or weeks and try again. Remember, this too shall end. While night nursing may seem endless at the time, this really represents a small period in our children’s lives, and believe it or not, one of the easier things they will require of us in the long run! Do your best to enjoy your snuggly little one in the wee hours of the night, knowing that soon enough, this time will be behind you.
Disclaimer: All material on the BellaOnline.com Breastfeeding website is provided for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Although every effort is made to provide accurate and up-to-date information as of the date of publication, the author is neither a medical doctor, health practitioner, nor a Certified Lactation Consultant. If you are concerned about your health, or that of your child, consult with your health care provider regarding the advisability of any opinions or recommendations with respect to your individual situation. Information obtained from the Internet can never take the place of a personal consultation with a licensed health care provider, and neither the author nor BellaOnline.com assume any legal responsibility to update the information contained on this site or for any inaccurate or incorrect information contained on this site, and do not accept any responsibility for any decisions you may make as a result of the information contained on this site or in any referenced or linked materials written by others.