It’s an evolutionary trait that moms are wired to be responsive to their baby’s cries. Babies wake up at night because it is what nature intends them to do. Nature also intends that babies drink breast milk. Contrary to what you might hear, it is not normal for a baby to sleep through the night. And 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. This is one of the main premises of Attachment Theory and one of Dr. Sears “Seven Baby B’s:” Birth Bonding, Breastfeeding, Baby wearing, Bed sharing, Believing in the value of baby’s cry, Beware of baby trainers, and Balance.
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. I know when my babies didn’t wake up every two hours I used to get ansty and would check on their breathing. Sometimes they would wake up from all my fussing, but on those nights I was secretly glad, just to know they were okay.
However, this natural night waking phenomenon often takes its toll on new moms. Sometimes with the best of intentions they start giving formula to their infants before bed in hopes that they will sleep longer. The thing that these new moms don’t know is that night time feeds are very important for “informing the breasts” how much milk to make for the next day, and when a mom doesn’t nighttime breatfeed she runs the risk of decreasing her milk supply to the point that she puts the breastfeeding at risk.
A story was recently told to me about a woman who called her doula friend because her milk supply was running low. Her baby was three months old. It turned out mom had been very stressed and had cut out the nighttime feeds to get more sleep. The doula recommended she go to bed with her baby for a couple of nights and nurse on demand. The mom did it and her milk supply went right back up.
You see, prolactin levels are at their highest between 2:00 and 6:00 AM. Prolactin is the hormone responsible for helping the alveolar cells in the breast to make breastmilk, and it is released from the pituitary gland in response to a suckling baby. Research has shown that the level of prolactin in the milk is higher during times of highest milk production and that the highest prolactin levels occur in the middle of the night. Conversely, prolacatin levels in the breast are lowest when the breasts are the most engorged. (Souce: The Breastfeeding Answer Book, La Leche League, 2003). 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. Nature doesn’t make mistakes. Babies who nurse during the night are helping to release the prolactin to make more milk for the next day. So moms who wean their infants at night in order to get more sleep but who want to continue to breastfeed during the day may have some problems maintaining the same milk supply.
Mothering Magazine did a feature article on the “Science of Sharing Sleep” in its January-February 2009 issue, which I highly recommend reading. In its most recent issue there are 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, behaviourally and physiologically. They make a pretty good argument against bed sharing between bottle fed infants and their parents as studies have shown that these pairs do not rouse as often to each other’s 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). And how cool would that be to promote bed sharing?
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. Here are the co-sleeping guidelines from Attachment Parenting International: (Check out the first one!!)
If your baby sleeps with you:
1. Breastfeed your baby. Breastfeeding mothers spend more time in lighter stages of sleep, making them more aware of their baby. They also tend to sleep in a protective position (with knees bent upward) that prevents baby from moving down under the covers.
2. Place baby next to Mom, rather than between mother and father.
3. Use approved side rails or bed extenders when placing baby in the family bed. Fill in any crevice between the bed and walls, headboard, footboard, or furniture with a rolled-up baby blanket or towel. Placing the adult mattress on the floor (like a futon) creates the safest possible sleep environment.
4. Baby should not be left to sleep alone on an adult bed, even during naps. If parents do not have access to a crib or cosleeping device for naps, place a smaller mattress or futon on the floor, and make sure the room is child-proofed.
5. Be mindful about sharing sleep and settle the baby safely next to mom in a planned environment rather than falling asleep from exhaustion on the couch, a recliner, beanbag chair, or other unsafe place to share sleep.
6. Only primary caregivers should sleep with an infant. Do not allow babysitters or older siblings to sleep with baby.
Also, do not co-sleep with your baby if you have been drinking or doing drugs, are on a medication which makes you drowsy, or if you are a smoker, don’t co-sleep on a water bed or on a very soft matress, and don’t use those ultra fluffy duvets or other heavy blankets which can easily cover baby’s head and face and possibly suffocate the baby.
Also thanks to Catherine from My Birth Tree for her excellent breastfeeding talk who inspired me to share some of the above information. I am so pleased to have such a brilliant, caring woman/doula/childbirth educator/breastfeeding counsellor/Birthing From Within Mentor in my very own community! Please check out her lovely blog.
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.
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