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August 18, 2020
By Andrea Tran RN, BSN, MA, IBCLC
Having your sleep interrupted several times a night is one of the most challenging parts of being a new mom. A baby sleeping through the night is a milestone that most mothers look forward to. There are some important ways that these long stretches of sleep by your baby can affect breastfeeding.
To answer this question you need to define what length of sleep is considered sleeping through the night. There are generally three different answers.
Some sources report that the majority of infants sleep through the night by three months. Other studies report that this does not happen until some time during 6-12 months. It is also helpful to remember that just because a child starts sleeping through the night does not ensure they will continue to sleep long stretches.
Typically a baby will have periods where they sleep through the night and times when they wake during the night again. As they get older the longer periods of sleep will become more consistent.
If a baby gradually increases how long he is sleeping there may not be any noticeable effect on breastfeeding. If your baby goes from sleeping four hours to six or eight hours in one night you will probably experience some breast engorgement. How severe the engorgement is will depend on how long you go without breastfeeding or pumping.
If you are just mildly uncomfortable it’s best not to do anything. This sends the message to your breasts to not make so much milk at this time. If it is a very long stretch and you wake up engorged you can try to wake your infant and have her breastfeed.
You can also pump a little bit of milk off. Avoid pumping your breasts until they are empty. There is the chance that your baby could wake up hungry right after you pump. You also want your breasts to adjust what time of day they are making milk. Pumping until you are empty will tell your breasts to continue to make milk throughout the night.
If you are just mildly uncomfortable putting some ice packs on your breast may provide some relief.
Most people will stop making as much milk in the middle of the night. Because your baby will probably be drinking more milk during the day when they drop nighttime feedings your breasts will adjust and make more milk during the daytime.
A newborn should not go longer than one four hour stretch per 24-hours. This may mean that you have to wake your baby for feedings. Once a baby is gaining an average amount of weight for 2-3 weeks it should be okay to let them sleep longer stretches if they are willing.
A baby who is sleeping longer stretches who is not gaining an adequate amount of weight should be awakened for an extra feeding or two. You can try to do a dream feed. Dream feeding is where you latch your baby on without them being fully awake. You can try dream feeding right before you go to sleep.
Most women do not need to pump during the period of time that their baby is sleeping at night. However, some women may find that long stretches without breastfeeding or pumping can result in a lower milk supply. If you find that long stretch has a negative effect on your supply you can try pumping right before you go to sleep.
It is possible that your baby is waking at night for a reason other than hunger. Give him some time and see if he can settle himself. Your baby may in fact be hungry and if he is acting like that is the reason you should go ahead and feed him.
As your baby gets older you will probably notice that your breasts don’t get as full between feedings. It is possible that breasts start making milk more on-demand as opposed to filling up and storing the milk like they do in the early months of breastfeeding. It might feel like your supply has decreased, but it is not necessarily true. Your baby’s behavior and weight gain is a better gauge of milk supply.
Infant Sleep and Night Feeding Patterns During Later Infancy: Association with Breastfeeding Frequency, Daytime Complementary Food Intake, and Infant Weight. Amy Brown and Victoria Harries. Breastfeeding Medicine 2015 10:5, 246-252. Retreived from: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/bfm.2014.0153
Sleeping Through the Night: The Consolidation of Self-regulated Sleep Across the First Year of Life. Jacqueline M. T. Henderson, Karyn G. France, Joseph L. Owens, Neville M. Blampied. Pediatrics Nov 2010, 126 (5) e1081-e1087; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-0976
Andrea Tran RN, BSN, MA, IBCLC is a freelance writer who has been helping moms and babies breastfeed for over twenty-five years. She is married and the mother of three adult children.
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