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Sleep Tips for Breastfed Babies

Breastfed babies have fairly distinct feeding and sleeping patterns which, once understood, can make it easier to understand why they do what they do. Simply put, breastfed babies need to feed frequently over a 24 hour period so they can grow and thrive and be content. Bottle-fed babies are similar, but in comparison, drink larger volumes of milk at feed times and don’t demand feeds quite as frequently as breastfed babies. They also gain weight and grow in a different way to breastfed babies, whose weight can plateau after a couple of months of more rapid gain.

Are You Hungry Again?

It can be hard for mothers who are keen to have a predictable daily routine and expect their breastfed baby to fit into a schedule.

Small people have their own agenda, making it challenging to have plans around their feeding and sleeping. But that’s the nature of breastfeeding, it’s not meant to be based around timing but rather, what the baby is communicating.

When the relationship between a mother and her baby is sound, there is a two-way communication which occurs. The baby behaves in particular ways and the mother is able to interpret what her baby wants.

Sometimes a baby’s needs are obvious and easier to ‘get’. Other times, their signs are more subtle and confusing. But when it comes to needing to be breastfed, most babies demonstrate behaviour which is very clear and don’t calm until they’re sucking.

Young breastfed babies need to feed regularly around the clock. It’s not until they’re closer to three months of age that many start sleeping for longer periods overnight. However, the general timeframe between overnight feeds is still around 5-6 hours.

Remember

Small babies have a small stomach. They can’t drink more than their stomach can contain, otherwise they vomit. The idea of ‘filling them up’ so they’ll sleep for longer overnight is a fine idea but there are limits to how much milk a baby can drink at one time.

Many breastfed babies want to make up for longer overnight breaks of not feeding by demanding extra feeds through the day.

What Are You Telling Me?

It will be useful to follow your baby’s lead when it comes to their feeding patterns. Hunger cues are clear signals that a baby is ready to feed and needs refuelling. If possible, avoid feeding your baby when they’re distressed and crying loudly. Ideally, feed times are a pleasant and calm experience, which both mother and her baby enjoy.

Expect your breastfed baby to not always feed the same way with every feed. Breastfeeding is a dynamic process and is influenced by many factors. A baby’s hunger, the mother’s supply, the rate the mother’s milk is flowing from her breasts and distractions from what else is going on in the environment all play a part.

Some breastfed babies prefer long, drawn out feed times where they stay sucking on the breast for ages. Others are quick ‘snack’ type feeders who just want to satisfy their hunger and get onto other more important things. Whatever your baby’s feeding style, it will be useful to follow their lead.

Tips to Encourage Your Breastfed Baby to Sleep a Little Longer Overnight

Many breastfed babies associate feeding with sleep and settling. They feel warm, content and safe and the action of sucking soothes them. This isn’t a problem for the majority of babies, but it can become an issue for mothers. At some point in time, most mothers become keen to learn how to settle their baby in ways other than feeding. 

  • Offer both breasts during the day and evening feeds.
  • Place your baby into their cot before they’re fully asleep.
  • Offer ‘top-up’ feeds within 30 minutes of your baby finishing their breastfeeds.
  • Use a good quality, absorbent disposable nappy overnight so your baby isn’t waking because they’re soaked.
  • Make sure your baby is dressed warmly and comfortably.
  • Try not to respond to your baby the minute they stir. Give them the opportunity to resettle themself if they can.
  • When feeding, keep the lights low and the stimulation low key. Calm, gentle handling will help your baby to stay sleepy.

Sleep Tips for a Breastfed Baby

  • Always follow the safe sleeping guidelines when settling your baby.
  • Position your baby’s cot beside your bed for the first 6-12 months of their life.
  • Avoid co-sleeping with your baby and make sure they sleep in their own safe cot.
  • Look for your baby’s tired signs (cues) and place them into their cot before they’re fully asleep.
  • Try not to feed your baby when they’re tired but instead, when they’re more wakeful.
  • Soothe and comfort your baby by patting, shshing and stroking so they feel safe and can go off to sleep.
  • Expect some protests from your baby when you’re changing the way you usually settle them.
  • Be consistent and patient as your baby learns new ways of going off to sleep.
  • Offer your baby extra feeds for comfort when they need to feed.
  • Make sure your baby is feeding effectively so they are satisfied and more likely to go to sleep.

What We Know to be True

  • Breast milk is quickly digested and metabolised. This means it doesn’t take long for breast milk to leave the baby’s stomach and they feel hungry again.
  • There is a difference in the protein concentration of breast and formula milk.Formula is higher in protein which makes it harder to digest and can lead to more rapid weight gain. 
  • A mother’s breast milk supply is determined by how much milk her baby needs. The more often a baby sucks at the breast and demands to be fed, the more milk the mother produces.
  • Breastfed babies regulate the amount of milk they accept in any one feed. This is different to babies who are formula-fed and whose intake is regulated by the adult feeding them.
  • Breastfed babies need to be fed overnight until they’re at least seven months of age or older.
  • When babies are going through periods of rapid growth, they need extra kilojoules for fuel. They also tend to sleep for longer periods around the same time which supports the release of growth hormones.
  • Speak with your Child Health Nurse and check Safe Sleep Space for more information about breastfeeding and sleep.

Need more help?

It can be quite a challenge to teach your little one the skills to self-settle and learn how to go to sleep on their own. Safe Sleep Space is here to help! You can book a telephone consultation online or call us on 1300 775 337.

You can also get great tips by downloading our Rockabub App, currently available in iTunes.

Professional support to help you and your baby get more sleep.

We also offer online courses to help with all aspects of early parenting.

The NourishBaby - Guide to Babies - is an online program that you can view in your own time. The Guide to Babies helps you to understand and care for your baby and covers key milestones, sleep and settling advice and baby development. There is a section on real parents sharing their experience of adjusting to parenthood.

Many parents have reduced sleep when a new baby arrives. The Safe Sleep Space website has a variety of resources and supports to provide tips and advice on how to assist your baby with sleep. You can also book a phone consultation to speak with a Sleep Consultant.

Written for Safe Sleep Space by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse.

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