Breastfeeding and Sleep Coaching: Do they “Work” Together?
Many parents equate sleep coaching with night weaning. Working to improve sleep skills may be unnecessarily delayed for months by parents who wish to continue the nightly breastfeeding relationship.
Did you know that breastfeeding and sleep coaching can go hand in hand?
It is true that breastmilk can help babies feel sleepy and this can be a great way for you to log some extra hours of sleep in the first few months of your baby’s life. Problems can arise, however, when babies learn to fall asleep only at the breast and demand to fall back to sleep in that fashion multiple times per night.
Most babies who have had no troubles with gaining weight CAN sleep through the night by six months of age. Many who continue to wake up and nurse after this age do so because their body is sending them hunger cues at times they are accustomed to taking in calories during the night.
If they are past the age of 6 months, and still nursing frequently, this usually means that they are accustomed to fulfilling part of their daily calorie intake during the pm hours. It only takes three days for your baby to adjust their calorie intake to the daytime and for the blood sugar to cease spiking at certain times of the night. Your body would create the same hunger cues were you to start feasting on a midnight snack every night. BUT that doesn’t mean that your body needs the calories at this time of night, neither does your baby. As you lower the number of night feeding sessions, expect the daytime feeding to increase (either through longer nursing sessions or an extra one or two nursing sessions.)
There are no rules other than your own when it comes to raising your children. It is entirely your choice to continue breastfeeding at night while working on your child’s sleep skills. Many mothers enjoy the tranquillity that comes with middle of the night nursing sessions. They wish to keep this special time, however, would prefer that this occurs once or twice a night instead of every hour or two.
If babies are nursing 6+ times per night for only a few minutes at a time, it is more likely they are using nursing as a sleep crutch or as their learned way of falling back to sleep than for nutritional intake. How many night nursing sessions you would like to offer is completely up to you. After reducing the number of night feeding sessions, you will probably also notice that the feedings you do decide to keep are longer, fuller feedings.
Considerations To Make Before Partial or Full Night Weaning:
Is your doctor confident that your baby should be able to sleep through the night given their age and weight?
A mother’s milk storage capacity is another important consideration. Mother’s with a large storage capacity can often night wean with no negative implications for their milk supply. Mother’s with a small storage capacity may need their baby to nurse a couple of times through the night to maintain their milk supply. Not sure what your storage capacity is? This is a helpful chart to give you some clues. Still not sure? Find a lactation consultant in your area to give you specific answers.
Another factor to consider is your own magic sleep number (i.e.,. the number of hours of sleep you need to feel human). If 1-2 hour stretches of sleep are impairing your ability to function, you may choose one or two night feedings, once before your bedtime, and one in the middle of the night to ensure you get two 3-4 hour stretches of sleep. If you do better with 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep, one night feeding before your bedtime may be the answer for you.
There are three ways to work on sleep skills while continuing the breastfeeding relationship:
Dream feed: This method involves choosing a time/times to feed your baby at night. Ideally, the first feeding of the night would be set for a time that is before the first expected wake-up time (i.e., if your baby usually wakes at 10:30 pm for a feeding, do the dream feed at 10 pm). To carry out a dream feed, you quietly enter your child’s room, leaving the lights out, pick your child up, and feed them until they are satiated. A perfect dream feed occurs when your baby remains sleeping throughout the entire session. Some babies may need to be roused slightly to latch, and will then have a successful nursing session, drifting back to sleep while feeding. If you have chosen to continue with more than one nursing session per night, repeat this process for each feeding.
Set-time feed: Choose 1 or 2 times during the night that are regular feeding times (perhaps the times when your baby seems to eat the most). When your child wakes up around this time, those are the only times you offer the breast.
All other night wakings can be approached by using gentle sleep coaching methods such as the Sleep Lady Shuffle.
Bedtime Coaching Only: If you and your baby are not ready to night wean, you can coach at bedtime only. Often when babies learn to fall asleep using their own skills instead of nursing, they are also able to put themselves back to sleep during other partial arousals experienced throughout the night and will wake to feed less frequently. If they are still waking multiple times per night wanting to be nursed for only a few minutes each time, you may then decided to try dream feeds or set time feeds.
- When breaking the nursing to sleep association, make breastfeeding the first part of your bedtime routine as opposed to the last. When your baby learns to fall asleep without the use of a sleep crutch (i.e., breastfeeding), this also helps them to fall back to sleep during the many partial arousals they experience throughout the night.
- Respect your child’s sleep windows, ensuring you are allowing for enough daytime sleep AND making it easier for them to fall asleep on their own at night.
Parenting can be tough, especially when sleep is not happening. If you need more sleep but prefer to maintain night time breastfeeding, there is a solution!
Andrea is a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach and founder of Blissful Nights. As a formerly exhausted parent of 2 busy little boys, Andrea fully understands the toll extreme sleep deprivation can take. As a Gentle Sleep Coach, Andrea works with tired parents of infants and small children, helping them gently and lovingly teach their children invaluable sleep skills. As the children learn to sleep, parents are reunited with their own long-lost and desperately missed uninterrupted sleep.