Why Our Breastfed Babies and Toddlers Wake So Frequently…

**This is an excerpt from my book, “Boobin’ All Day…Boobin’ All Night. A Gentle Approach To Sleep For Breastfeeding Families.” Click here to find out more or to order.

Sleep deprivation is something every mother understands. Being pushed to the brink of insanity from frequent night waking, that feeling of being woken almost immediately after just falling asleep. Sleep deprivation is the cruelest form of torture!

As a breastfeeding mum who is the one and only person there to feed the baby, how can she meet the nighttime needs of her breastfed baby while getting the rest she needs? What is normal for babies and toddlers who are breastfed on demand? Should they be sleeping through the night and falling asleep by themselves?

All mothers out there questions themselves and if they are doing it “right” when it comes to sleep and how much or how little their breastfed baby is sleeping. Mothers question breastfeeding on demand, “Is it normal for my baby to wake so often,” or, “Will I ever get to sleep for longer than one and a half or two straight hours”? The answer to both questions is, “YES”! Yet unfortunately what many women hear is that their baby should be sleeping through, that babies need to learn how to sleep longer, fall asleep without breastfeeding and that the crying or “protesting” during the sleep training is what we are supposed to do.

As an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant who has worked with breastfeeding women over the past decade, and having breastfed three boys myself (still currently feeding my youngest boy) I come from the philosophy of following your baby and your own instincts while sharing and discussing what the evidence based research shows in terms of baby sleep patterns and what is normal. It is not only the biological norm for babies and toddlers who are breastfed on demand to wake frequently to breastfeed, but there are actually many important reasons as to why this happens.

Why Our Breastfed Babies and Toddlers Wake So Frequently, breastfeed, breastfeed to sleepWhy most breastfed babies and toddlers wake frequently to breastfeed:

Research shows that frequent night waking to breastfeed is actually a protective factor against SIDS1. Dr James McKenna has done extensive research on this topic, you can find this information on his website: ( https://cosleeping.nd.edu/articles-and-presentations/articles-and-essays/).
Frequent night waking helps establish and keep up your milk supply. Research shows that babies take up to 20 per cent of their milk volume at night2! For some women, especially in the early months or if you are going to be separated from your baby or toddler during the day, these night time feedings will be crucial for keeping up your breastmilk supply.

Babies will wake more frequently when they are going through a growth spurt and need to increase your supply, are going through a developmental milestone, teething or are fighting an illness they have been exposed to. Many times women will be holding their eyelids open with toothpicks from the night before, only to discover that later that day their baby is coughing and has a stuffy nose! It’s a wonderful feeling knowing that their needs have been met through breastfeeding and makes the sleep deprivation so worth it.

Research shows that the growth of our babies’ brains (DNA synthesis) happen rapidly during the first few years of life, along with nerve growth factors which is a hormone that facilitates development. These are both promoted through touch, and when mothers stop touching their infants, DNA synthesis stops and growth hormone diminishes3. When our babies are put down and left by themselves as they cry and are in distress, they go into “survival mode”4.

Breastmilk has components in it which actually help our babies and toddlers fall asleep5. It’s like a natural sleep aid! This is why it is the biological norm for babies and toddlers to fall asleep while breastfeeding. Your baby does not have a “sleep problem” because they will not self-settle or fall asleep on their own in a cot. Your milk is literally made to help them fall asleep while breastfeeding. It is how our bodies are designed. So cool! No crying involved, just pop them on! The only way a baby can communicate is through crying. A research article published in 2011 showed that although babies stopped crying on about the third night after sleep training, their stress hormone, cortisole was still raised. Even though they had been trained to fall asleep and were quiet and seemingly peaceful, they still had elevated stress hormones within their body6. This is a physiological response that was recorded and shows just how distressing it is for a baby, even when they are sleeping.

We often forget that babies and toddlers wake for many reasons other than hunger. They will of course wake for hunger or thirst but they will also wake for pain relief, comfort, to get an increase in the immunological components in breastmilk, to help them cope with their developmental milestone and the changes in their brain due to this, if they are scared, cranky or bored!

There are many sleep training articles and websites that state if your baby or toddler is sleeping through the night they will do better in school, have less chance of being obese and have an increased ability to learn. These statements are incredibly misleading. There is NO research to support the claim that babies and toddlers who fall asleep at the breast and breastfeed throughout the night are more likely to be overweight, have trouble in school and have a harder time learning. To have an actual valid study on this issue, we need a longitudinal study which specifically compares those who are exclusively breastfed to sleep and through the night with those who are sleep trained and night weaned, leaving out variables which can also affect the results AND have it be peer reviewed. This has not happened yet and therefor any study that is quoted is not actual valid or relevant to the issue of night waking in babies and toddlers.

So when will my child actually start sleeping through? Doesn’t it get harder the older they get? Actually, in my experiences working with mothers and babies and also my own personal experiences breastfeeding, the older your child gets the easier it gets to night wean them. Once your child is over the twelve-month mark they will understand pretty much everything you are saying. Once they start to communicate more themselves (usually nearing the 18-month mark) it becomes much easier to negotiate night time weaning with them and becomes less stressful for everyone involved. This is when they are developmentally ready to negotiate and understand what you are saying to them. Before this time, many mums find it incredibly difficult, distressing and frustrating to try to night wean. Of course if your baby is younger than this and is responding without crying or distress at falling asleep on their own then great — go with it! You can find the link to my article on gentle night weaning at the bottom of this post.

Why Our Breastfed Babies and Toddlers Wake So Frequently, co sleeping, bed sharing, breastfeedingThere’s no denying that waking overnight to breastfeed and soothe a breastfed baby takes a toll on us as mothers. If you choose to breastfeed overnight, here are my top tips for getting more rest:

-Focus on what YOU can do to get more sleep, not what you need to do to change your baby’s sleep patterns.

-Get community support, seek help during the day from friends, family members or a mother’s helper.

-Leave the washing and dirty kitchen and go sleep when your child sleeps during the day, cancel your plans for the day and stay home to have a quiet day instead. Delay returning to work for as long as possible.

If we can shift our thinking away from “the baby” and their “sleep issues” then we can start focusing on ourselves and what we can change. We tend to run around like crazy in our society…take a deep breath and relax.

Mothering through breastfeeding is one of the most natural, biologically normal things you can do for your child and it meets every single one of their nighttime needs. Breastfeeding to sleeping, breastfeeding to awake, breastfeeding for hunger, comfort or pain relief…every reason is important and night time waking to breastfeed is something that millions of us women do around the world every single night. Trust your instincts and follow the lead of your baby. No mother looks back and feels guilty for cuddling or breastfeeding her baby too often. You cannot spoil a baby. You cannot cuddle them too often, breastfeed them too frequently or love them too much.

**This is an excerpt from my book, “Boobin’ All Day…Boobin’ All Night. A Gentle Approach To Sleep For Breastfeeding Families.” Click here to find out more or to order.

1.McKenna J & McDade, T (2005). Why babies should never sleep alone: A review of the co-sleeping controversy in relation to SIDS, bedsharing and breast feeding, Paediatric respiratory reviews, 6, 134-152.
2.Kent, JC, et al. (2006). Volume and frequency of breastfeedings and fat content of breast milk throughout the day. Pediatrics 117(3):387-395.
3.Schanberg S (1995). The genetic basis for touch effects. In T. Field (Ed.), Touch and Early Experience, Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum
4.How To Grow A Smart Baby http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/moral-landscapes/201101/how-grow-smart-baby
5. Sánchez, C, et al. (2009). The possible role of human milk nucleotides as sleep inducers, Nutritional Neuroscience, 12, 2-8.                                          6. Middlemiss W, Granger D, Goldberg W, Nathans L (2012). Asynchrony of mother–infant hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep, Early Human Development, 88, 227-232.

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2017-07-24T09:36:27+00:00 October 14th, 2014|Attachment Parenting, Sleep Challenges|1 Comment