You have probably been asked by friends, family and even strangers if your baby is a “good baby'' and sleeps all night. Parameters of a “good” baby are often deduced to how well they fit into our adult world. A closer look at what is biologically normal for babies helps us understand why making room for their natural sleeping and breastfeeding patterns is important for their best growth and development. There are benefits to nursing your baby to sleep for them and for you.
What does it mean to sleep like a baby? When people use that expression, they are implying to sleep soundly through the night for at least 8 hours. If we really look at a baby's sleep pattern, we find a different story.
Babies are meant to stay close to their mother. Within the first hour after birth, a baby's reflexes help them crawl toward their mother’s chest, find the breast and nipple and latch. This biological blueprint of staying with mom protects them from any potential harm and keeps them close to their food source.
During the newborn period, babies sleep for short periods of time day and night. Babies do not have the same internal clock or circadian rhythm as adults regulating time being awake during the day and asleep all night. Although over time, babies will begin to sleep a little longer at night around 4 months of age. Sleeping through the night means a stretch of 5 hours. Your baby may begin to have this longer stretch of sleep, but it doesn’t always remain consistent until at least one year old and often closer to 2 years old.
Breast milk varies throughout a feeding as well as from daytime to nighttime. Breast milk hormones and other components have their own circadian rhythm which helps develop your baby’s internal clock.(2)
Benefits for baby
- Melatonin is one of the hormones responsible for our internal clock. As adults, our circadian rhythm is influenced by light during the day and darkness at night. As the sun goes down and it’s dark, melatonin increases and we get sleepy. Melatonin is very low in infants for the first 3 months of life and begins to increase, but does not peak until around 3 years of age.(1) Melatonin increases in your milk when it is dark outside. More melatonin in your nighttime milk helps your baby fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Tryptophan is an amino acid that is sleep inducing. Tryptophan is higher in milk at night compared to during the day. It is a precursor for serotonin which is responsible for mood and brain growth and development. When your baby drinks your milk at night, it leads to more serotonin receptor development.
- Fat in breast milk is influenced by several factors, but it also is naturally higher during the night.
- When babies sleep in close proximity to their mother, it is protective of the breastfeeding relationship. When we separate the mother and baby from sleeping very near to each other, it is shown that the number of times the baby breastfeeds can fall by as much as 50%-70%.(3)
- Babies drink about ⅓ of their total milk intake during the night.(4) Cutting out nighttime feeding can affect weight gain. This is especially true as babies get older and are more distracted during the day when they may have shorter nursing sessions during the day and make up for it at night.
- Babies do not only nurse for calories but for comfort. Snuggling in to breastfeed helps regulate your infant's breathing, heart rate and nervous system. Teaching your child that you are responsive and will meet their needs for comfort and touch leads to healthy attachment and relationships later in life. By allowing your child to be dependent, they become more independent when they are older.(6)
Benefits for mom
- Prolactin is one of the main hormones responsible for making milk. It is naturally highest in the middle of the night. When you nurse your baby during the night, it further raises the level of prolactin and increases your milk supply not only at night but for the next day.
- Frequent milk removal during the first 6 months postpartum, avoiding long stretches between nursing provides a natural method of birth control called the Lactational Amenorrhea Method (LAM) and can provide up to 98% security of avoiding pregnancy.
- Parents cherish their sleep and waking often to feed your baby doesn’t need to get in the way of that. In fact, you are more likely to get more sleep when you are in close proximity to your baby and do not have to fully awake and walk into another room or section of your room to feed your baby. You are able to respond quickly to your baby’s movements and arousal to eat and feel more rested. A mother sleeping in contact with her baby may only remember waking a few times compared to how many times the baby actually woke.(5)
- Natural way to help your baby connect with you and settle down for bedtime. Nursing for comfort slows your baby’s heart rate and allows them to relax and fall asleep more quickly.
Nature intended for you to nurse your baby to sleep. It is normal for your baby or young child to want to nurse to sleep. They feel safe and secure connecting with their mother. You are their natural, biologically normal habitat.