by Melissa Clark Vickers
September 13, 2011
This question raises a number of important issues about the nature of breastfeeding, infant sleep patterns, and links to obesity. Babies neither know nor care about clocks. They learn the difference between night and day through experience. Eventually, babies will learn to sleep through the night but when this happens is different for every baby. And even “through the night” doesn’t necessarily mean a solid eight (or more!) hours of uninterrupted sleep. A predictable 5–6 hour stretch, sandwiched in between another hour or two on either end, is a more typical “sleeping through the night” scenario for babies. Until then, babies will wake for many reasons and often between sleep cycles. An arousal does not always indicate a need for food, though many parents will offer a baby food regardless of whether he is hungry. For breastfeeding mothers, this distinction is less of a concern because babies can self-regulate at the breast.
“Time to breastfeed” is not always the same as “time to eat.” There are many reasons a baby may want to breastfeed in the middle of the night. In addition to hunger, an infant may be thirsty, lonely, or just in need of a little comfort and motherly love. Just as reasons to breastfeed vary, an infant’s activity at the breast will vary as well. The hungry infant will breastfeed in a way that delivers the satisfying meal he seeks, by engaging in those long suck-swallow-pauses that allow his mouth to fill with milk. The infant seeking comfort will nurse differently. He may “flutter-suck” at the breast, or latch on but swallow only occasionally, and receive less milk, while still satisfying his need for soothing. Thankfully, breastfeeding mothers don’t have to analyze why a baby might want to nurse. She just needs to trust that her baby is communicating a need that can be met at the breast—be it food or comfort.
Because an infant can control what he gets at the breast by how deeply and actively he is sucking and swallowing, if we listen to him and allow him access to the breast on his schedule, then we teach him to self-regulate his response to hunger. This self-regulation ability is one of the possible explanations for why breastfeeding protects against obesity. Unlike bottle-feeding, in which a “feeding” is typically defined by whoever is holding the bottle, a baby at the breast can determine when he’s had enough milk and adjust his sucking accordingly.
A recent study suggests a link between not enough sleep for babies and young children and obesity. But it is important to note that the study did not look at the diet of the children involved so we don’t know what role (if any) breastfeeding might have played in the results. Neither did they indicate that “duration” meant one uninterrupted night of sleep. Few of us get that—babies and adults alike! Truly, it’s the total amount of sleep that matters.
Nursing a baby at night is commonplace and can be done easily and often without either mother or baby waking completely. Commonsense tells us that a baby—breastfed or bottle-fed—who awakens at night and cries out has a need. Mothersense tells us we have a responsibility to respond to our baby’s need. Offering the breast when your baby needs or wants it is beneficial for him in more ways than one.
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