Breastfeeding at night

The stomachs of newborn infants are very small, and experts recommend that newborns be fed a minimum of 8 to 12 times per 24-hour period. So it’s simply not possible to meet your newborn’s caloric needs without some nighttime nursing. Eventually, babies will learn to sleep through the night, but when this happens is different for every baby.

Here’s what you need to know about feeding your baby at night.

Why babies wake up

A baby may want to breastfeed in the middle of the night for many reasons. He might be hungry, but it’s also possible that he’s thirsty, lonely, or just in need of a little comfort and cuddle.

Why your baby’s breastfeeding style varies

An infant’s activity at the breast varies according to the reasons she’s breastfeeding. The hungry infant will breastfeed in a way that delivers the satisfying meal she seeks—she engages in those long suck-swallow-pauses that allow her mouth to fill with milk.

But the infant seeking comfort will nurse differently. She may “flutter-suck” at the breast, latching on but swallowing only occasionally and receiving less milk, which still satisfies her need for soothing. Thankfully, you don’t have to analyze why your baby might want to nurse. You just need to trust that your baby is communicating a need that can be met at the breast—be it food or comfort. 

How nighttime breastfeeding protects against obesity

If you listen to your baby and allow him access to the breast on his schedule, then you teach him to self-regulate his response to hunger. A baby at the breast can determine when he’s had enough milk and adjust his sucking accordingly, with no pressure to “empty” the breast. This self-regulation ability is one possible explanation for why breastfeeding protects against obesity. This isn’t true for bottle-feeding, in which the size of a feeding is typically defined by whomever is filling and holding the bottle (often with the goal of “emptying the bottle”).

How to prevent tooth decay when doing nighttime feedings

The risk of tooth decay begins with the emergence of a baby’s first tooth, often around 6 months of age. Do the following at night to reduce your baby’s risk of tooth decay:

  • Don’t put your baby down with a bottle. Babies who have prolonged exposure to sugary liquids, including breast milk, have a much greater risk of tooth decay. Bacteria in their mouths use the sugars as food and produce acids that attack the teeth. Lying your baby down with a bottle one time may not hurt her teeth, but putting her down with a bottle several times can lead to decay. They don’t call it “baby bottle tooth decay” for nothing.
  • Wipe your baby’s gums. Before your baby’s teeth emerge, wipe your baby’s gums with a clean, damp gauze pad or washcloth at least once during the day and once during the night. 
  • Brush your baby’s teeth. After your baby’s first tooth emerges, begin gentle brushing in the morning and at bedtime with an age-appropriate toothbrush and a small smear of fluoridated toothpaste.
  • Avoid sugary drinks. Whether at nighttime or during the day, never put soda, sweetened water, or juice in your baby’s bottle.
  • Switch from the bottle to a cup at about 1 year old. Avoid prolonged use of bottles.

Nursing a baby at night can be done easily and often without either mother or baby waking completely. Mother’s intuition tells us that a baby—breastfed or bottle-fed—who awakens at night and cries out has a need. Mother’s instinct 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 on multiple levels, including nutritionally and emotionally.

Last updated April 9, 2019

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