Human babies—even those born full term—are completely dependent on their caregivers at birth. Combine their helplessness with the fact that they’re growing faster than they’ll ever grow and it’s easy to see why feeding and caring for a newborn is an around-the-clock job, leaving little time for uninterrupted sleep.
But there’s a way to maximize the uninterrupted sleep you do get—by exclusively breastfeeding. Here’s some insight into babies’ sleep patterns and why breastfeeding moms do better at night.
Babies usually don’t sleep through the night
Overall, parents must adjust their expectations regarding infant sleep. During at least the first year of your baby’s life, not sleeping through the night is normal. Frequent feedings during the day and at night ensure that babies get the nutrients they need to grow. These also cut their risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the leading cause of death in infants between ages 1 month to 1 year.
It’s also important to remember that every baby is different. When your baby is 6–12 weeks old, he’ll usually sleep for 4–5 hours at night. You can try to calm your baby and lengthen the period of time between feedings at night by diapering, walking, and rocking. Many babies sleep for 6 hours at night starting around 6 months of age. Your definition of “night” may need to change! As your baby gets older, she’ll sleep for longer at night.
Breastfeeding moms get more sleep
Contrary to some claims, studies show that breastfeeding mothers actually get more and better-quality sleep than formula-feeding mothers—particularly when the baby is in close proximity to the mother. (The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that mothers and babies sleep near one another—in the same room—but not in the same bed.)
In one study, researchers looked at almost 3,000 women at 7 weeks postpartum. They found that several factors were related to disrupted sleep: being a first-time mother, having a younger or male infant, having depression or previous sleep problems, and not exclusively breastfeeding.
Researchers also found that disrupted sleep was a major risk factor for postpartum depression, a mood disorder that affects about 1 of 8 women. Mothers with postpartum depression may feel extremely sad, anxious, and exhausted, making it hard to care for themselves and others. (Learn more about postpartum depression here, and how it's treated here.)
Here are possible reasons why breastfeeding mothers sleep better:
- Human milk may help babies sleep. One theory on why breastfeeding mothers get more sleep is that human milk has melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone. Human milk also has other “sleep-inducing” and “brain-boosting” components like tryptophan and amino acids, which may play a role in processing a key chemical in sleep-wake cycles called serotonin.
- Breastfeeding is easier than bottle-feeding at night. With breastfeeding there’s no mixing, measuring, or cleanup, making nighttime feedings quick and easy. Many mothers lie down to breastfeed at night so they can rest while their baby is feeding. Talk with your baby’s health care provider about how to do this easily and safely.
The first year of your baby’s life requires a lot of you. So you’ll do yourself and your baby a favor by breastfeeding, not least because you’ll be more refreshed and alert than if you didn’t.