Does your baby REALLY need night feeds?

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It’s dark and still. The world is sleeping. At least, the world of people without babies is asleep. Your baby is awake, snuggled at your breast, slurping the good stuff.  Mostly, night time breastfeeds feel precious and beautiful. You know in your heart that these sweet moonlight cuddles will end soon but there are niggling doubts about night time nursing, especially if your baby is a ‘certain age’.

There is so much conflicting advice about when to stop night time breastfeeds: One book says, ‘when your baby weighs ten pounds he will no longer need night feeds’ (Three of my own babies wouldn’t have had night feeds from birth). Another says,’ your baby should sleep 12 hours without a feed at 12 weeks’ (try telling that to a baby who hasn’t read this book!).This advice is fairly extreme, but it’ s common to be told by a health professional, that your baby doesn’t need night feeds after four to six months.

In reality, many babies DO need night feeds up to and beyond six months. From a baby’s perspective, there are a number of reasons for breastfeeding at night – hunger of course is the first reason but night nursing is about so much more than food. Breastfeeding is about comfort, connection and immunity, as well as food. It is also nutrition for a baby’s brain and this means that as your baby enters new developmental stages, he will most likely go on a feeding binge to fuel his growing brain. When he has been exposed to a bug, he will need to ‘tank up’ on the amazing immune factors in your milk and when he is in pain or uncomfortable, perhaps from teething, the relaxing chemicals in breast milk will soothe your little one. Also, as your baby goes through normal stages of experiencing separation anxiety, he will want to connect to ‘the source’ through the security of your arms and the comfort of breastfeeding.

At night time too, prolactin, the hormone that facilitates breast milk production as well as bonding and attachment reaches the highest levels during night time breastfeeds. This means your baby will probably get the ‘best milk’ at night. Recent research also shows that eighty percent of our seratonin receptors are in the gut and night time breastmilk is rich in tryptophan, a precursor to seratonin – so this magic mummy milk is also helping the development of seratonin receptors and a healthy foundation for future well-being.

When we consider hunger as a reason for night time feeding, we tend to think of small babies with tiny tummies that need frequent refills to get their quota of nutrition. However, older babies can be hungry too – around 5 months most babies become so easily distracted from feeds during the day when there is so much to look at in the big exciting world around that they get into a ‘reverse cycling’ feeding pattern – taking short feeds during the day and ‘tanking up’ during the night.  Babies who are developing new skills also have powerful innate urges to practise rolling, crawling and pulling themselves up all day long so their day feeds become short. It’s  as though they can’t stop to feed because there is so much ‘work’ to do.

Also, think how many calories a mobile baby burns as he does endless ‘push ups’ or hurtles around the floor!    These babies will often wake at night to satisfy hunger and to fuel their developing brains.  There is no evidence that feeding your baby full of solids will be an answer either because, even if they are eating family foods, milk is still the most important source of nutrition for babies under a year old. Also, if little tummies are stressed by too much food or upset by new foods (constipation is fairly common if solids are pushed too hard), your baby could be more even more wakeful and wanting to suck for comfort.

Besides baby reasons for night feeds, the most important ‘mummy reason’ is maintaining your milk supply. In the early days, your breasts need frequent stimulation to ‘set’ your milk production capacity as your milk supply is influenced by post birth hormones. Also, in the first three months after birth, there is more breast development happening – you are developing more prolactin receptors, which will encourage your ongoing milk supply.

Although most women (without medical conditions that may inhibit milk production), make a similar amount of milk, women have different breast milk storage capacities. This simply means that some women will need to feed more frequently than others, rather like pouring fluid into a smaller glass or a larger one.  If you have a smaller ‘storage capacity’ you will need to empty your breasts more often so that your body is signalled to make more milk.  US Lactation consultant Nancy Morhbacher explains: A mother with a large storage capacity has the room in her milk-making glands to comfortably store more milk at night before it exerts the amount of internal pressure needed to slow her milk production. On the other hand, if the baby of the small-capacity mother sleeps for too long at night, her breasts become so full that her milk production slows.”

If you are a mother with a smaller milk storage capacity (this isn’t necessarily related to the size of your breasts) or if you have a medical condition such as PCOS, Diabetes, Insufficient Glandular Tissue or Thyroid conditions that may make your milk supply more fragile, night feeds may need to continue for many months for you to maintain your milk supply and for your baby to thrive.

The important thing is not how much milk your baby gets at each feed, but how much he gets over twenty four hours. This means that if you schedule your baby’s feeds and space out feeds during the day, your baby will wake for feeds at night. If you have a smaller milk storage capacity, a vulnerable milk supply, a baby who is distracted or busy during the day, or a baby who has any sort of feeding issue such as low muscle tone that affects how effectively he feeds, your baby may take less milk at each feed so he will need more feeds over a day (and night) to get his ‘quota’.

You can try offering more feeds during the day or several feeds closer together before bed to help your little one (and you!) make it longer through the night. Meanwhile, enjoy those sweet snuggles, learn how to breastfeed lying down so you get more rest, gather support so you can rest during the day if night feeds are tiring you out and remember the mummy mantra for when the going gets tough – ‘this too shall pass.’  It will, I promise – your little one may like to snuggle up to a warm breast at night when he’s eighteen, but it won’t be yours!

An Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant, infant massage instructor and best-selling baby care author, Pinky McKay is the author of 4 books, including ‘Sleeping Like a Baby ‘ which offers research, evidence and gentle sleep solutions from birth to three years.sleep cover new

40 COMMENTS

  1. Learning to feed lying down was the best thing I ever did, apart from learning how to feed lying down from the _opposite_ breast, so I didn’t even have to move to feed my co-sleeping babies all night long without barely even stirring 🙂

  2. My 6 month olds sleep turned to dust around 3 weeks ago. Although never sleeping through the night, she had been giving me 7 hours straight. then all of a sudden drinking every 2-3 hours has become the norm. I read this article with trepidation waiting to be told that I am a bad mum for “allowing” these night feeds. I am comforted having read it. Yes, her feeds are heaps shorter due to distractions during the day (despite my best efforts), yes she is developing lots physically, I have tried cluster feeding before bed time but it hasn’t seemed to help. I have tried settling her during the night without offering feeds, but now I feel OK that she is probably needing something (immunity, teething) and its OK, this too will pass….

  3. This is really helpful in understanding breastfeeding. As a working mum, it’s tough juggling wk n time to pump and almost like a secret mission to do it discretely during working hours. Thanks for inspiring! 🙂

  4. Thank uou for this post, I absolutely love getting positive affirmation and information about breast feeding! This journey of breast feeding I embarked on is my greatest achievement!! I’m so proud of myself and cherish the bond my son and I have because of breast feeding!

  5. Sometimes I read your articles not for infirmation on what to do, but for confirmation on what I’m already doing.
    It brings a sense of relief that what I feel is right (for me) to do has benefits beyond my own emotional wellbeing.

  6. Does this apply to babies over 1yr of age? My twins are 20mths (17mths corrected) and still wake numerous times a night looking for bf. my boy will usually on,y wake once unless unwell, but my girl can be up 3-4times. They eat well during the day and are down to just a morning and bedtime feed plus the night time. I’m hoping to wean them in the next month or so but nit sure how’ll they go. I have 2 older girls who were the same but were easily settled without milk too ups every time they woke

  7. I read this article this morning. Then tonight hubby tells me I shouldn’t be feeding our 10 month old at night because a doctor told his work mate to stop feeding their very overweight 12 month old at night because they just get used to it and wake up expecting it. Unfortunately hubby’s not interested in hearing about this article because I saw it on Facebook . I’ve never once complained about waking at night for feeding. I’m glad I read this and it has validated what I am doing.

  8. I am breastfeeding twin boys, almost 6 months now. One boy sleeps through from 10ish to 5/6ish the other always wakes up between 2and 3 for a feed. I keep waiting for him to sleep through too, but being the nosy one (always distracted during the daytime feeds!) I don’t think he will!
    Great read – thank you x

  9. Great article. I vacillate between wanting to “fix” my baby’s frequent night feeds so I can sleep, and accepting it as being what it is. I’m cosleeping now to get as much rest as possible and this article is very reassuring – I remember why I’m doing it in the first place!

  10. My little man is 16 months and is still up every night looking for a feed. My oldest boy was the same but my little girl was easier to stop at 14 months. I’m so tired and want him to sleep through but the cuddles are lovely too. Fingers crossed for next couple of weeks.

  11. Hi there, my 7 week old sleeps 7-8 hours straight through the night, so some nights she doesn’t feed, will this affect my supply? It’s not like I’m denying her, she just doesn’t want it. She feeds well through the day and is growing well. Just worried my supply will drop with the big gap overnight.

  12. Love this article and I LOVE breastfeeding!
    I have a seven month old who feeds frequently at night, she is very busy during the day and only has quick feeds, mostly because she is distracted by her 2 yr old sister.
    I am also co-sleeping (even after being ‘warned’ / told off by my child health nurse!), which I love as I don’t really have to properly wake up to feed.
    I think you are fabulous for getting the positive word out about breastfeeding, we need more of you. I just find it so sad that so many mothers who can breastfeed don’t. It is just the best thing ever for both baby and Mum!

  13. Thank you for your article. My daughter is 19mo and still wakes up twice throughout the night for a feed. Doctors, family, friends are saying to me “are you still BF?!” And I have been feeling the pressure to not allow her to BF at all…go ‘cold turkey’ on her..I am trying my best to gently wean however some days this is easier said than done. Are there any support groups for mums in my situation as I’m feeling stressed about the whole thing!

    • I totally understand how you feel! I’m currently trying to wean my 2 yr old who also co-sleeps with me, I want to transition her info her cot too but no idea how to even go about it!! Would love to know if there were support groups!!

    • glad I’m not on my own – my 15 mo still wakes up to 5 times a night and won’t resettle without a bf. I don’t tell people other than my family anymore as I’m sick of the surprised comments I get back. Completely torn between wanting to meet her emotional needs and wanting to keep the nighttime snuggles we have, and wanting her to sleep better and to get a few zzz’s myself. Am sure time will tell!

    • OMG it is so good to see that I am not the only one in this situation, my daughter is 16 months old and still wakes 3-5 times a night for feeds and she too will not resettle without me feeding her. Everyone I speak to say’s to me, Are you still breastfeeding her? and my favourite, Don’t you think she is a bit too old to be breastfed? I am forever feeling pressured to stop feeding her, and I too have also tried to wean her but if I try and refuse her she gets really emotional and has a major meltdown. I have now decided that I will continue to feed her till she is 2 before I try to wean her again as it is to stressful for me to see her breakdown like that, and she obviously feels that she still needs it. However it would be really good to have a support group to help me through the process when I do eventually decide to stop. Oh and thank you Pinky for this article it sure does make a first time mum feel reassured about herself and her decisions.

  14. My DD just turned one she has bf on demand since birth. She sleeps in her own room next to us from 7mo but I love sitting in the rocking chair at night not talking just quietly feeding her while we cuddle. She now wakes 1-2 times through the nite which over 12hrs doesn’t seem like much to me. My problem is over the last month she all of a sudden got 4 teeth, 2 top 2 bottom and now it really hurts to bf she is not biting but F me it hurts now and bf has never hurt me never had a latching issue or mastitis just easy bf’ing. she was born at 36weeks, latched on and never let go. I don’t know why it’s so painful now I just hope this doesn’t dry me up as DD is allergic to dairy, soy and rice 🙁 sorry for long post.

  15. Kelly and Dee have you tried your local ABA (Australuan Breastfeeding Association) group? You can find details of tge groups on the ABA website and I think you are allowed to attend a few group sessions before having to join the Association. The group meetingsci have attended have always been informative and relaxing.

  16. I’ve always BF on demand and I am happy to as long as my son needs it but my question is when are they old enough to not need night feeds? My son is 13months old and has never slept longer than 2 hours at a time. He only has two milk feeds during the day one at 11am and one when he goes to bed at 6:30pm after that is every two hours until he wakes in the morning at seven. So that’s six feeds.

  17. Great article! Whether he needs it it not, my youngest is almost 7 months and feeds multiple times most nights because we are too tired to NOT feed him!! I long for a full nights sleep, but I have to remind myself that so much of what is deemed “normal” is simply a social construct. Toby doesn’t care for social constructs 😉

  18. My 4.5 month old has been sleeping 7+ hours (now 11-12) since he was under 3 months old. Reading your article I’m now worried I have deprived him of night feeds because I’ve been letting him sleep.

  19. love the article Pinky, so refreshing to read your input, and to read the following comments. My daughter and I love our breastfeeding times….I will try to continue BF till she is 18 mo or 2 yrs or until she self weans and will quote the WHO guidelines to any nosy parkers. I am currently at stay at hme mumma so I anm really fortunate. She wakes 2-3 times a night we do some co-sleeping but I try to return her to her cot when she is out to it again 🙂

  20. Thank you for this article, I think your website should be given to every mum to be, to get a balanced, best-for-everyone view on the wonderful journey ahead. My daughter is 3.5, and still night feeds, and it’s precious to us both. I’m going to let her self wean, and know that that could happen at anytime. This all passes so quickly, and it’s such a shame that we get preoccupied with the ‘should be’s’

  21. Thanks for an amazing blog post. My bubba is 9 months old and is feeding a fair bit during the night, but like you said I think it is more for a comfort and soothing of those little teeth that are starting to break through, Plus i am enjoying this bonding time with her as like you also said, she is soo pre-occupied when feeding during the day and just has short feeds….enjoy it while it lasts I say, as they grow too quick…xx

  22. Great reading, although my 5.5month old daughter used to wake 2-3 times now it’s at least 4-7 times. People are suggesting giving her formula before bed of start solids, so confusing although I don’t want her to go hungry either

  23. My little girl is 2 years and 4 months – and still wakes between 2 and 4 times a night for a feed.
    I co-sleep with her – so its easy to feed her and go back to sleep. I am trying to encourage her to go longer between feeds saying “lets wait for the sun to get up” – but i find that it works sometimes, and can upset her sometimes too. I certainly have developed a “sleeping fitness” – and find I can actually operate quite well through the day, on very very broken sleep. A pre-child me would have been an absolute mess. I totally agree with Pinky when she says “This too shall pass” – and know how fleeting the time breastfeeding infants/ toddlers is…..so I am here for her, and enjoy each moment of it. I personally find that me being there for her through the night leads to such a feeling of security and trust within her – something I value greatly. Thanks for a great and comment prompting post Pinky ! x

  24. Thank you for this article!! Our little girl is 15 months old and still wakes for night feeds, I never questioned it as for us, it’s always been ‘go with the flow’ She will wean when she is ready, luckily her Dad is supportive of this as well!

    I have had many friends, family and even a Health Direct Nurse tell me to stop because of her age – How rude! Funny how breastfeeding Mums never tell their friends/family to stop bottle feeding or don’t give baby a dummy!

    I have recommended you Pinky to all of My Mummy to be friends and family and they have all come back with a huge thank you, happy that someone as prominent as yourself can ‘be on their side’

  25. my 11mth old still wakes several times a night and the only thing that settles her back to sleep is some boobie milk. Some nights I wish so much she would just sleep but most of the time I cherish the closeness we have and know that it is not forever. We feed lying down and as she drinks, she drifts off to sleep for a couple more hours…..I am sure it is now more for comfort that for calories, but I work on the principle that she will let me know, just as her big sister did, when she no longer needs night feeds….

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