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Feeding at night

What to expect of my baby at night

In the early days, baby will need to feed every 2-3 hours night and day. This is regardless of how you feed your baby. If you are lucky you might have a baby that gives you a longer stretch at night, or you might have a baby that wakes more or has wakeful periods at night.

As babies get older they can sometimes start to sleep for longer periods. Sometimes they also go through periods with less sleep/more wakings. These are sometimes called ‘sleep regressions’ and often occur when baby is mastering a new skill or having a spurt in development or growth. 

Be reassured that frequent waking is normal for babies. Providing them with comfort and meeting their needs helps baby to be confident that you will look after him/her. You are not ‘spoiling’ your baby or letting him ‘learn bad habits’ by providing comfort and cuddles. All babies or toddlers will eventually learn to sleep on their own.

Although it is very challenging for parents, babies need their needs to be met as much at night as in the day. Leaving a young baby to cry at night can cause them to have raised levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can affect their brain development.

How to cope with night feeds

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Having a baby who wakes up frequently in the night can be one of the most challenging parts of being a parent. 

The age old advice of ‘sleep when your baby sleeps’ sounds great, but can be difficult when you feel pressure of household chores or demands of an older child. This is where a support network is really needed to allow you to get some extra rest. When you are waking up at night frequently it is important to ask for help and to prioritise your need for rest over a clean house!

Keeping your baby in the same room as you at night is recommended to reduce the risk of cot death. It can also help you to respond to your baby’s needs quickly and help everyone get back to sleep. The safest way to sleep is to have your baby in their own crib or cot in your room.

Breastfeeding at night

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Breastfeeding helps you and baby to fall back to sleep quickly. This is because breast milk contains tryptophans which help baby feel sleepy. The oxytocin released when you breastfeed can also make you feel sleepy.

If baby is still unsettled after a feed, you can feed them again, and continue to do so until they fall asleep. You cannot overfeed a breastfed baby. ‘Cluster feeding’ or frequent night feeding can signal that baby is having a growth spurt. Feeding at night is particularly good for boosting your milk supply. It will probably settle down in a few days.

I am worried about falling asleep with my baby

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It is easy to feel very sleepy/fall asleep particularly when you are breastfeeding your baby at night. Some mothers choose to get up completely and go to another room to feed to help them stay awake.

Other mothers choose to sleep alongside their baby in the same bed, or in a co-sleeping crib which attaches to their bed.

Durham University have conducted lots of research about infant sleep and have some helpful information about safe sleeping. Their research has shown that many mothers do sleep with their babies, but this is not always planned or intentional. The information on their website can help you manage to find a sleep solution that works for you and is as safe as possible.

It is more dangerous to fall asleep with your baby in an armchair or sofa by accident than it is to intentionally bedshare (having made appropriate arrangements). 

It is not safe to share a bed with your baby if you or your partner smoke, or have drunk alcohol or taken drugs or medication which make you more drowsy.

Will bottle feeding help my baby to sleep longer at night?

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There is a belief amongst many parents and grandparents that formula fed babies sleep better than breastfed babies. It may be true that infants who are fed with formula milk are able to go longer at night between feeds at an earlier age. But since babies wake for many things other than hunger, it does not mean that babies wake any less often.

Research has shown that at 3 months of age parents of babies who were supplemented with formula milk actually had less sleep than parents who were exclusively breastfeeding. This was true even for mothers whose partner was helping with the night feeds. The authors of this study suggest that this may be due to the inconvenience of preparing bottles of formula in the night compared to breastfeeding. It is also possible that the babies who were formula fed took longer to settle than breastfed babies.

Research looking at older babies (over 6 months) has shown no difference in the number of night wakings between babies who were breastfed and those who were receiving formula milk.

Breastfeeding mothers may even sleep deeper when they do sleep, allowing them to cope better with shorter sleep. This is because of the hormones involved in breastfeeding which help both mother and baby to sleep.

So, despite claims in the advertising of some formula milks, giving your baby a bottle at night will not necessarily help you to get more sleep.

Giving bottle feeds at night

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Being organised can help you to prepare bottle feeds at night quickly, and with less disturbance for everyone. 

Remember that powdered milk is not sterile and could make your baby poorly if bottles are made up in advance. You can make preparing bottles easier by:

  • Pre measuring the formula
  • Having sterilised bottles and teats ready
  • Filling a large vacuum flask with boiling water. This will keep warm enough (over 70 degrees) for several hours.
  • Filling a jug with ice cubes to cool the prepared milk down

Babies wake up for many reasons other than being hungry. You don’t need to try to force baby to take more milk in the hope they will sleep longer between feeds. 

If baby does not settle after a feed, you can comfort them in a skin to skin cuddle, or gently rock or stroke them to help them fall back to sleep. Partners can help with this too.

Further reading:

Baby Friendly Guide to Caring for your baby at night

Durham University Sleep Site

The Lullaby Trust provides up to date advice on safe sleep for babies.

References
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Brown, A. & Harries, V.(2015) Infant sleep and night waking during infancy: associations between infant weight, breastfeeding and complementary food intake Breastfeeding medicine 10 (5) 246-252 doi:10.1089/bfm.2014.0153

Doan, T., Gardiner, A., Gay, C.L., & Lee, K.A. (2007). Breast-feeding Increases Sleep Duration of New Parents. The Journal of perinatal & neonatal nursing, 21(3), 200-206. 35.

Kendall-Tackett, K., Cong, Z., & Hale, T.W. (2011). The effect of feeding method on sleep duration, maternal well-being, and postpartum depression. Clinical Lactation, 2(2), 22-26.

Middlemiss, W., et al (2012) Asynchrony of mother–infant hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep Early Human Development 88 277-232 doi:10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2011.08.010