The world is full of tired parents… and the Internet if FULL of message boards with posts from worried and exhausted parents seeking information about whether their babies are normal and what they “should” do about all the night-waking their babies do. Bookstores have entire sections dedicated to baby sleeping, authored by so-called “baby sleep experts.” And, big-box retailers stock these books next to all sorts of gadgets from specialty swaddling blankets to sound machines, knowing, from market research, that desperate and sleep-deprived parents will fill their cart full of anything they think might improve their baby’s sleep. Impulse shopping at its finest.
But, what do we really know about night-waking, breastfeeding babies and why they might be waking up to nurse when all we want them to be doing is sleeping? Of course, there are the basics of why babies nurse frequently. But, with this post, we thought we’d compile some of the cooler, less publicized things science tells us about nighttime and breastfeeding so that you, the exhausted moms of Chicagoland, might be able to look at nighttime breastfeeding in a whole different way.
So, without further ado… here are 5 Cool Things No One Every Told You About Nighttime Breastfeeding:
1) Did anyone ever tell you that…. studies have shown that breastfeeding moms actually get MORE sleep than their formula-feeding counterparts? Yes.. you’re tired, but you did read that correctly! According to one study, breastfeeding parents got 40-45 minutes more sleep per night on average during the first 3 months postpartum. (Source) Over a 3 month period, that is A LOT more sleep! And, research also tells us that all that extra sleep is very important for mom’s mental health and serves to decrease her risk of postpartum depression. (Source)
2) Did anyone ever tell you that… in lactating women, prolactin production (prolactin is the milk-making hormone) follows a circadian rhythm? Studies have shown that breastfeeding women’s prolactin levels are significantly higher at night, particularly in the wee hours of the morning. Babies often want to nurse at night because quite simply, there’s more milk at night! (Source) Aren’t our babies smart??
3) Did anyone ever tell you that… babies are born with no established circadian rhythms? They can’t tell day from night, and they take several months to develop their own cycles. They also do not make their own melatonin (a sleep-inducing hormone) for much of their early life. But, guess what has plenty of melatonin in it? Your nighttime breastmilk! (Source) So, scientists actually think that melatonin-rich nighttime breastmilk helps babies develop their own circadian cycles and helps them eventually learn to sleep longer stretches at night.
4) Did anyone ever tell you that…. in addition to melatonin, your evening and nighttime breastmilk is rich with other sleep-inducing and brain-boosting substances? The following is an excerpt from an article authored by University of Notre Dame early-childhood researcher, Darcia Narvaez, PhD:
Parents should know that breastmilk in the evening contains more tryptophan (a sleep-inducing amino acid). Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, a vital hormone for brain function and development. In early life, tryptophan ingestion leads to more serotonin receptor development (Hibberd, Brooke, Carter, Haug, & Harzer, 1981). Nighttime breastmilk also has amino acids that promote serotonin synthesis (Delgado, 2006; Goldman, 1983; Lien, 2003). Serotonin makes the brain work better, keeps one in a good mood, and helps with sleep-wake cycles (Somer, 2009). So it may be especially important for children to have evening or night breastmilk because it has tryptophan in it, for reasons beyond getting them to sleep. (Source)
5) Did anyone ever tell you that… breastfeeding at night can be important for keeping a mom’s long-term milk production steady and strong and may actually mean less pumping during the day for working moms? See, the lactating breast knows how much milk to make based primarily on how frequently it is emptied; these are the laws of supply and demand, which are based on the natural world’s 24-hour clock… and not just during a mom’s waking hours.
The number of times an individual mom will need to empty her breasts to maintain long-term milk production has been called her “Magic Number.” If a mom is not nursing enough times in a 24-hour period to meet her Magic Number, her body will eventually down-regulate milk production and her supply will be reduced. For working, nursing mothers, more breastfeeding at night means more nursing sessions in a 24-hour period, which in turn could mean less pumping sessions needed while mom is at work while still achieving her daily Magic Number.
These basic dynamics apply to older babies, who may still need nighttime nursing, too!
So, there you have it! 5 cool things no one ever told you about why your baby is (still) waking at night to nurse. Did you ever think, when you hear your baby rouse at 2:00am, that they are actually giving you the gift of MORE sleep, lowering your postpartum depression risk, building and developing their brains, possibly reducing their risk for long-term mood disorders, developing their own circadian cycles, getting more milk when your supply is highest, ensuring your long-term breastmilk supply, AND giving you an opportunity to pump less at work? Hopefully, now you will. Sleep, tight mamas!
Editor’s Note — sleep researchers are turning up some cool information about adult night-waking too. It seems that the normal, biological state of human sleep might be very different than what we think it is. More here and here.