I spent this morning with a group of breastfeeding mothers and their babies. We talked about what we’re really enjoying about our babies and what we’re finding a challenge at the moment. Time and again, the mothers mentioned that they struggled with the same thing: sleepless nights.
I can relate. My son was up for several hours last night, suffering with teething and a fever. Although I could do very little to actually relieve his suffering, I felt sure that my presence was exactly what he needed. He chattered feverishly, lay beside me, sat up at times and nursed. This went on for a couple of hours until the fever subsided and we could both drop back off to sleep. Today we are tired, but we’re managing.
While some babies seem to sleep through the night from the early days, it is perfectly normal and biologically sound for a baby to wake several times in the night. In the early weeks of breastfeeding, nighttime feeds ensure that mothers produce a plentiful milk supply, and we are learning more and more about the importance of those feeds for meeting one’s breastfeeding goals later on. Nighttime waking allows a baby to be sure that his mother is still there to protect and nurture him– his food source is still close by and he can rest easy knowing that he is safe from predators. For a baby whose mother is working during the day or has older siblings to look after as well, nighttime nursing can be the best way to catch up on missed breasfteeds and cuddles for both mother and baby.
Prescriptive methods of sleep-training babies can have a detrimental effect on milk production. Perhaps they help a baby to sleep through the night, but the cost a mother can pay is high: emptied breasts make more milk; breasts that are left full overnight will eventually make less milk so sleep-training can be the beginning of a reduced milk supply.
The mothers I was chatting with this morning said that the thing that helped them to cope with sleepless nights was not to change the baby’s habits, but to change their own approach to the situation. If we accept that our parenting responsibilities don’t end just because the sun goes down, it can be easier to accept that baby needs us as much at night as he does during the day. Moreover, allowing ourselves the freedom to let go of other areas of our lives can really help– the dishes will still be in the sink tomorrow, the toys on the floor can wait, a play date or hair appointment can be re-scheduled. When the nights are rough, it can help to hunker down and focus on what’s really important and let go of the rest.
It can help to find short periods during the day when you can rest. One of the fantastic things about breastfeeding your baby is that these little breaks are already built in to your day. Nobody else can feed the baby: it has to be you, and to do it you have to sit down or lie down. Can you nap when the baby is napping? Can you keep your baby close at night so there’s minimal disturbance when you do need to be awake?
Finally, is it possible to focus on what’s good about nighttime waking? This morning, a mother of three little ones talked animatedly about how much she relishes the quiet time she and her baby get at night, how she listens to a quiet radio programme as she nurses her baby, the timelessness of a quiet home and everyone else asleep. She spoke of how wonderful it is to simply focus on her baby, and how easily she falls back to sleep after that oxytocin rush from nursing.
One really reassuring thing is that those of who are awake in the night are not alone. Somewhere in my town, in the next road perhaps, there is someone else awake with a baby or a toddler or an ageing relative. It doesn’t last forever, and knowing that it is fleeting may help us to accept our baby’s nighttime needs and maybe even cherish this time with them.
About Lisa Hassan Scott
Lisa Hassan Scott is a stay at home mother of three little ones, age 2, 6 and 9. An American living in Great Britain for over 15 years, Lisa is a Yoga teacher certified by the British Wheel of Yoga, and a La Leche League Leader. She blogs about mothering, breastfeeding, Yoga and the mind at http://www.lisahassanscott.co.uk. Follow her on Twitter: @lisahassanscott