We’ve all heard the ol’ saying to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” With a newborn waking every couple hours to nurse, this advice is about the only way for any mom to get some sleep. But does it work?
Do these catnaps actually refresh moms, or are they simply a way to survive those early weeks postpartum?
Of my three babies, I really only remember feeling refreshed with “sleeping when the baby sleeps” with my third. He was also my only baby born of a natural childbirth, with the least breastfeeding complications. For months before he was born, I read book after book about going through an unmedicated, intervention-free labor as I readied myself for a VBAC. In nearly every birth story, I read about this amazing “high” moms would feel after their natural childbirth experiences, so much so that they didn’t seem to miss the uninterrupted sleep before baby came along.
And that is exactly how I would describe the experience. That hormonal high, coupled with an easy childbirth recovery and relatively easy establishing of breastfeeding, was in stark contrast to the struggles I had in the early postpartum weeks with my first two babies.
I realize every new mother’s experience is different. But as much as we spout the advice to “sleep when the baby sleeps” to one another, I wondered if there was any truth to that. Or, if my experience with my third baby was purely coincidence. Here’s what I found out:
Biologically, exclusively breastfeeding mothers and babies are hormonally paired. Dr. James McKenna, PhD, biological anthropology professor and director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Lab at the University of Notre Dame, describes this in his research: How breastfeeding creates a powerful attunement between a mother and baby, both physiological and psychological. I heard him speak about this at a 2015 breastfeeding conference in Omaha, Nebraska.
The result is that the very act of breastfeeding puts both baby and mother to sleep at the same time. This is why babies fall asleep at the breast, and moms tend to feel very sleepy toward the end of a feeding as well. And then that hormonal pairing further times mom’s and baby’s deep and active sleep cycles together, so they then awaken at the same time to nurse again. Dr. McKenna refers to this phenomenon as “breastsleeping.”
This change in sleep cycles in the mother is scaffolded by overall postpartum hormone changes, so the mother of a newborn is likely to feel less tired from sleep interrupted by natural mothering behaviors than she would if she wasn’t in that stage of her life. This is why safe cosleeping works so well. The mother and baby are both aware, consciously and subconsciously, of the other’s presence. They are so closely attuned that Dr. McKenna refers to the mother-infant dyad as a unit.
However, this hormonal pairing is not as strong between mothers and babies who are not exclusively breastfeeding. This is why bedsharing safety includes the caveat of breastfeeding exclusivity.
Additional research conducted by Dr. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, PhD, IBCLC, editor of the Clinical Lactation journal and Psychological Trauma journal, found in a 2011 study that exclusively breastfeeding mothers generally report more sleep, more daily energy, and better health than mothers of formula-fed or partially breastfed infants. She concluded that the effect of bottle-feeding infants in order for the mother to get longer stretches of sleep backfire because less breastfeeding then lowers the mother’s hormone levels. And these hormone levels are key for moms to have a higher well-being in the postpartum period.
Plus, preparing a bottle, giving it to baby, and clean-up afterwards takes time and complete arousal, whereas breastfeeding in bed doesn’t require a mom to fully arouse.
Still, there are exceptions to the general rule that to “sleep when the baby sleeps” works for moms, and Dr. McKenna points this out. Some mothers, who have always been sensitive to lack of sleep, may not do well with this advice, even if they’re cosleeping. All mothers have to make the best choices depending on what works best for their families. Many mothers may be surprised to find that when breastfeeding appears to benefit baby’s behavior, getting a stretch of uninterrupted sleep may be a worthy sacrifice. But if a mother feels she is a better parent when she has a certain sleep arrangement, then that is something to consider.
So, all this seems to boil down to that the old saying, “sleep when the baby sleeps,” is not just advice to get your through the early postpartum weeks, but is actually a biologically directed way of sleeping as a new mother. The real question now, really, is how to do this when you have older kids at home!