Breastfeeding during the night

For many women, especially those with older children, breastfeeding the baby during the night was a very special time when they could be with their baby without interruptions. A few women said that they loved holding their baby and going to sleep with him/her and snuggling and feeding through the night.

All of the women said that having a baby in the house was a tiring experience and that breastfeeding made them sleepy. Breastfeeding and sleeping arrangements varied across the whole spectrum. Some women, usually the more experienced mothers, slept with their babies in the family bed and fed off and on throughout the night without really waking or registering how often they had fed. These women acknowledged the advice against sleeping with their baby and a few said that they felt naughty or guilty doing it but most argued that it was natural, instinctive and far less disruptive for the whole family than the alternatives. Many of them had weighed up the pros and cons and made an informed choice. In addition, many of them said that they were always aware of the baby and slept in such a way that he/she was cocooned and protected. Sometimes, the women went to extra lengths to make sure that their baby had his/her own duvet and no pillows.*1

Other women, preferred to have their baby in his/her own Moses basket or cot beside their bed and either get up to feed, for safety or comfort reasons, or feed the baby in their bed and then return him/her to the basket because they were worried about rolling over and smothering their baby. A few women put their baby in a separate room for a variety of reasons, including safety, because he/she was disrupting their sleep or because they wanted their baby to get used to sleeping alone and not be dependent upon them for falling asleep.

Some women practiced a combination of sleeping arrangements, starting the baby off in their own bed and then bringing them into the family bed or going elsewhere with them when they woke for a breastfeed or their husband/partner went to another room instead. Several spoke of dozing off and then waking with a fright and wondering where their baby was, only to find that they were either safely tucked in beside them or back in their basket.

The father's role in caring for their baby during the night also varied greatly. Some women said that they were conscious of not disturbing their husbands because they had work the next day while others said that their husbands winded and settled their baby again after a breastfeed.

Many women tried to distinguish between daytime and night-time breastfeeds by keeping the lighting low and disturbing their baby as little as possible. Several women said that they made up for their broken sleep at night by napping or snoozing during the day and that learning to feed lying down was a great advantage, while others were not physically comfortable feeding like that. Some women, whose babies were gaining weight slowly, had to actually wake themselves and their baby during the night to ensure that their baby was getting enough breastmilk in a twenty-four hour period. One woman, whose baby was gaining weight but sleeping for long periods, was also setting an alarm to ensure four hourly feeding (see 'Feeding patterns in the early days' and 'Monitoring baby's growth').*2

Finally, a very few women said that their baby slept through the night from quite a young age while a few others used sleep programmes to attempt to achieve this. Some restricted the hours that they breastfed their baby during the night and one offered her older baby water only if she woke. One woman introduced 'hungrier baby formula' for the last evening feed to get her daughter to go a little longer through the night before waking*3. A few women expressed breastmilk after their baby's last breastfeed in the evening and stored it for use at a later time (see 'Variations of the breastfeeding experience').

*Footnote 1: Co-sleeping is common. Women who co-sleep with their baby get more rest and are likely to breastfeed for longer. There are precautions that a family can take to make co-sleeping safer. However, co-sleeping is discouraged when either of the parents is a smoker, has consumed drugs or alcohol or is excessively tired. Co-sleeping on sofas or chairs is not recommended.

*Footnote 2: It is not necessary to wake (for extra breastfeeds) a baby who is developing and gaining weight satisfactorily.

*Footnote 3: There is no evidence that supplementing a baby with infant formula (whether standard formula, 'follow-on formula' or 'hungrier baby formula') or solid foods at bedtime will make them sleep longer. The production of the non-standard infant formulas is simply a marketing gimmick. In the early weeks, the introduction of infant formula will decrease the likelihood of the confident establishment of breastfeeding.

Last reviewed November 2018.


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