You’ve heard of oxytocins and other feel-good chemicals but what about the magic of the sleep-good chemicals? Amazing medical facts about the affect of breastmilk on mother and baby sleep patterns could mean a whole new way to think about breastfeeding to sleep.
I think almost every new (or even not-so-new) breastfeeding mother has been given the well-meaning advice, ‘Don’t feed him to sleep!’ at one time or another. Tales of ‘bad habits’ or ‘spoiling’ are common in our society with a trend towards encouraging baby to fall asleep independently and alone.
But recent neuroscience and attachment theory research suggests babies can’t put themselves to sleep easily when they are tired – it is a developmental milestone, just like walking or talking. In their book Helping Your Baby to Sleep, Anni Gethin and Beth Macgregor say: ‘Contrary to popular opinion, humans are not designed to be able to go to sleep without assistance in early life. Making the transition to sleep is rarely something babies’ immature brains can do without some form of help’.1
When it comes to sleep deprivation, I am, like many parents, an expert in that field! From birth, my now 3-year-old woke every couple of hours and has started to sleep longer only recently. The first few months of her life were a blur of constant breastfeeding, walking and rocking – day and night. I tried learning her ‘tired cues’ but found these all looked the same. Feed me! Hold me! The only way to put her to sleep was with a breastfeed. I am now mothering an 8-week-old as well as a 3-year-old so goodness knows, I’m tired.
At 6 months, she was waking and breastfeeding anything up to 10 times a night! I worried that I had created a terrible habit. How would she ever learn to fall asleep on her own? Was I going to be feeding her to sleep forever?
At 6 months, she was waking and breastfeeding anything up to 10 times a night. I worried that I had created a terrible habit. How would she ever learn to fall asleep on her own? Was I going to be feeding her to sleep forever?
Humans have two states of sleep – REM sleep (rapid-eye-movement, or active sleep) and non-REM sleep (quiet, deep sleep). During the night, we move through these different sleep states several times. Babies have a high percentage of REM sleep and it can take several months before they start to sleep more deeply and for longer stretches. Even then, adult levels of REM and non-REM sleep are not attained until about 2–3 years of age. Unlike adults, however, babies enter deep sleep through a REM state, which explains why our babies need help going to sleep and why they wake frequently.
We mothers have, at our disposal, the perfect sleep-inducers. They are called breasts. When a baby breastfeeds, a number of wonderful hormones are at play. Oxytocin, the hormone that causes the mother’s let-down reflex, is released in both the mother and baby, as well as being present in breastmilk itself. Oxytocin is called the ‘love hormone’ and is responsible for feelings of warmth, comfort and pleasure.
Another important hormone released in both mother and baby during breastfeeding is cholecystokinin (CCK). CCK induces sleepiness, both in the baby and the mother. CCK release also happens when the stomach is full: it’s what causes that drowsy feeling when you’ve just had a big lunch! In babies, sucking-induced CCK peaks at the end of a feed, causing them to feel sleepy or drift off to sleep. These lovely hormones, combined with the pleasure of sucking and a cuddle from mum, make a perfect infant-sleep-inducing atmosphere. Nature provided us with this clever concoction to help our babies sleep until they mature enough to do it on their own.
One of the keys to coping with constant waking is realising that it is perfectly normal, then accepting that it will pass – eventually! At 3 months of age, around 80% of babies wake up at night and need a parent’s help to get back to sleep. At 6 months, 75% of babies will wake and half of all babies are waking at their first birthday. About one third of children still wake and need a parent’s help to get back to sleep until they are 4 years old.3
My baby was just wakeful. It was nothing I had done wrong – it was biologically normal, completely human, infant behaviour
Once I learned this, I altered my attitude to one of acceptance. I suddenly found life a lot easier. My baby was just wakeful. It was nothing I had done wrong – it was biologically normal, completely human, infant behaviour. I made a point of finding and talking with other parents of wakeful babies, which provided support when I needed it (often!) and also helped normalise this behavior for me.
This state of ‘Zen’ acceptance wasn’t always easy to uphold. There were plenty of hard times, when I was convinced all the babies of the same age were now sleeping through the night, often even in their own beds! What had I done so wrong? But these were the times that I found I was not looking after myself adequately during the day.
Coping with a wakeful babe is not possible without looking after yourself. Ensuring that you are well-supported and rested during the day is what makes this exhausting biological norm bearable. For her day naps, I would lie down with her and read a book while she breastfed to sleep, getting much-needed rest and relaxation myself.
In his book, Nighttime Parenting, Dr William Sears says, ‘Sleep problems occur when your child’s night-waking exceeds your ability to cope’. So I conserved energy by keeping extra activities to a minimum, saying ‘no’ if necessary, and just spending as much time resting and enjoying this phase as possible.
When my toddler turned 25 months old, my menstrual cycle finally returned. She was still waking and attaching very frequently at night, but going longer stretches during the day without a breastfeed. Her feeds at night now were often just a quick comfort suck, rather than a lengthy breastfeed. And sometimes, she would attach for just a few moments before rolling over and going back to sleep. By now she was quite verbal, and I would often remind her, ‘It’s night time now, time for sleep’. A few times I tried offering her just a cuddle, but it was met with vehement and very loud protesting! Clearly, the need for that comfort was still very real.
A few months after she turned 2, I became pregnant again. My milk supply dropped considerably by about the end of the first trimester. Although this didn’t really reduce the night-waking, it made it difficult for me to fall back to sleep, as I was getting uncomfortable with her on the breast. We talked often about her breastfeeding and over a few months we introduced the idea of having ‘just cuddles’ at night time. She would suck until sleepy, but not asleep, then I would gently detach her. If she cried, I would allow her to re-attach. Sometimes she cried, but other times she would just fuss a little and then drift back to sleep with a cuddle.
In the last trimester of my pregnancy, when she was almost 3, it began to feel like I was waking her by attaching her when she roused. One particularly tired day, after a conversation with an ABA counsellor, I spent all day chatting with her about ‘just cuddles tonight’. It felt right and she was very open to the idea. So that night, I breastfed her to sleep in the evening, but at each waking I reminded her that we had milk in the daytime and cuddles now at night. She barely whimpered. She was clearly ready to accept this now, at almost 3 years old. I felt she had the capacity to understand what I was asking of her, and the ability to go back to sleep without sucking.
She is only having one breastfeed a day now, at night before sleep. I lie with her and breastfeed for a few minutes, then ask her to detach and we cuddle. I usually sing a song, or read her a story, or draw pictures on her back. That is how she goes to sleep. She sleeps with us, but since the new baby arrived, she decided that she wanted to sleep in the side-car style cot. So now she has her ‘own bed’ next to ours. She still wakes a few times a night, but she is perfectly happy with a cuddle back to sleep.
She often tells us now, after dinner, ‘I want to go to bed’. If we have guests they usually cannot believe that a 3-year-old could not only be so happy about going to bed, but actually initiate it!”
She often tells us now, after dinner, ‘I want to go to bed’. If we have guests they usually cannot believe that a 3-year-old could not only be so happy about going to bed, but actually initiate it! Bedtime and sleep has only ever been a safe, warm and loving space for her to go. She now recognizes when she needs it.
This kind of behaviour lines up with recent studies including the work of Ainsworth and Bell at John Hopkins University which showed that parents who responded quickly to their babies during the first months of life had infants who cried less often and for shorter periods later, and were more likely to show healthy independence when they were ready.
During those early years of intensely wakeful nights, I just couldn’t imagine how this phase would ever pass. But waiting until she was ready, including her in the process and doing it gently and patiently, was the best thing we could do to ease the transition from sucking to sleep, to falling asleep without the breast. Peacefully and naturally.
Kim Lock is a breastfeeding counsellor with the Australian Breastfeeding Association, ACT.
– Courtesy Essence Magazine, 2011
Breastmilk contains a wonderful hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK). CCK induces sleepiness, both in the baby and the mother. When the baby sucks, CCK is released within the mother to help her rest and relax. Many mothers say that breastfeeding tires them out. Certainly caring for a new baby is tiring for all mothers, but the sleepiness caused by breastfeeding is to ensure that the mother gets the rest she needs.
In the baby, CCK release is caused by sucking and food, especially fat, entering the stomach. There are actually two CCK peaks, one at the end of a feed, and the other higher peak between 30 and 60 minutes after the feed. The baby sucks, gets sleepy, dozes off for a while then wakes again for a top-up feed. That higher-fat feed causes the second peak and the baby goes into deeper sleep. Top-up feeds are also great for the mother’s milk supply.
Courtesy Australian Breastfeeding Association