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Night feeds are essential for young babies in particular to get the frequent nourishment they need.
They also encourage good milk production and successful breastfeeding. They can be very special quiet times together too. Understandably, though, most of us are so used to long sleeps that we can't wait to have unbroken nights again. Babies wake for many reasons: they may be hungry, thirsty, cold or ill, or be roused from a light level of sleep by noise, light or some other stimulus. There are several practical ways of helping your baby sleep at night.
Keep things dark and calm
When feeding your baby, don't flood the room with bright light because this will wake you both up, and make you both more likely to stay awake a long time. Install a dimmer switch or use a low watt bulb. If your baby sleeps in your bed, don't turn the light on unless you have to, to change a nappy for example. Stay quiet and calm. This way, a feed won't excite the baby so much, and he'll wake less and less often as night feeds become less necessary for adequate nourishment.
Cut down on caffeine
Coffee, tea and cola and other caffeinated soft drinks aren't usually a problem, but some babies, particularly pre-term ones whose liver can't yet break down caffeine very well, have trouble sleeping if their mothers have a lot of caffeine.
Look after yourself
Most of us experience no longlasting ill effects from having less sleep than usual. However, if you feel tired, get more rest by going to bed earlier yourself, or napping when your baby sleeps by day. If you wake at night feeling hot and sweaty, with full breasts, either wake your baby for a feed, or express some milk, as the longer you leave full breasts unemptied, the more likely they are to become engorged.
The Positives of Night Feeds
When your baby wakes you, enjoy the feel of his warm, soft body nestling against you. Some busy women enjoy the luxury of undisturbed time during night feeds. And if you don't mind having the light on, night feeds can be times for reading or just looking at your baby.
Let your baby sleep in a cot in your room
Many parents of young babies do this, as it makes getting up at night less of a hassle, and means you are more likely to wake as soon he becomes restless, rather than waiting until he cries. This is less disturbing to everyone and means he's more likely to go back to sleep soon afterwards. If you can't sleep with your baby in your bedroom, or don't want to, then when he wakes for a feed, either bring him into your bed temporarily, where you'll both be warm and comfy, or feed him in his bedroom.
Co-SleepingLet him breastfeed in your bed
This is the easiest way of feeding at night, and means you both stay lying down, which is more restful for you and disturbs your sleep and your baby's much less. Also, there's no crying to wake everyone, because you'll readily sense his restlessness so you can feed him before he cries. You'll also know he's safe and warm. One UK study found that 65 per cent of breastfed babies occasionally slept in the parental bed in the first three months. And a recent American study found that over half the babies in the US spent part of the night in bed with their parents.
After a feed you can leave your sleeping baby by the breast. When you want to feed from the other breast, roll over with him in your arms so he's on your other side. Or just twist your body so he can feed from the other breast. You'll probably find it most comfortable to feed him with your arm crooked round the top of his head, and a hand on his back to keep him in place. When sleeping, most mothers of breastfed babies lie on their side, facing their baby. You'll probably be able to wind him, if necessary, by sitting him up while you stay lying down. Don't forget to keep something to drink by your bed - many women feel very thirsty while feeding.
Some women fear suffocating their baby, perhaps by rolling on him. However, the chances of this are virtually nil in most families. The only parents who shouldn't have their baby in bed are those who are extremely overweight, take sleeping tablets or recreational drugs, or are drunk (because all these encourage suffocation by 'overlaying'), and those who are smokers (because there's a link between bed-sharing with smoking parents and sudden infant death syndrome). It's also unwise to 'co-sleep' in bed with a baby if your mattress is very soft, since there's a tiny chance that if he rolls over to his tummy, this could suffocate him. Similarly, he shouldn't lie anywhere near a pillow.
If you don't want your baby to depend on you lying by him to go to sleep, there's a solution. When you give the last feed before you go to bed, don't let him go to sleep at the breast, but when he seems sleepy lay him in his cot so he gets used to going to sleep in his own bed without you lying by him. When he wakes at night, bring him into your bed for a feed, then take him back to his bed if you want. This means he'll be first in his bed, then yours, then perhaps back in his again. Many families who use this approach go through a transitional phase of 'musical beds' for some months.
Some women feel uneasy about having their baby in bed, perhaps disliking the thought of prolonged contact. Some dads too are antagonistic, though it should be possible to sort this out if you listen lovingly to one another.
When will your baby give up night feeds?
This is very much an individual matter. Some breastfeds sleep the night at a few months old, some even earlier, but a great many perfectly normal, healthy babies wake for many months, some even for years. Some wake several times, others just once after their parents have gone to bed, and from time to time a baby might want to breastfeed more or less constantly for a while at night.
Breastfed babies tend to wake more often than bottle-fed ones. One study in the UK found that breastfed babies fed two to three times a night on average in their third month, bottle-feds once or even not at all. It certainly isn't worth reducing the number of feeds early on simply to reduce the likelihood of night waking later, because - provided your baby is well latched on - frequent feeds are normal, natural and vital for successful breastfeeding. And it isn't worth stopping breastfeeding just to get unbroken nights, because many bottle-fed babies wake at night anyway, and bottle-feds often take much longer to settle after a night feed.
If your baby gives up night feeds early, make sure you breastfeed often enough in the day to maintain your milk supply and stop your breasts becoming tense. You may also have to express some milk before you go to bed or even during the night to prevent discomfort. If your baby gives up night feeds early and your milk supply dwindles, wake him for a feed before you go to bed. Sleep patterns change, sometimes with more waking, sometimes less, but young children grow up and night waking doesn't last for ever - though it may seem it will at the time!
Getting your baby off to sleep
Each infant is an individual and has his own sleep requirements which change from day to day. They also change as he grows older. Young babies tend to sleep as much as they need. While some babies go straight to sleep after a feed, others prefer to stare at their mothers, look around, or smile and coo. Don't waste valuable opportunities for getting to know your baby by trying to get him to sleep if he's not ready.
The easiest way of helping a sleepy young baby get off to sleep is to let him stay at the breast until he nods off. Some babies do this anyway when they've had enough, while others doze towards the end of a feed, not actually letting go but waking every so often to nibble or lightly suck. If you gently remove your breast, he may drift into a deeper sleep. If you watch him, you'll notice he makes occasional sucking or mouthing movements as if still at the breast and, from time to time, a smile or a frown may flicker across his face as he dreams. He may also open his eyes several times as he goes off to sleep as if to check you are still there. Once he's sound asleep and you've finished cuddling him, put him somewhere warm, safe and within earshot to sleep. However, babies frequently allowed to go to sleep at the breast can easily get into the habit of needing the breast to fall asleep, as if it were a dummy. So some women prefer not to let their babies go to sleep at the breast.
How long will baby sleep?
He may fall into a pattern of sleeping for a certain length of time between some feeds, or he may be an irregular sleeper. Many young babies wake soon after what seemed to be the end of a feed and want to go back to the breast. This is perfectly normal - especially in the evenings, and for babies who are very young, pre-term, or unwell. A few babies fuss and can't get off to sleep because their mother took them off the breast before they'd had enough of the relatively high-fat milk that's available later in a feed. Carry your baby in a sling if he is unsettled but you have to get on with essential jobs. You'll find it's easier to cook, clean, wash up, write and so on with the baby slung on your back than on your front.
Dr. Penny Stanway
You can buy Dr. Stanway's book 'Breast is Best' here
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