Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Sleeping Habits of a Breastfed Baby (and his Mama)

When I was pregnant, I got so excited about the numerous benefits of breastfeeding. I read over and over about all the great things breastfeeding would do for mama and baby.

Even though I knew every baby (and every mama for that matter) is different, I wish I had known HOW different Josias and I were going to be when it came to breastfeeding. Maybe I could have prepared myself for what laid ahead.

Not for love or money would I give up the breastfeeding relationship I have with my son, but no matter how hard we tried, we just couldn't cash in on all the benefits the experts talk about. 

The most striking benefit that we could not seem to reap was regarding sleep. Many mothers expound upon the virtues of breastfeeding and how it helps them get more sleep. While that may be true for the masses, Josias and I just weren't feeling it.

Month 1
We had a rough go of breastfeeding at first.  Because my milk didn't come in (or perhaps it's more accurate to say, some "helping" professionals at the hospital convinced me that it didn't come in), we spent the first month of breastfeeding using a syringe to supplement with formula. At night, we were feeding every two hours, so with the need to supplement with a syringe, that did not result in a lot of sleep.

Months 2-3
After the first month we were able to stop supplementing completely, but it didn't get a whole lot better in the sleep department. I hadn't yet figured out that it would be a heck of a lot easier to co-sleep with Josias and feed him in bed than it was to keep him in the bassinet and get up every two hours and feed him in a chair. 

Around the second month, I got wise to this strategy and we started to fall into a rhythm. He started sleeping longer and longer, and by the third month, five straight hours of sleep was not outside the realm of possibility.

That was just about the time my maternity leave ended and I had to go back to work. I had visions of sleeping all night, being fully rested and being oh so productive at my job. Josias thought otherwise.  He wasn't going to take this new lack of access to the boob during the day lying down, so he pulled the ol' reverse cycling manuever.

Months 4-15
Months 4-15 consisted of breastfeeding every 2-3 hours throughout the night. Here again, many mothers talk about how co-sleeping saved their sanity by allowing them to pretty much sleep through feedings. My sanity was not to be spared. While it is infinitely easier logistically to co-sleep and to latch Josias on, being the light sleeper that I am, I just could not sleep through breastfeeding. Even worse, once I was awake to feed Josias, it took me a long time to get back to sleep.

Right around the twelve month mark I was starting to feel at my wit's end with exhaustion, so I began to research how I could gently encourage Josias to sleep longer. I tried a few of the strategies proposed by Elizabeth Pantley in her book, The No Cry Sleep Solution:
  • I gave Josias a lovey to attach to instead of the breast (yeah, right!);
  • I unlatched Josias over and over (and over) again as he fell asleep to get him accustomed to sleeping without the breast (nope, not having it);
  • When he woke during the night, Papa tried soothing him back to sleep (absolutely not!);
  • I put Josias on a separate mattress on the floor (this resulted in somewhat longer sleep in the initial hours of the night, but overall didn't yield the result I was hoping for).
Months 15-18
At 15 months I decided that I had reached my limit on the sleep deprivation front, and I also felt Josias was old enough for me to try something a little more assertive to help him sleep through the night. Our strategy was this: I would breastfeed Josias to sleep, and then my husband would sleep with him in a separate room to see if Mama's absence would encourage longer sleep. Against the advice of co-workers, family, friends, doctors and random strangers in line at the grocery store, crying it out is not something I considered. 

We decided that when Josias awoke and cried, Papa would try to soothe him back to sleep. If he cried for more than a few minutes or seemed really upset (I can usually tell from his cries if he'll go back to sleep without breastfeeding), I would come into the room and breastfeed him back to sleep and then return to the other room.

Over the course of two or three months, Josias started sleeping for longer and longer periods of time, and when he did wake, he became less and less upset about not having a boob at his disposal. At 18 months he now sleeps through the night about 95% of the time, still sleeping with Papa. Sleeping through the night means going to bed at 8pm and waking anywhere between 4-6am.

Month 18 and Beyond
I hope this post doesn't sound negative. Breastfeeding Josias has been one of the greatest joys of my life. I'm writing this to share my unrealistic expectations around breastfeeding and how we coped in the face of those. And although I have learned quite a bit over the last 18 months, looking back, I would not change a thing. Would Josias have started sleeping through the night sooner if I had employed the same strategy earlier?  Possibly. 

But, I wasn't ready to ask him to stop night feedings any sooner, and more importantly, I didn't think he was ready. I miss co-sleeping with Josias. As a mama who works full-time outside the home, I loved the time we spent together at night. But each mama and baby have to decide what is best for them and what works for them. I don't know if or how long Josias will continue to sleep through the night. I also don't know if there will come a time when we can resume co-sleeping.

What I do know is that we have found an arrangement that feels right for now. Josias is a happy, healthy boy, and we are doing the best we can, which is pretty darn good. 

When did your baby start sleeping through the night?  What was the experience like?

Photo credit: Author


I had a similar experience with my older daughter, who I nursed for 22 months. She nursed every 2 hours throughout the night and day and was always very tiny. I was terribly worried about her weight gain and fretted over every upcoming doctor visit. Somehow she always stayed in the 5% for weight and the doctor was great about "staying on the growth curve" talks. By 14 months though I needed more sleep. Work was demanding and I had started weaning myself from the pump during the day. It was time for night weaning. We took a similar approach. I moved her to her crib and she would sleep for 4-5 hours, wake and nurse. That lasted about 10 days, then she all of a sudden started sleeping through that feeding and within 2 weeks she was completely night weaned and sleeping through from 8pm to 5 am. I was thrilled and we went on to nurse for many more months - until I was 20+ wks pregnant with baby #3 and we weaned gradually over a 4 month period at 22 months old. I didn't mind the constant nursing...loved it actually. Baby #3 was sleeping 4-5 hours from 10 days on! Big difference! Both co-slept and both are totally different. Every baby is different.

Thanks for sharing. Josias was 10 pounds 1 ounce when he was born. His weight has evened out over time, but he is still off the charts tall. I'm glad to hear it all worked out and that you are getting more sleep this time around! Yay for co-sleeping!

My daughter didn't want to latch before she was 12 weeks, so she was bottle fed until then, and slept through (19-07) from, eh, early age (nobody told me to wake her up...). When she started to nurse she gradually started to nurse later in the evening (despite a regular evening bottle), and at 6 months I had started to nurse every 3 hours at night too... At 8.5 months I was about to go insane from sleep deprivation, which my husband mentioned at a regular checkup with the nurse (he was a SAHD from 4.5 to 10 months), and they promptly agreed to start night weaning her. So for two nights I camped in the guest room, and slept 12 hours in a row. For the third night my husband did too. He went to bed at the same time as the kid and woke up at 7, kind of perplex.

Now the kid is almost 21 months and we're still breastfeeding morning and evening, sometimes in between and sometimes she declines in the evening. I am tempted to stop it completely if she starts declining it ALL evenings, if she only wants it in the morning she can have a sip of water with dad in stead and I can sleep in.... (Or: why can't toddlers differ between workdays and weekends?)

I frankly don't know what I'll do with the next kid. It will be very tempting to try to fill it up with a bottle in the evening, as getting up to pump every 3 hours (as I did) seemed much easier than handling a baby at the same intervals. On the other hand my practice as a mother-to-mother breastfeeding helper has taught me quite a few things about breastfeeding, so it's not like I find it ideal from THAT point of view... and besides, the next kid may not sleep all night despite bottles, and night nursing (if the kid wants to latch on) may be the only option... (Why don't they come with source code and documentation?) But in any case I will do my very best to avoid introducing night nursing at 6 months....

Thanks for your comments, Mangi. That would be a hard one, to START night breastfeeding at six months! It sounds like you have found something that works for you. For now! Good luck!

very good description about benefits of breastfeeding and importance of it in mom's and child's life as well...
nice post...Thank You.

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