On one of the first nights home with my now 2-year-old daughter, my husband and I found ourselves in the throes of new-parent sleep deprivation after being up every hour on the hour tending to our baby’s needs. It was a harsh introduction to a scenario that no one can prepare you for; one that new parents almost always find themselves in.
If you’re a breastfeeding mother like I was, this lack-of-sleep reality can feel like a double whammy: Since newborns eat every two to three hours (yes, even in the middle of the night), your sleep—those eight-plus hours you need to feel rested—quickly falls to the wayside.
The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests mothers breastfeed for at least six months given the vast benefits (lower risk of some kinds of cancer for you, lower risk for disease and infections for your baby).
It turns out that breastfeeding might also have the ability to improve your sleep. Yes, while the act of feeding a baby does keep you up at night, breastfeeding can help you and your baby sleep better, according to research.
Here are some of the amazing and scientific ways breastfeeding impacts sleep, the snags you might hit, and—most importantly—how to get the rest you need when feeding a baby becomes a full-time job.
How breastfeeding affects sleep
On the surface, it seems like breastfeeding takes a serious toll on sleep: You have to wake up multiple times a night for feedings and you’re on the clock all day and all night physically and emotionally.
But there are scientific ways that breast milk works to protect sleep, explains Hira Shaheen, MD, a medical consultant for Volant Aroma based in Dubai.
“Research suggests that exclusively breastfeeding mothers get more sleep than those who rely on formula feed,” she says.
Specific hormones in your body, such as prolactin—which helps your body produce milk—can play a role in this.
“Prolactin helps the mother adapt to the stress of caring for the baby by promoting a nurturing behavior and alleviating broken sleep,” Shaheen says. “It is responsible for sleep regulation and prolongation of the rapid eye movement (REM) sleep phase.”
In short, if you’re breastfeeding, you might fall asleep quickly and spend more time in this deep sleep phase. This relationship’s bi-directional, too: “Better sleep improves milk supply by increasing prolactin levels,” notes Shaheen.
The breast milk your body creates at night also contains the sleep hormone melatonin (really!), which could help both you and your baby sleep.
The sucking motion babies utilize to feed also releases the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK) in moms and babies, resulting in a sleepy feeling that helps both of you fall back asleep after a night feeding, explains Katy Bourzikas, pediatric nurse practitioner, certified sleep consultant, and founder of Well Rested Wee Ones.
Furthermore, breastfeeding can help your body relax (in part, perhaps, due to the release of the “love” hormone oxytocin), helping you fall back asleep in the middle of the night, she adds.
That said, breastfeeding a baby on demand every few hours isn’t exactly a blessing for your sleep.
Breast milk is more easily digested than formula (a good thing!), but that means your baby is likely eating more frequently, which means you might be up more in the middle of the night because of it (and your sleep, in turn, could suffer).
And while it’s common for some breastfed babies to not sleep through the night for a long period, some do start sleeping through at a few months of age. Every baby is different.
Many moms also notice their breasts leak at night. Engorgement—an increase in blood supply and lymph fluids in your breasts the first few days after birth as your milk starts to “come in”—can also be uncomfortable, disrupting sleep overnight, says Bourzikas.
The good news: “Your body will start to adjust as you start to breastfeed your baby frequently and your body learns to meet your baby’s needs,” she says.
Then, of course, there’s the inevitable: While your baby is little, you’re up every two or three hours feeding them—a task that, day-in and day-out, contributes to that feel-it-in-your-bones exhaustion.
How to sleep better while breastfeeding
These six tips will help you protect your sleep while nourishing your little one:
1. Keep baby in the same room
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends keeping your baby in the same room as you up until six months of age. While that might seem like it would be a detriment to your sleep (loud baby crying in your room!), there are benefits.
“This reduces the stress of going all the way to another room to feed repeatedly and you can fall back to sleep quickly once you are done,” says Shaheen.
2. Practice good sleep hygiene
“Reducing light closer to bedtime triggers maternal and child sleep-wake cycles and produces melatonin,” explains Shaheen. “In babies, this system emerges after two months, but maternal melatonin also helps in its development.”
In short: Setting up a bedtime routine and reducing light and noise can encourage sleep in both you and your baby from the get-go.
3. Label your milk if you’re pumping
Include not just the day you pumped but also the time. Why? The content of breast milk changes during the day.
“Breast milk contains sleep-inducing hormones such as melatonin, amino acids, and nucleotides, whose concentrations are higher during the night and may actually help babies establish their own circadian rhythms,” says Bourzikas. “Offer the overnight pumped milk in the evenings or overnight to promote sleep.”
4. Wear comfortable clothes
“A comfy nursing-friendly shirt or nightgown is key when it comes to the early months and feeding your baby overnight,” says Bourzikas. Try something like The Everything Bra from Bodily—you’ll be hard-pressed to find something softer and more comfortable.
5. Pump as needed to relieve discomfort
Before you go to bed or overnight, consider pumping to help yourself feel more comfortable. Just know that what works for you will vary.
“Some moms can sleep 10 to 12 hours without pumping or feeding and maintain their supply, and some can sleep for five to six hours before their supply dips,” says Bourzikas. “Every mom has a magic number of feeds and pumping they need to maintain each day to maintain supply.”
6. Optimize your baby’s feeds
Newborns eat around the clock—there’s no way around it. But as time goes on, make sure you’re filling your baby’s tummy during the day. This will help ensure fewer middle-of-the-night wake-ups, says Bourzikas. If your baby is getting a majority of their calories during the day, they won’t be looking for them at night.
If you’re still feeding your baby overnight, keep the lights off or dim so your baby doesn’t think it’s time to play, suggests Bourzikas. “Feed them, give them a diaper change if needed, and then put them back in a safe sleep space,” she says.
Remember too, that both breastfeeding and latching induce sleep. “Be organized and finish everything (change baby’s diaper) before you breastfeed at night so that if the baby falls asleep while feeding, you don’t have to wake them up,” says Shaheen.
Also: Some parents find that offering a “dream feed”—a.k.a. feeding your baby one more time before you go to bed without waking them up—can help both you and your baby get a few extra hours of uninterrupted sleep.
Establish healthy sleep habits for your little one from the start. Check out these baby sleep tips from a pediatric sleep specialist.