Frequent Night Waking with Your Breastfed Baby—What’s Normal?
by Meg NagleInternational Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC)
I write about sleep deprivation a lot. Why is this? Because as mothers, it is the one thing that drives us INSANE! We are exhausted. We are so tired we don’t even know what we are doing. We feel overwhelmed, over worked and underpaid. One of the reasons this is so overwhelming for us is that we’re constantly asked how our baby is sleeping. “Is your baby a GOOD baby?” Have you been asked this question before? Does it make you want to cry and laugh at the same time?! Because you know what they are asking you? What they REALLY want to know is . . . “Is your baby sleeping through the night yet?” So what is normal when it comes to night-waking? Is your baby weird because they are still waking frequently to breastfeed?
Here are five things I have discovered in the past 14 years working with breastfeeding mothers:
1. Your baby does not magically stop needing a breastfeed in the night just because they reach the age of six months.
Whenever I read a sleep article or the email blasts that go out from the big baby sites, I see the same sort of information and advice being given. Namely, “By this age your baby does not need to wake up in the night.” See what they did there? They are telling you that your baby doesn’t actually “need” you. They are just doing it because they have a sleep problem that you, as the parent have created. Actually, the truth of the matter is that your baby needs you in the night just as much at 6, 9, 18 + months as they do at 2 months. They are also not developmentally ready at this young age to understand what’s happening if you try to get them sleeping through without a breastfeed here or there. Your baby will continue to need you for a long time and mothering through breastfeeding happens both during the day, and at night.
2. Breastfed babies and toddlers wake anywhere from 1-1,457 times per night.
OK, yes I’m exaggerating a bit with that range, but just know that if your baby is waking every 1-1 ½ hours overnight it is still quite normal. Exhausting? Yes! But normal.*
When I did research for my book on gentle sleep, Boobin’ All Day . . . Boobin’ All Night, I found that from the 8,000 + people I polled, over 66% of toddlers over the age of 24 months were still waking 1-3 times at night to breastfeed. Over 12% were still waking 4-6 times! This gives you some good insight into just how normal this night-waking is. They do not have sleep problems, these are breastfed kids who are continuing to do what babies and young children have always done since . . . forever! Waking at night to find some comfort through breastfeeding.
*There are of course exceptions to this; for instance, if a baby is waking due to discomfort from reflux, food intolerances, sleep apnea etc. However, if this is going on there will usually be other symptoms. Please seek help from your IBCLC and doctor if you have concerns.
3. You will not create “bad habits” by breastfeeding your baby to sleep.
Rather, your baby will learn what it means to be comforted and cuddled while having their needs met through breastfeeding and hugs. This creates confidence and independence so that when they are developmentally ready, they will fall asleep with a cuddle rather than a breastfeed and then eventually fall asleep all on their own. This is usually a gradual process that happens over time as they start to feel more comfortable with this.
From my experiences working with parents, this rarely happens naturally (without some sort of sleep training or encouragement from the parents) before the age of 24 months. There are, however, ways you can gently encourage this to happen once your baby is around 18 months old and can understand more of what you are saying.
4. Babies and toddlers LOVE to go on and off the boob in the early morning hours leading up to sunrise.
I will often hear from parents that their child will be on and off the breast very frequently (cluster feeding) in the very early morning hours before the sun comes up. Kids have amazing little body clocks and can definitely sense when the sun is going to be rising! Often times this will be when they are looking for some extra comfort to stay asleep and settled.
5. There are gentle ways to night-wean your child that do not involve “cry-it-out,” “responsive settling,” or sleep training techniques!
How is this possible? By waiting until your child is old enough to have a better understanding of what you are saying and has a level of communication themselves.
If you are looking to night-wean, my general recommendation is to wait until your child is at least 18 months old. The reason I suggest this age is that your child will be ready and able to understand so much more of what you are saying. You will be able to explain what is happening (“No boobie until the sun comes up.”) and you will see that they get it. They might not like it! But they will understand.
Nighttime parenting in a gentle way is all about respecting where your child is at developmentally, while also thinking about yourself! Remember breastfeeding is a relationship and how you are feeling about the whole thing matters, too. While motherhood is exhausting, remember it’s hard for our little ones as well. I promise you, your child WILL eventually fall asleep on their own and sleep in their own bed. Believe me . . . my 14 year old who spent the first few years of his life breastfeeding cuddled up next to me, would cringe at the thought of me cuddling him to sleep now! They do grow up. In the mean time? Cuddle them. You simply cannot breastfeeding your child too often or cuddle them too much.