Does your baby really need night feeds?

"The hormone that facilitates breast milk production, as well as bonding and attachment, reaches the highest levels ...
"The hormone that facilitates breast milk production, as well as bonding and attachment, reaches the highest levels during night time breastfeeds" ... Pinky McKay. 

It’s dark and still. The world is sleeping – at least, the world of people without babies is asleep. Your baby is awake, snuggled at your breast, slurping the good stuff. 

Mostly, night time breastfeeds feel precious and beautiful. You know in your heart that these sweet moonlight cuddles will end soon, but there are niggling doubts about night time nursing, especially if your baby is of a ‘certain age’.

There's a lot of conflicting advice about when to stop night breastfeeds. One book says “when your baby weighs ten pounds he will no longer need night feeds” (in that case, three of my own babies wouldn’t have had night feeds from birth). Another says “your baby should sleep 12 hours without a feed at 12 weeks” (try telling that to a baby who hasn’t read this book!).

Certainly, this advice is fairly extreme, but it’s common for health professionals to tell mums that their baby doesn’t need night feeds after four to six months. But in reality, many babies DO need night feeds up to and beyond six months.

Of course your baby's hunger is the first reason for breastfeeding at night, but it's about so much more than food. It's also nutrition for a baby’s brain, and this means that as your baby enters new developmental stages, he'll most likely go on a feeding binge to fuel his growing brain. When he’s been exposed to a bug, he’ll need to ‘tank up’ on the amazing immune factors in your milk. And when he’s in pain or uncomfortable, perhaps from teething, the relaxing chemicals in breast milk will soothe him.

Also, as your baby goes through normal stages of separation anxiety, he’ll want to connect to ‘the source’ through the security of your arms and the comfort of breastfeeding. And prolactin – the hormone that facilitates breast milk production, as well as bonding and attachment – reaches the highest levels during night time breastfeeds. This means your baby will probably get the ‘best milk’ at night.

When we consider hunger as a reason for night time feeding, we tend to think of small babies with tiny tummies that need frequent refills. However, older babies can be hungry too. Around five months, most babies become so easily distracted from feeds during the day, when there’s so much to look at in the big exciting world, that they get into a ‘reverse cycling’ feeding pattern, taking short feeds during the day and ‘tanking up’ during the night. 

Babies who are developing new skills also have powerful urges to practise rolling, crawling and pulling themselves up all day long, so their day feeds become short. It’s as though they can’t stop to feed because there is so much ‘work’ to do. And think how many calories a mobile baby burns as he does endless ‘push ups’ or hurtles around the floor!   

There’s no evidence that feeding your baby full of solids will be an answer either; even if he’s eating family foods, milk is still the most important source of nutrition for babies under a year old. Also, if little tummies are stressed by too much food, or upset by new foods, your baby could be more even more wakeful and wanting to suck for comfort.

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Besides all this, the most important ‘mummy reason’ is maintaining your milk supply. In the early days, your breasts need frequent stimulation to ‘set’ your milk production capacity, as your milk supply is influenced by post-birth hormones. Also, in the first three months after birth, there’s more breast development happening – you are developing more prolactin receptors, which will encourage your ongoing milk supply.

Although most women (those without medical conditions that may inhibit milk production) make a similar amount of milk, women have different breast milk storage capacities. This simply means that some women will need to feed more frequently than others - and capacity isn’t necessarily related to the size of your breasts. If you have a smaller storage capacity you'll need to empty your breasts more often so your body is signalled to make more milk. As US lactation consultant Nancy Morhbacher explains, “A mother with a large storage capacity has the room in her milk-making glands to comfortably store more milk at night before it exerts the amount of internal pressure needed to slow her milk production. On the other hand, if the baby of the small-capacity mother sleeps for too long at night, her breasts become so full that her milk production slows.”

If you’re a mother with a smaller milk storage capacity, or if you have a medical condition such as PCOS, diabetes, insufficient glandular tissue or thyroid conditions, night feeds may need to continue for many months to help you maintain your milk supply.

The important thing is not how much milk your baby gets at each feed, but how much he gets over 24 hours. If you have a smaller milk storage capacity, a vulnerable milk supply, a baby who is distracted or busy during the day, or a baby who has any sort of feeding issue, such as low muscle tone that affects how effectively he feeds, he may take less milk at each feed, so he’ll need more feeds over a day (and night) to get his ‘quota’.

You can try offering more feeds during the day, or several feeds closer together before bed, to help your little one (and you!) make it longer through the night. Meanwhile, enjoy those sweet snuggles, learn how to breastfeed lying down so you get more rest, gather support so you can rest during the day if night feeds are tiring you out, and remember the mummy mantra for when the going gets tough: ‘this too shall pass.’ It will, I promise … your little one may like to snuggle up to a warm breast at night when he’s eighteen, but it won’t be yours!

An Internationally Certified Lactation Consultant, infant massage instructor and best-selling baby care author, Pinky examines the latest evidence, busts baby sleep myths, and offers gentle options to encourage infant sleep and settling.

If you are desperately seeking sleep, check out Pinky McKay’s Baby Sleep and Toddler Tactics seminars in Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart.