Say the word "sleep" amongst parents of young children, and you can easily solicit conversation that ranges from how to get more shuteye to safe sleep practices to why kids like to fool you into thinking you can have a bedtime schedule. (Babies think adults with plans are hilarious.) But there are other sleep topics that perhaps don't get as much talk time, like kids who sleep in weird positions (my daughter always ends up horizontal). And what about sleep habits while breastfeeding? You might wonder why your baby falls asleep while nursing and what, if anything, you can do about it.
Why do babies fall asleep while nursing?
It's a pretty simple reason, actually. "Babies fall asleep while nursing mostly because they are satisfied and content," Leigh Anne O’Connor, international board-certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and parenting coach, tells Romper. And who can blame them? Especially snuggled in so close to you.
In general, don’t be worried if your newborn is sleeping a lot. “You may be surprised to find out just how much your newborn sleeps in the first few weeks of your baby’s life,” Sterling Grey-Simmons, a certified breastfeeding specialist, tells Romper. “Keep in mind that just as you needed to sleep after delivery and rest, so does your baby. It’s common for newborns to have days or even weeks when they’re very sleepy and hard to keep awake. Your baby has to adjust to life outside the womb, and this adjustment can be tiring.”
Not to mention, babies are biologically designed to sleep near the breast, as Grey-Simmons explains. Given both the composition of breast milk and the hormonal responses babies have to nursing, there’s definitely a link between breastfeeding and babies falling asleep. “Understanding it’s very normal to see your baby falling asleep while you’re breastfeeding gives many new mamas a sense of comfort,” Grey-Simmons says. “Falling asleep at your ‘breastaurant’ is generally considered as a healthy indication that baby is full and satisfied and now calmly goes to sleep, often referred to as ‘milk drunk’ or a ‘milk coma.’”
How to keep your baby awake while breastfeeding
While it's super precious to witness a baby trying to nurse while simultaneously fighting off sleep, chances are you need to keep your baby from nodding off to ensure they are properly fed. When that's the case, you'll want to have a few tricks up your sleeve.
A big tip, according to Grey-Simmons, is to undress them. “There are so many times when I go to do my Latched & Loaded Home Visits, and the mom will be complaining about a sleepy baby who she can’t latch, but baby has on a hat, mittens, undershirt, pajamas, and [is] swaddled,” she says. “Of course your baby is sleeping.” There’s a reason why cozying up under a pile of blankets makes you sleepy. It’s basically the same thing with an infant.
Grey-Simmons also recommends doing as much skin-to-skin as possible, rubbing their ears or feet, changing positions as soon as they stop actively sucking, burping them, touching them with a wet wipe or towel, or even changing the location where you breastfeed to a well-lit area. You can also do breast massages to keep the milk coming at a steadier rate.
You'll also want to make sure that you don't perceive sleepiness as a sign that your baby is full, even if your baby falls asleep but stays latched. If you do, it could result in too little weight gain for your baby and a decreased milk supply for you. “Some babies who struggle to breastfeed effectively in the early stages of their life tend to sleep while breastfeeding, even if they have not gotten enough milk,” Grey-Simmons says. “These babies often get tired of sucking and fall asleep. They might also quit in frustration because they are unable to get the milk and settle for sleep instead. This could be caused by an oral restriction such as a tongue, cheek or lip tie, or a shallow latch.”
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And while in most instances it's completely normal for a baby to snooze while breastfeeding, O'Connor says it is important to keep a close eye on breastfeeding newborns to make sure they are not falling asleep from fatigue or lack of sufficient milk. "If there is a problem such as a tongue tie or low milk supply or prematurity, one needs to be seen by a professional who can assess the situation," O’Connor says. "An IBCLC is the best source to determine milk intake."
Additionally, make sure you’re paying attention to the signs indicating whether your baby is full or still hungry. “The clock isn’t a great indicator of whether your baby is getting enough either, which is why my clients will often hear me say, ‘Watch your baby, not the clock,’” Grey-Simmons says. “Some babies are just really effective breastfeeders and might only take five minutes and feel full, and another baby may latch for 20 minutes and still not feel satisfied.” Some examples of signals include open and relaxed hands as an indication that they are full, versus fingers that are tightly clutched and a face tensed as a sign that they are still hungry.
All in all, O’Connor reiterates, "in most cases, babies fall asleep after they have had enough milk and their sucking needs are satisfied." And it's important that we remind each other of this: The whole sleep conversation can sometimes feel a little endless. But that's what the super strong coffee and friends are for, right?
Leigh Anne O’Connor, international board-certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and parenting coach
Sterling Grey-Simmons, certified breastfeeding specialist
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