It’s natural for young babies to wake at night.
In the womb, a baby is never hungry as nutrients are delivered straight into their bloodstream. It is never properly light and unborn babies have their own cycle of waking and sleeping that has little to do with night and day – as many pregnant women find to their cost when trying to sleep!
When a baby is born, that is the reality they are used to. It takes time (and milk) to introduce melatonin and the concept of a body clock with night and day periods into a new baby’s life. Night feeds may be a challenge to new parents, but they are important for a number of reasons…
Protection and SIDS
A mother keeping her baby close and checking on it regularly would be essential to keep the baby safe if sleeping “in the wild”. In many ways, human evolution hasn’t caught up with the fact that western humans generally live in fixed abodes that are safe from predators. You may know that your baby is asleep in a designer crib in an expensive, centrally-heated-on-a-thermostat house with locks and alarms. Your baby doesn’t.
SIDS is a risk, even if your baby is kept safe from all outside dangers. We do not know exactly what causes SIDS and it sometimes happens even when there are no known risk factors (for info on reducing the risk factors for SIDS, see The Lullaby Trust). But a baby and mother waking regularly through the night means that baby is not falling too deeply asleep, mama is checking baby’s breathing, checking their temperature and adjusting their bedding. Breastfeeding and keeping baby close at night are both known to reduce the risk of SIDS.
Prolactin is the hormone that drives the production of milk in the early days and weeks. That’s why mamas usually produce breastmilk even if they never breastfeed so there is no “demand” for the “supply and demand” of breastfeeding.
Prolactin is produced more, the emptier a mama’s breasts are. If her breasts are allowed to store much milk, then another hormone is produced (the snappily named ‘Feedback inhibitor of Lactation’ or FIL) that drives DOWN prolactin levels and reduces the production of milk. So feeding through the night means more prolactin and a more robust milk supply.
Prolactin levels are also naturally higher at night, so a mama who is establishing her supply needs to take advantage of this and feed in the wee hours. That’s why, if a mama is exclusively pumping, it is important in the early weeks that she expresses at least once between midnight and 4am. However crappy that seems.
Remember how I mentioned above how babies are born without a “bodyclock”? Melatonin controls our human bodyclocks, allowing us to have a diurnal rhythm of sleeping at night, waking in the day. A baby’s pineal gland does not produce melatonin properly until they are around 3 months old. In the meantime, they get their melatonin from breastmilk, specifically breastmilk produced in the evening and night-time. So all those night feeds in the early days and weeks may actually help a baby to learn the difference between night and day (and which one is for more sleeping, which one is for play!) quicker!
A newborn baby’s stomach is tiny – around 6ml at birth, growing to around 50ml by the time they’re about 1 week old. That’s about the size of an apricot. So even if they fill their tummy, a baby will likely get hungry again before long. They are growing so much, developing so much, and they have such tiny tummies! If you woke up starving hungry at night, could you get back to sleep without food or drink? I know I couldn’t.
The importance of night feeds
Night feeds help keep your baby safe. They help establish and protect a mama’s milk supply, which in turn helps to protect her baby further. They help baby to develop a diurnal bodyclock. And they keep baby warm, comfortable and happy.
If a mama and family can get set up so that regular night feeds in the early days, weeks and months can be seen as the normal, necessary part of life with a baby that they are, then everyone can be happy. More on that later…