Infant sleep is one of the most talked about topics relating to babies, with new parents often being asked about the quality of their infant’s sleep. There is a notion that breastfed babies and positive sleep planning are incompatible. I challenge this concept and believe that breastmilk and breastfeeding, can actually promote quality sleep in infants. Studies have consistently shown that there is a reduced rate of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) in breastfed babies suggesting that breastmilk may not only promote quality sleep but also safer sleep.
Let us explore some top tips to promote positive sleep in breastfed babies:-
Label the time you express – Breastmilk is amazing, as it actually contains melatonin (the sleepy hormone), which encourages drowsiness and helps baby relax and sleep. Babies are not able to produce their own melatonin until they are approximately 6-8 weeks old. They therefore rely exclusively on their mother’s breastmilk to obtain this hormone in the initial weeks. Breastmilk contains significantly more melatonin in the evening time, to promote sleepiness in your baby prior to their night sleep. If you express, it can therefore be beneficial to label the time of day you express each milk sample at and ensure that this is given at corresponding times, for maximum melatonin benefit.
Increase mum’s melatonin – Given the impact of melatonin in breastmilk, mum can actually take steps to increase her melatonin production. Melatonin is light sensitive, as light interferes with its production. Light in turn promotes the production of cortisol which can make someone more alert and is counterproductive to the onset of sleep. It can therefore be beneficial if mum limits her exposure to artificial light (blue light from phones, tablets, television, bright lights) in the hour before baby’s final feed of the day. It can be advantageous to install dimmer lights to be used in the home in the evening. Not only will this aid mum’s melatonin production, but it will also act as a ‘sleepy cue’ for baby to associate that night-time and therefore sleep-time is approaching.
Increase baby’s melatonin: Once baby is able to produce their own melatonin there are so many ways we can support this production. My number one top tip is to install black-out blinds. Black-out blinds prevent light entering your baby’s bedroom. It can also act as a sleepy cue to baby if dark signals that it is time to go to sleep. Therefore I would encourage that black-out blinds are also used at nap times. Babies are usually not afraid of the dark (the womb itself is dark) and for this reason I don’t believe nightlights are necessary. However, if you to choose to use a nightlight, research suggests that red based lights are the least disruptive to melatonin production.
Help fight colds – Having a cold, can massively impact a baby’s sleep. Breastfed babies may have increased protection from illnesses such as colds due to the colostrum delivered in the first few days after birth. If a cold does develop, the antibodies contained in the breastmilk can help to fight the cold and increase recovery time. In addition, breastfeeding may help to promote feleings of comfort to a sick child.
Reduce evening caffeine – Although research suggests that caffeine has no effect on a breastfed baby if mum consumes no more than 2 – 3 cups of caffeine per day, it is a good idea if mum avoids caffeine intake in the evening and prior to baby’s night-time feed.
Bedtime routine – A consistent bedtime routine can help a baby to feel safe and secure. Incorporating a breastfeed into the routine can act as a sleepy cue signalling to baby that sleep is approaching. However, in order that breastfeeding does not become a sleep prop (where baby cannot fall asleep without the feeding motion), it can be helpful if the breastfeeding is part of the routine, but not the final part of the routine and that baby is placed in their cot drowsy but awake.
Transitional object – This is often known as a lovey or a comforter, and is usually in the form of a soft piece of material, blanket or a teddy. It can provide an infant with feelings of security and comfort and therefore allow them to become more adaptable to a number of environments. It can be helpful if mum can sleep with this object for several nights to allow it to obtain her unique scent. Then mum can gently rub the soft object on baby’s cheek whilst she breastfeeds. The infant will begin to associate the object with feelings related to nurturing, comfort and security. The item can then be used by alternative caregivers, who can rub the object on the baby’s face when mum is not present to soothe and comfort the baby. It can be beneficial to have a number of these objects in case one gets lost. It is important that the lovey or comforter is not inserted into the babies cot until they over 12 months old and even then the object should be safety approved, with no loose pieces which could fall off and must not be bigger than the infants head.
An early bedtime – It seems reasonable to believe that keeping a baby up later, will promote better sleep quality when they do go to sleep. This is not the case. Many parents find that it can actually become more difficult to encourage their child to sleep if they have become overtired. Therefore a consistent, earlier bedtime can actually promote better sleep quality. Feeding and sleeping at a similar time each day can also help to regulate a baby’s 24 hour clock.
Baby massage – Baby massage is an excellent addition to a baby’s night-time routine. Research suggests that babies who were massaged each day cried less, were subject to lower levels of stress hormones and went to sleep faster. In addition it can also be used to help relieve symptoms of colic, constipation and wind.
Look after mum – Babies rely on their parents to help them to determine how to act in any given situation and as such, are perceptive to parental stress. It is therefore in both parents and babies interests that mum is well rested and obtains adequate sleep herself. Lack of sleep has been thought to be associated with cancer, dementia, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Whilst adequate sleep is thought to have a positive effect on memory, the immune system, blood pressure, weight and mental well-being. Whilst breastfeeding has many positive attributes towards an infant’s development, and can promote positive sleep, it can also be beneficial if more than one caregiver can be available to provide baby with such. This can allow mum an opportunity to obtain more sleep, and allow dad or perhaps a grandparent to enjoy some of this quality bonding time. The option of expressing milk is therefore very popular with many women. Bottles which promote baby to latch and use motions similar to their breastfeeding technique can prevent teat confusion, and actually promote the availability of breastmilk, even when mum is not available. This can be particularly helpful if / when mum returns to work.
Susan Wallace is the founder of Settled Petals, a Sleep Constancy Service Based in Belfast. Susan is a Certified Sleep Consultant and member of the International Association of Sleep Consultants. Her aim is to support and empower parents and caregivers to promote relaxing, holistic environments for their children to bloom. Settled Petals focuses on promoting happy, healthy babies and children who sleep well as consistent with developmental capability. It specialises in Infant Sleep, Baby Massage and Baby Yoga (all of which promote positive sleep). The service is available across the UK and Ireland.