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  • Writer's pictureRuth Rusby

Sleep and the Transition to Parenthood

The transition to parenthood can be tough for many of us – it consumes our every waking moment. But research has shown that breastfeeding can help with sleep duration and well-being.

Bringing a newborn baby into this world is a miraculous thing, but taking care of an infant is harder than most of us imagine. We barely have time for ourselves, let alone anything else. We are suddenly responsible for a tiny new, astonishing bundle of life. All those feeds, putting her to sleep, changing, bathing, it seems never ending. Help is needed, and surely that comes in the form of a bottle? Traditionally, when mothers have struggled with tiredness and feeling down, they have been encouraged to supplement feeds with formula. But recent research suggests that not only do breastfeeding mothers get longer sleep duration, but they also feel physically and mentally better than their counterparts.

Effects of breastfeeding on sleep

One of the hardest things to contend with is that newborn babies have tiny tummies and must feed frequently, even through the night. It can seem quite daunting at first, feeding every 2-3 hours, endless nights with only short intervals of sleep before the next feed. Until recently it was generally thought that things were perhaps easier for those who bottle fed… dad/partner could do some of the feeds and as babies tend to take more in via bottle, then surely the sleeps between the feeds would be longer?

A recent study of 6,410 mothers of infants 0-12 months suggests that in fact this is not the case. The findings show that breastfeeding mothers get significantly more sleep per night than mixed- or formula-feeding mothers. Not only that, but they also feel both physically less fatigued, have more energy and report lower rates of postpartum depression.

How does breastfeeding help?

Sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it? But it seems that using formula to help with minimising sleep loss means that mothers miss out on the generation of the prolactin and oxytocin hormones involved in milk production and the let-down reflex. These hormones also result in calmness and have a soporific effect, helping you get a deeper, more restorative sleep. Giving up breastfeeding and moving to formula feeds decreases the total sleep time as well as a sense of well-being and a feeling of satisfaction you’d get from your hormones.

Where should baby sleep?

Whether your baby is sleeping in a cot or basket next to your bed or is sharing your bed (more on that in a minute), it is physically much less demanding to roll over and feed your baby lying down once you know how to do so. Your baby should be in the same room as you (known as ‘rooming in’ for the first six months or so). Most mums start out by breastfeeding sitting up, or lying back, but it is worth learning how to get your baby to latch on and feed in the side-lying ‘C’ position. No need to get up and out of bed to make a fresh bottle. Okay, dad or partner can’t roll over and help you feed, but they can bring you a drink and make sure you have all you need to hand. With bottle-feeding, you can sterilize bottles and teats beforehand, have boiled water in a flask and powder measured out, but can’t physically make up a bottle in advance as it doesn’t stay sterile. Even if partners are willing to get up and make a bottle and feed your baby in the night, chances are your female hormones would wake you up at any signs of hunger from your baby. Minimizing disturbance is key, as it means you and baby can settle more quickly from the feed. Whatever works best for you is best for baby:

“We tried breastfeeding for a little while, but it wasn’t working well for us,” says Ronnie, Polish mother of one, born in Scotland. “We decided to bottle feed and it made a huge difference to our lives (for the better). It was a shock to the system to get so little sleep each night and the first month was the hardest, getting into a completely different routine.

“My tips for new parents would be to let the baby sleep in a well-lit room during the day and a dark room during the night, so they can start to learn the difference between day naps and nighttime sleep. And getting plenty of fresh air each day with the baby out in the pram.”

Although NCT doesn’t advocate safely sharing a bed with your baby (as it’s been known to be linked with SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome), in fact UNICEF and La Leche League acknowledge that it is much more widely practiced around the world than previously thought. As long as you or your partner are not smoking, or consuming alcohol or drugs, bed-sharing can be practised quite safely and lead to more rest and successful breastfeeding.

“Breastfeeding my babies, who either slept in our double bed or in the crib next to our bed, was for me the smartest way to maximise my sleep and enjoy the bonding time of feeding,” says Andrea, New Zealand mother of two born in Oman.

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