Breastfeeding, Sleep and Holding Your Baby: What’s Normal?

Photography: Kimberley Rich Photography |

By Rowena Gray, IBCLC

Breastfeeding and sleeping. Both are highly contentious topics when parenting a newborn!  

Feeding, sleeping, settling. It’s a 24/7 job without so much as a coffee break some days. It’s not easy. It’s constant. No-one wants to admit that parenting a newborn is more of a challenge than anticipated – that they’re struggling with the demands of round the clock feeding, a baby who won’t settle unless he’s held, a baby who sleeps for only short periods of time and always seems to want to feed or be in your arms.

And yet the media do well to sugarcoat the reality of parenting a baby, idealising the smiling happy family looking refreshed in a bed of white sheets and fluffy pillows. I mean really! Is it any wonder us parents feel confused and demoralised?!

So let’s talk frankly. Let’s tell it how it really is. Everything your baby does is for a life sustaining reason (not just to deprive you of sleep).

Babies wake to breastfeed frequently – day and night.

It’s normal. It’s necessary.

He will feed when he feels hungry. He’s a small person with a small stomach that needs to be filled up frequently. Breast milk is very easily and quickly digested – usually within one hour – regardless of how much milk he just had. Therefore very frequent feeding is expected. Your baby’s high frequency feeding is vital to stimulate your breastfeeding hormones and set up your long term milk supply. His appetite fluctuates day and night and so with each feed is signally your breastfeeding hormones to also fluctuate based on his feeding needs. Frequent waking and feeding also provides significant support for the rapid brain growth that occurs in baby’s first year.

Waking through the night is normal!

It’s normal. It’s necessary. Yes. It’s true. Waking through the night is normal!

Your baby needs you both day and night – his needs are the same in the night as they are in the day. He can’t tell the time. He is fundamentally incapable of distinguishing night from day which is why sleeping overnight becomes but a distant memory for parents. It takes most babies years to be ready to sleep through the night.  

It’s not a problem that your baby wakes several times a night (an inconvenience and disruption of your sleep, yes, but a problem, no).  It’s normal and it’s temporary. Your baby wakes in the night for many different reasons – to feed; cuddle; needing help to resettle; to say “hello” and reconnect after a busy day; needing comfort when he’s ill or teething; and so on. The most common reason for waking is hunger and, as already mentioned, your baby needs to wake to feed frequently – day and night. That is, your baby does not have a sleep “problem”. It’s us parents who have a problem coping with the normal unpredictability of baby sleep. Life feels pretty raw when our sleep reality doesn’t match up to our expectations or desires. But sleep is baby-driven and the natural fluctuation of sleeping and waking patterns is essential for brain oxygenation and development and is also known to be protective against SIDS.

Sleeping through the night is a developmental milestone and something that will happen in your baby’s own timing – this will be different to every other baby. It’s not something that only “good” babies do and is not at all a measure of your capabilities as a parent. It shouldn’t be considered the pinnacle of parenting achievement to have your baby sleeping through by their third week of life. In fact, trying to achieve this is likely to create sleeping issues. It will happen on its own when the timing is right for your baby – no specialist help required. You wouldn’t consider something was wrong when your 3-month-old wasn’t yet walking! (OK – an extreme example but you get my drift). Nothing is broken and nothing needs fixing.

So do your best to embrace the fact that you are needed by your baby in the day and in the night for a period of time.

Breastfeeding your baby to sleep is biologically normal, not a bad habit.

It’s normal. It’s necessary.  

No, breastfeeding your baby to sleep won’t create sleeping issues. That’s a myth. It’s important that your baby can associate breastfeeding not only with feeding but also with settling and calming – it’s the most natural way to settle your baby to sleep. Breastfeeding releases a hormone called cholecystokinin – think sleeping elixir –  that is passed through the breastmilk to baby and induces relaxation and sleep of the highest quality for both mum and baby (note I said quality, not quantity!). So it’s absolutely OK to feed your baby to sleep. In fact, it’s what naturally happens!

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  1. says: Bethany

    Another brilliant, well ‘spoken’ article by Rowena – it really does feel like you’re sitting next to a new born mother and reminding her that she IS her baby’s safe space.
    Well done – I will be sharing this with ALL of my new born mums and waiting with anticipation for your next article – keep them coming. – Bethany Meakin – Doula

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