Nocturnal Awakenings And Breastfeeding

Baby sleep is one of the aspects of parenting that most impact new family rhythms and balances. Between sleepless nights, unlikely methods for “teaching children to sleep,” and chronic fatigue, let’s see together how children’s sleep works and how to encourage rest for all family members.

How Do Babies Sleep?

“He’s good; is he sleeping?”. Here is one of the questions most often asked of parents: As if there were “bad” babies or children who don’t sleep. All the babies were sleeping; they were already sleeping in their mother’s womb. Only they don’t sleep like adults. The sleep-wake rhythms are different. 

The phases of REM sleep (from the English rapid eye movements), which correspond to the lightest sleep, and the phases of non-REM sleep, or deeper sleep, still need to be well defined. When switching between different sleep stages, it is easier for the baby to wake up. In reality, micro-awakenings at the end of sleep cycles also happen to adults, but since they are very short, they are generally not remembered in the morning.

Milk, Even At Night

Furthermore, in the first months of life, babies need to feed themselves—at the breast or with a bottle—even at night, so the baby who “sleeps all night” is more of an exception than the rule. If the baby is breastfed, night feedings are a precious ally for the excellent start and success of breastfeeding. 

During the night, prolactin (the hormone responsible for milk production) reaches exceptionally high levels in the mother’s body, and the baby takes on an essential part of his daily milk quota. These awakenings, in addition to being physiological, also have a protective function against SIDS or sudden infant death syndrome, as they reduce the risk of sleep apnea.

Nocturnal Awakenings, A Physiological Event

As they grow, the need to feed during the night disappears and the sleep phases begin (gradually) to regularize. However, children can still wake up for various reasons, from physical discomfort (thirst, cold, eruption of teeth, seasonal ailments) to the need for contact and reassurance. 

For example, the awakenings can intensify when the so-called separation anxiety occurs (when the child discovers himself as an individual in himself, is separated from his mother, and fears he might lose her), on the occasion of the mother’s return to work, and when the child reaches new goals in the stages of psycho-motor development. In general, changes (such as the start of nursery or nursery school, a move, or the birth of a little brother) can be associated with slightly busier nights. It also happens to us adults; if we have some thoughts or worries, sleep can be more disturbed.

When Will He Sleep Through The Night?

Here it is, the “fateful” question: but when will he sleep more? There is no standard answer to this question: some children start sleeping through the night at one year, some at one and a half, and some at two. However, it has been seen that around the third birthday, the duration and distribution of the more profound and lighter sleep phases correspond to those of adults. At that point, awakenings become rare, perhaps linked to a bad dream or an emotionally challenging period.

Each Family Has Its Solution

We have seen that awakenings in the first years of life are regular, but how do we manage parents’ fatigue? To give the mother a way to “catch up”, a support network would be invaluable, with relatives and friends who lend a hand around the house, bring a ready meal, and take care of the shopping. Unfortunately, this help is often unavailable, but the suggestion to rest as much as possible as soon as the baby sleeps remains valid. 

And the floor to be washed? And the clothes to fold? I know that chaos can create discomfort, but it is a moment in life—a phase—in which priorities change. As regards nighttime organization, sleeping in the same room (as recommended by scientific associations to reduce the risk of SIDS) allows you to take care of the little one without having to get up and join him in another room. 

The father’s collaboration, even at night, can be decisive in terms of maternal well-being: even if the mother is breastfeeding, the father can take care of changing the diaper, cradle the baby, and bring a glass of water to his partner. Once the first months of life have passed, some families find that welcoming the baby into a bed helps everyone sleep more. Others prefer to place the cot next to the bed. As always, every family must find its path and the solutions for its reality.

Parents, Day And Night

The myth of the “good child who sleeps all night” is rooted in our society, so when the child wakes up, we often blame the parents or recommend that they put into practice some method to “teach” the child to sleep. But be careful; the suggestion to let the baby cry for increasingly extended periods without picking him up and comforting him is wrong and potentially harmful. Babies need a parent’s help to get back to sleep, and crying is the only tool they have to communicate. 

Systematically ignored crying, in addition to bringing very high levels of cortisol (the stress hormone that remains in circulation for several hours after the crying has stopped), teaches the child that he is not able to call his parents to him and that his language is ineffective. The other implicit message is that when you need it, no one will help you. On the contrary, the availability of the parent and the acceptance of needs even at night lay the foundations for the child’s self-confidence, trust, and self-esteem. With emotional benefits, both immediate and long-term.

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