Having a baby can be exhausting. In fact. It has been studied that parents lose many hours of sleep in the first year of their baby’s life. And, if we breastfeed, this fatigue can fall more on the mother, who is in charge of feeding the baby at night.
For this reason, some women decide that their partner gives their baby a bottle at one of the night feedings so that they can rest for a few hours in a row. However, this may not be a good idea during the first weeks of the baby’s life.
How is breast milk production regulated?
The production of breast milk has, among others, two fundamental regulatory mechanisms.
The first is prolactin , the hormone responsible par excellence for breastfeeding. Its name indicates its action: to stimulate breastfeeding. It is secreted by the pituitary (in the brain) and has peak levels after delivery. Its secretion waxes and wanes depending on the frequency, duration, and intensity of nipple stimulation . Every time the baby sucks, prolactin levels rise very high (peaking at 45 minutes and falling afterward), stimulating the production of breast milk. The more times a baby nurses, the higher the prolactin levels.
Furthermore, prolactin secretion follows a circadian rhythm, with its levels being highest at night .
The second important mechanism is the FIL, factor inhibitor of lactation . It is a protein found in breast milk. If present, it inhibits milk production. Thus, if the baby does not empty a breast, there will be a lot of FIL and therefore no more milk will be produced. If, on the other hand, the breast empties, the FIL will disappear and more milk will be produced .
The “night milk” is different
Breast milk has some properties that seem almost magical. One of them is that it changes its composition depending on the needs . Thus, the milk from the first 2-3 days of life (called colostrum) has a different composition than mature milk. Similarly, the milk of mothers who have given birth to premature babies is different from the milk of mothers whose pregnancy has carried to term. And it also changes its composition during the shot and depending on the time of day. Thus, the milk secreted by mothers at night contains melatonin , a hormone involved in the circadian rhythm. Its levels are undetectable during the day and increase at night, reaching a maximum peak at 3 am. Breast milk at night also has a higher content of tryptophan (precursor of melatonin) , prolactin and some nucleotides that can work as sleep inducers.
Also, mothers who breastfeed fall asleep better and seem to sleep deeper . This effect could be explained by the higher levels of prolactin during the night.
Why is it not a good idea to stop breastfeeding at night?
With everything seen so far, we probably already know that night feedings are essential for the correct establishment of breastfeeding, at least during the first weeks and months.
Eliminating some feeding at night (and replacing it with a bottle administered by another caregiver) during the first weeks or months postpartum can interfere with the supply-demand system that regulates the breast and affect the production of breast milk:
– A lower suction, lower levels of prolactin and less stimulation for the synthesis of breast milk . Newborns need to take 8-12 feedings a day for a correct establishment of breastfeeding. In addition, we have already seen that prolactin has a circadian rhythm and its levels are higher at night.
– The less suction, the fuller breasts and the greater amount of FIL , a signal for milk production to be inhibited.
– Also, if we spend many hours without breastfeeding we can suffer engorgement, obstructions and even mastitis . This would also happen if we spend many hours without breastfeeding during the day; however, at night the risk is greater since being asleep we can feel less discomfort and realize engorgement later .
On the other hand, night feeds help establish the circadian rhythm because, as we have seen, the composition of milk varies depending on the time of day. Newborns do not distinguish day from night; they sleep naps throughout the 24 hours indistinctly and, it is around 3-6 months of age, when they acquire their circadian rhythm. Melatonin is a sleep-inducing hormone that is naturally secreted at night (in the dark). It has been proven in different studies that the breast milk that we secrete at night contains melatonin; furthermore, these amounts are higher in colostrum and decrease as the baby grows (when he acquires a circadian rhythm).
We tend to think that bottle-fed babies sleep better; however, studies show that although breastfed babies have more arousals, total sleep duration is not affected . As for mothers who breastfeed, according to some studies, they may even sleep more than those who bottle-feed or have mixed breastfeeding,
Finally, breastfeeding has a fundamental advantage in relation to sleep and that is that it protects the baby against sudden infant death .
What to do then to rest better?
The first months of the baby can be exhausting, so I propose some ideas to rest better:
– Sleep when the baby sleeps . We should take advantage of any of their naps to rest ourselves too. Newborns don’t know day from night so they nap and eat every few hours regardless of the time of day; Therefore, since we are not going to sleep at night, we must take advantage of daytime naps to recover.
– Keep the baby close. It is easier to attend to the baby’s awakenings if we have him nearby: a cot in our room, a co-sleeping cot or safe co-sleeping are good solutions so as not to miss a minute of sleep at night.
– Delegate all possible tasks. Whenever we can, we should delegate all the tasks we can: housework, cooking… and focus on breastfeeding the baby and recovering.
– Establish routines. We have commented that newborns do not have a circadian rhythm and acquire it around 3-6 months. Although the first 2-3 months of age is irrelevant, it is recommended from then on to establish routines that help them fall asleep; for example: bath, massage, take and sleep.
What if I want the couple to give it a shot?
There are mothers who decide to delegate some of the feeds to their partner or another caregiver to rest. In this case, a previously expressed breast milk can be given (we would continue to do exclusive breastfeeding) or formula (we then speak of mixed breastfeeding).
In this case, I recommend:
– Try to avoid it in the first days of life , to ensure that breastfeeding is established, mitigate the rise in milk and avoid engorgement. It is essential at this stage that breastfeeding is frequent and on demand. If we want to replace a feeding, it is preferable that we do it during the day.
– If we do not feed and do not express milk, we must monitor symptoms of breast engorgement ; by not emptying the chest for several hours, it can become hard and painful. This congestion can make it difficult for the baby to latch on later. We can manually express a little milk before feeding, give ourselves a massage or apply softening reverse pressure to facilitate suction.
– Enjoy breastfeeding. Every woman and every family has their circumstances. If you think that to enjoy breastfeeding you need to delegate some feeds, do it like this. Mixed breastfeeding always brings more benefits than giving formula exclusively.
In this case, we are talking about something different. It is about eliminating all the shots during the night and keeping the ones during the day . Sometimes it is done as a first step prior to complete weaning and others to try to improve night rest, since many babies and young children suckle at the breast to fall asleep and demand it again when they wake up.
For overnight weaning, it is recommended that the baby be at least 12 to 18 months old, as many younger babies still need one or a few feedings at night.