Nothing shocked me more as a new mom than nights. I pictured sweetly breastfeeding at night maybe once and then laying my baby back down for a blissful sleep. That didn’t happen. My son woke every two to three hours. I pulled out my phone and searched: “When do breastfed babies sleep through the night?”. Everyone’s opinions differed. I wish I had some of these tips during my son’s first few months.
I am so excited to welcome my sister-in-law, Melissa, with her coping skills for breastfeeding at night. Melissa is a first-time mom. Her son (my nephew!) was born in October 2015.
Nothing prepared me for the nights as a new mom.
As we valiantly commit to providing the best nourishment for our little ones, moms nursing newborns also commit to 24-hour days and 10-12 hour “night shifts” that can leave us not only sleep deprived, but within millimeters of our sanity. By the third week of my son’s life, “bedtime” began to haunt me as I dreaded the impending and potentially dark, desperate, and lonely night ahead.
At my local breastfeeding support group, I asked the gathered twenty or so moms if anyone else had experienced night anxiety and how they coped. I discovered I was nowhere near alone – almost every mom had experienced this unique brand of night terror. Each one had unique ways to keep it at bay.
Here are the ways these amazing mamas not only survived the night, but took it back. These transformed the ways I perceived nocturnal nursing sessions and helped me reclaim my sanity.
(If you need to know how to manage nursing when you go back to work, I have it for you here.)
Breastfeeding at Night Tip: Ask for help
Easier said than done, I know. As mamas, it is empowering to feel that we know best when it comes to our children. The reality is that we cannot do it all, and we cannot do it alone.
I spent the first 4 weeks of my son’s life trying desperately to get my husband a full night of sleep so that one of us could be sane and clear-headed during the day. In the end, I realized that no one was going to benefit from an insane and empty-headed mama.
When my husband started giving our son a bottle at one feeding per night, the resulting sleep transformed my experience of motherhood.
Of course, not every mama has a partner to help and not every baby can take a bottle. I have nursing friends whose mothers, sisters, and friends help for day-time naps. I also know many moms whose partners bring the baby to their wife in bed at night so she can do side-lying nursing and be up for a much shorter stretch.
What made the most difference for me at night beyond my husband’s help was the support of other women who shared my experience. I had met first-time nursing moms through my birthing class and breastfeeding support group and it didn’t take us long to realize that we were often up at the same times and could use the wonder of smart phones to keep in touch.
My friend Brooke and I began coming up with fun things to do over the course of night feedings; we watched the same movie in chunks and texted each other our running commentary or texted each other silly tidbits from our past at each feeding so each of us would wake up to something fun to read.
Some nights we would text back and forth despair and encouragement, each taking a turn to let it out or uplift.
The simple fact that other women were hard at work and feeling the same way made nights of cluster feeding far more bearable – even a team effort! Some women have no choice but to do nights alone, but no matter where you are, other women are doing what you are doing at night.
Some women have no choice but to do nights alone, but no matter where you are, other women are doing what you are doing at night.
Most hospitals offer a breastfeeding support group with no fees, and there are tons of Facebook groups designed specifically for nursing moms to help one another, both local and national.
Want to get rid of that stress you feel every time you need to nurse? These next ways will make sure YOU are a priority as well.
Have a personal “bedtime routine”
The worst nights in the first month were the ones where my newborn was sleeping well, but I was so screwed up by the erratic sleep and high levels of anxiety that I stopped sleeping myself.
I realized that where my son needs a bath, his swaddle, a full belly and a story to tell his little body it was time for sleep, mine needed similar things – at least until I got used to the new rigamarole.
To cue myself for my own sleep, I started getting into my PJ’s and brewing a cup of decaf tea about an hour or two before bedtime, then stretching out on the couch and doing a little deep breathing as I drank it. I would watch a TV show I’d already seen before that didn’t require active engagement to enjoy and allow myself to “check out” and drift off before going up to bed.
Soon enough, the sound of the tea water boiling started to make me drowsy, just as the sound of bath water inspires droopy eyes in my son.
Nursing has a whole host of side-effects, two of which are ravenous hunger and insatiable thirst.
I always keep a baggie of animal crackers (a nice bland but filling snack) and three full bottles of water in the nursery and try to consume them over the course of the night.
It also helps that I don’t allow myself to eat those animal crackers during the day, so I almost look forward to my night-time indulgence when I go to bed!
Embrace the awake time
My mom is responsible for this one. She shared with me that when I was a baby, she would always make sure to tape her favorite show and save it to watch at night feedings. Half the time, she said, she’d put me back to bed and actually stay up to finish the show!
Embracing the time I have to spend awake has been key in perceiving nights as not only bearable, but as a special time for myself. I started leaving a good show on Netflix up on my laptop in the nursery and saved it for nights.
My favorites are shows like Dancing with the Stars or Project Runway – light-hearted shows you can check in and out of without feeling like you have to rewatch to follow. Now, when I encounter the night feeding that goes on and on because the baby won’t stop fussing to fall asleep, I just embrace a little extra TV time rather than getting progressively more frustrated.
Note: Some mamas fear that the bright light or noise of a television show will produce a wakeful baby, but in my experience, during the first four weeks (the hardest when it comes to night feeding), nothing made a difference to my sleepy newborn. Once I was up for fewer feeds, I did cut the TV to keep things dark and uninteresting.
Breastfeeding at Night Mantras
I’m an incredibly verbal person; words are power to me. So when I was preparing for my son’s birth, I came up with mantras: phrases to repeat to myself to get through contractions.
I have found that mantras are similarly helpful during trying times, and so I came up with a few for night nursing and actually printed out a list and posted it by my rocker so that it would be in sight at each feeding.
The ones that worked for me were “Things are always better in the morning,” “This too shall pass,” and “Babies cry!” These helped me remember that what I was experiencing would not last forever and that my son’s crying is not the end of the world.
I know moms who need to remind themselves that they are good mothers and their children are healthy and in good hands. Any of these reminders might be worth posting or repeating while nursing at night.
Make comfort a priority
When I first started experiencing night anxiety, I would rush to my son at his first cry, get him immediately to the breast, and perch on the edge of my rocker with my body hunched, trying desperately to consolidate the movement from the rocker to the crib lest I wake him and waste minutes or hours of precious sleep.
This was the wrong move for me.
I wound myself up, I wound him up, and more often than not one of us would end up too wired to go right back to sleep.
Now, I make a pointed effort to be comfortable at each night feeding. I act as if I’m going to be up for awhile. I go to the bathroom and make sure I am warm, I have water, and that my show is playing before I pick up the baby. I tell myself that the three minutes it takes to do these things does not make me a terrible mother because my son may be crying during that time. Instead, it assures I can attend to his needs calmly and fully, and thus is in his best interest as well.
I also am careful to sit back and relax in my rocker each time, and I make extra effort to relax if I am tense. One strategy is to play a lullaby that I love at each feeding (my favorite: the lullaby version of “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns N Roses). Another is stroking my baby’s hair as he nurses – the slow, gentle motion slows me down too and puts me in a mood of love versus one of desperation.
Write it down
In the first weeks of my son’s life, I started realizing that I would learn things at night that often got lost to mommy brain and sleep deprivation – new soothing techniques my son responded to or coping skills that worked for me, so I started writing them down.
For awhile, I kept a list called “Melissa’s Night-time Tired Brain Reminder Extravaganza” on the table by the rocker that reminded me to do things like give the baby a little time to self-soothe before picking him up, or to try giving him another opportunity to nurse if he’s been up for awhile – things I would easily forget in my exhaustion and lack of baby experience.
Take Care of Yourself during the day
It also became clear that I needed a “morning routine” as well as a “bedtime routine” to properly frame nights in a positive way.
Instead of trying desperately each morning to get the baby to sleep one extra stretch, I relaxed into the wake-up time his body was clearly communicating.
I now get up with him, nurse him and dress him, and go downstairs. I brew another cup of tea to enjoy while he sits in his bouncer on the kitchen island. I pump and chat to him, then put him on his own playmat while I do a little morning yoga.
Once my husband is up, he is “on duty” and allows me some solo-time to shower and decompress if needed. We also have made a commitment to talk to each other in terms of how OUR nights were rather than talking about how our son slept.
After twelve hours of catering to the baby’s needs, it is acceptable to talk about our emotions and well-being rather than how much sleep the baby got!
Being on the night shift as a nursing mom can get rough, but the most important thing to remember is that we won’t be on duty forever. Kids eventually sleep through the night. We eventually wean our littles from breastfeeding and the nights that babies need to be fed every two or three hours are limited to the first couple months.
Since those months can feel like eons when we are first feeling the crushing exhaustion and don’t have the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel of experience to hope for, a little careful planning and self-pampering during those times can go a long way.
Make sure to keep these tips with you during your night nursing sessions! And for even more breastfeeding help, the Milkology course is here for you.
Having many careers in her life, Melissa Crohn is now a high school English teacher and loves to write and journal in her spare time. She’s enjoying life as a new mom to a baby boy.