Why are nursing babies often night owls?

My newborn wakes up several times every night to nurse. Several of my friends, who are formula feeding, have babies who seem to have deeper sleeps. Why do nursing babies seem to be night owls?

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Kathy Kuhn

Kathy Kuhn is a registered nurse who has been working with breastfeeding families since 1981. She has been an International Board Certified... Read more

Some studies have shown that breastfed babies do wake more frequently than their artificially fed counterparts, but since breastfeeding is the norm -- what nature intended for babies -- one has to question if the expectation that a baby will sleep long stretches at night is reasonable, or even beneficial. Prior to the 19th century most human infants slept under conditions of close, continuous parental contact, with frequent nighttime breastfeedings. Even today in most non-Western cultures babies still sleep this way.

One purpose of night wakings is for the baby to get nutrition. A newborn's stomach is very small -- about the size of his closed fist -- and can not hold a large volume of milk. Normal newborns will double their birth weight by about six months of age, an accomplishment that requires a very large intake of calories. Additionally, the composition of breastmilk promotes rapid digestion, usually occurring in about 90 minutes. This rapid digestion of breastmilk is not a mistake or a problem. It occurs to help ensure that the infant has frequent close contact with the mother and that he consumes a large amount of milk. Infants consume up to one-third of their daily calories during night feedings. So as you can see the nutritional value of night feedings are compelling even without considering other benefits.

We know that infants who sleep longer stretches at night seem to be at an increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). We don't know if that is directly related to the sleep pattern or some other compounding issue, but it does appear that sleeping through the night may involve some risk for vulnerable babies. Breastfed babies, especially those sleeping close to their mother, experience more frequent arousals during sleep. It is these arousals that are thought to decrease the risk of SIDS. Additionally it is known that 75 percent of the infant's brain development occurs after the baby is born. The human infant may need the stimulation of night wakings to assist with normal neurologic function that controls breathing. (McKenna 1993)

Night suckling is also known to decrease maternal fertility. This is nature's way of helping to ensure that the mother's body has time to rest before the next pregnancy and that the infant has a period of individual nurturing. (Riordan & Auerbach 1998)

Your baby will stop waking at night when the needs met by nighttime nursings are fulfilled. I hope this will help you view night wakings from a different perspective and that will make it a bit easier to accept them as a normal, and even beneficial, part of parenting your baby.

References

  • McKenna, et al, "Infant-Parent Co-Sleeping in an Evolutionary Perspective: Implications for understanding Infant Sleep Development and the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome" Sleep, Vol 16, No 3, 1993.
  • McKenna, J. & Mosko, S., "Evolution and infant sleep: an experimental study of infant-parent co-sleeping and its implications for SIDS" , Acta Paediatr, 1993, 389, 31 to 36.
  • Mohrbacher, N. and Stock, J., The Breastfeeding Answer Book, La Leche League International, 1997, pp 30, 31.
  • Riordan, J. and Auerbach K., Breastfeeding and Human Lactation, Jones and Bartlett, Boston, 1998, pp 675 to 685.
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