Waking up to feed your baby in the early weeks can be mentally and physically tiring. NCT breastfeeding counsellor and postnatal practitioner Fran Bailey shares her tips on making night feeds more manageable.
Sleep – or lack of it – is one of the biggest challenges when you have a newborn. After busy days looking after your baby, you’d be forgiven for looking forward to a good night’s shut-eye.
But the fact is, newborn baby’s tummies are small, and they need to wake up every few hours to feed. It would be a cause of concern if they didn’t! Unfortunately, this means that your own sleep will be incredibly disrupted for the first few months.
NCT breastfeeding counsellor and postnatal practitioner Fran Bailey says:
‘It’s really normal for babies to wake lots in the night to feed in the early weeks and months. This is part of newborn behaviour that ensures they get enough milk but also to keep them safe.’
It can help to be as prepared as possible to minimise the amount of time you have to spend getting everything ready when you’re tired and your baby’s hungry. If you’re mixed or formula feeding, make sure you have bottles already sterilised, and formula or expressed milk to hand.
Place a changing mat, nappies, change of clothes if needed and wipes (or cotton wool balls and fresh water) close by so you can change your baby quickly. If possible, try to change baby’s nappy before a feed to avoid waking them up too much afterwards. However, only change them if they’ve done a poo or their nappy is very wet, as it might overstimulate them when you’re trying to keep them relaxed.
It’ll help to have your baby in the same room and close to you for the first six months so you can hear when they wake and you don’t have to go too far. This can all help the night feeds feel like less of a mission.
Put a glass of water and even a snack by your bed or feeding chair so you have some refreshment for yourself during feeds.
You’re not alone
Involving your partner or a family member or friend with night feeds can make a huge difference. Just knowing you’re not the only one who has to deal with night feeds can help you feel less lonely and like you’re both in this together.
Fran says: ‘In the early weeks, when partners are on parental leave, having some company (and support!) while feeding can be invaluable. Some couples take it in turns to offer a feed to their new baby. For families where women are breastfeeding, this doesn’t mean that partners can’t help.
‘There is lots that partners can do to help in the middle of the night. This might be bringing baby to mum, or changing nappies and settling baby back to sleep.’
"Having some company and support when feeding at night can be invaluable"
After a feed, partners can burp baby and look after them so you can get a few more precious minutes rest. Sharing lots of cuddles and helping to meet your baby’s needs at night can be an important bonding time for your partner and baby, too.
Even if you’ve had to be up for longer in the night, family and friends can help during the day, especially if you’ve got older children. NCT volunteer for Bolton and North West Manchester, and mum to Dorothea and Edward, Lorna says: ‘My hubby works from home, so he gets up with the toddler and baby at 6.30 and I go back to sleep until about 8 to catch up a little.”
If you’re breastfeeding but struggling with the frequent night awakenings, you could express some milk during the day for your partner to bottle feed your baby in the evening (if they’ll take it) so you can get some undisturbed sleep then.
Keep things low-key
Make getting back to sleep after feeds easier by trying not to wake your baby up too much at night. When you’re tired yourself, it might be tempting to put on the TV or go into a bright room, but this can make settling afterwards harder for you both.
Fran says: ‘There are things you can do to help your baby recognise the difference between night and day. Use dimmed lights and more gentle voices during a night feed…this will probably help you get back to sleep too. It’s worth avoiding caffeinated drinks or other stimulants overnight as they might make it harder for you to go back to sleep.”
Volunteer Lorna says: ‘I have the lights as low as possible and feed in a rocking chair. I can change my son without having to have too much light on, and not wake either of us up too much.’
To smartphone or not to smartphone?
One of the most popular ways of passing time in the small hours is to check your phone. WhatsApping your NCT friends can be a great way to feel connected and get emotional support during night feeds. Checking the latest celebrity gossip can also make the time pass quicker!
Just bear in mind that mobiles might not always be the best distraction. Fran says: ‘There is some research that indicates that the light from smartphones can interfere with sleep patterns, so some families may find that it is easier to get back to sleep if you haven’t been looking at your phone.’
Find a balance between looking at your phone and focusing on baby. After all, you don’t want to be so absorbed that you don’t realise that your baby is already asleep and you could be too.
Some mums find that Kindles can be a great way to pass the time. One NCT volunteer says: ‘My husband got me a Kindle so I avoided being on my phone too much and it felt more relaxing if I could read – I’ve got through so many books over nine months.’
Sleep like a baby
Even with preparation and help, night feeds can be a shock to the system. It can help to adjust your own ideas of day and night to fit in with your baby. It’s not always easy, but in the early days, it can pay off to try to sleep as much as you can when your baby does during the day. This can really help recover from the birth or multiple wake-ups during the night. Alternatively, get your partner, another family member or a good friend to look after your baby for an hour or two while you lie down.
For the time being, you might have to accept that your sleep will be in chunks, rather than one big, uninterrupted rest. Like with anything, if you’re constantly counting the minutes, the whole experience could feel longer. If you can, accept that night feeds are a necessary part of your baby’s development and it won’t always be like this. Enjoy the extra cuddles and just having time alone with them.
Babies are unique
It’s easier said than done, but try not to get too hung up about how much other people say their babies sleep. While you’re struggling with what feels like constant feeding at night, it’s not helpful to hear that someone else’s child is sleeping through. And there are so many definitions of what 'sleeping through' actually means! For some parents, it's between 11pm and 4am, while for others it means just two very short feeds in the night.
You can’t change your baby’s needs, so instead try to find the best way of getting through night feeds for you. And most importantly, try and remember that the night feeds won’t last forever. Like everything else, it’s a phase that will pass and take you on your next journey with your baby.
Our support line offers practical and emotional support with feeding your baby and general enquiries for parents, members and volunteers: 0300 330 0700.
Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby. To find out when an NCT nearly new sale is happening near you, search here.
You might find attending one of NCT's Early Days groups helpful as they give you the opportunity to explore different approaches to important parenting issues with a qualified group leader and other new parents in your area.