At first, your baby can’t tell day from night, so whether it’s two o’clock in the afternoon or two o’clock in the oh-so-early hours of the morning, he just knows that he’s hungry, and you know that you need to feed him. Sitting up in the dead of night with your little one as he feeds makes for some magical bonding moments, but it can also be very demanding. So how do you make the most of those lovely parts? We’ve got some tricks up our sleeve to make night-time nursing go smoothly, whether it’s by breast, bottle or a combination of the two.
Put him to bed awake
How you put your baby to bed at bedtime will have a significant effect on how easily he falls back to sleep after a night feed. The important thing is not to feed him to sleep and then pop him into his cot asleep, but to give him his evening feed before, or as part of, his bedtime routine, so you lay him down when he’s drowsy but still awake.
That way, he learns to fall asleep without any assistance from you. And when it’s time to go back to bed after a feed at three o’clock in the morning, that’s a skill that really helps! “It’s never too soon to start a bedtime routine,” says sleep- and-feeding expert Lyndsey Hookway. “You may not see immediate results, but if you provide the same cues in the same order before each and every sleep, over time your baby will be able to predict what will happen next.” And while you might worry that separating milk from sleep means that you’ll be feeding your baby 10 minutes earlier, so he might feel hungry 10 minutes earlier too, you’ll probably find that he drinks a little more because he’s more awake.
Prepare your space for a comfortable night’s feeding before you go to bed. As a breastfeeding mum, you may prefer to lie in bed: “It’s fine to breastfeed lying down, in a safe position,” says Lyndsey. “But if you’re bottle-feeding, you’ll need to sit up.” Prop yourself up with plenty of pillows, or position a supportive chair close by. And keep cushions and a warm blanket or dressing gown to hand. “Keep a little caddy of night-feeding essentials close by,” says Lyndsey, “so you’ve got a muslin, bottle of water and lip salve for yourself and a spare babygro in case of accidents.” And think what else would help you create an area that makes you feel nurtured and looked after.
Thinking it might be a good idea to stretch the time out between night feeds, even by a few minutes? It can be counterproductive. “A baby who is very hungry and upset will be more diffi cult to feed and settle,” says Lyndsey. “And then he may only take a small amount of milk before falling asleep—which means he’ll wake sooner for his next feed.” Instead, turn detective and work out what your baby does before he starts crying in the night. “These cues include wriggling around, smacking his lips or sucking on his tongue, putting his hands in his mouth, kicking his legs and making small noises,” says Lyndsey. Once you’re listening for them, you’ll soon wake when you hear him shuffl ing about. “It’s always easier if you respond when your baby shows early signs of hunger,” says Lyndsey.
It will be easier to settle your baby back to sleep after a night feed if you avoid overstimulating him. “Keep the lights off, and instead use a nightlight that doesn’t emit blue light, which can interfere with the production of melatonin, a natural hormone that regulates sleep cycles,” suggests Lyndsey. “Stay calm and confident, and avoid talking to your baby. Just stroke him gently and look into his eyes without engaging in lots of chatter.” Keep disruption to a minimum by only changing his nappy if you really need to, or if you’re particularly worried about nappy rash.
There are other ways to reduce the faff too. “Consider using ready-to-feed formula milk at night if you’re bottle-feeding, which will save you having to boil the kettle to mix formula, then cooling the milk,” Lyndsey adds. “You can keep cartons of milk by the bed, along with sterilised bottles. And if you’re using expressed breastmilk, this can be left at room temperature for six hours, or up to 12 hours in a cool bag. Your baby doesn’t need warm milk in a bottle— room temperature is fine.” In all this quiet, comfy calm, it can be a challenge for you to stay awake for the duration of the feed. Resist the temptation to flick through social media or switch on the TV, as this is likely to leave you both too stimulated to get back to sleep afterwards. “Try softly singing a lullaby, or plugging in headphones to listen to music or an audio book instead,” says Lyndsey.
Tell hunger from habit
A tiny tummy needs frequent refills, so it’s only natural that a young baby will wake throughout the night to feed. This can be tiring, but it helps if you remind yourself that you’re fuelling his physical and emotional development each time you’re roused from sleep. “Your baby’s brain is growing at an immense rate,” explains Lyndsey. “The primary source of fuel for this complex growth is sugar, the best source of which is the lactose in milk. And his brain will grow more during the rapid eye movement sleep that’s common in the early hours of the morning.” Your baby also relies on feeding for emotional comfort as well as nutrition. And this means that, as he gets older, it can be tricky to work out whether he’s waking because he’s hungry, or if he simply wants a cuddle. “Night feeds are certainly necessary up until six months,” Lyndsey says, “but it’s hard to be specific about what he’ll need beyond this
. It’s normal and natural that he’ll feed more at night when he’s going through a developmental phase, so the frequency of feeds may increase again during times of growth and change. And it’s perfectly normal for a baby of up to 18 months to need a night feed.” So how can you tell if he really needs those feeds? “If he is waking and having a seemingly effective feed, you should assume that he is hungry,” says Lyndsey. “If he feeds half-heartedly or for just a minute or two, whether breast or bottle, then he’s not hungry,” says Lyndsey. “But before you drop that feed, do consider whether he still needs the feed for comfort, perhaps because he is teething.”
Ease back into sleep
There’s a simple trick that really works for helping a baby back to sleep after a night feed. Offer him some sensory cues as he nears the end of his feed, by stroking or gently patting him, and softly ‘shushing’ him. Continue these cues as you hold him upright for a few minutes to wind him, and then as you gently place him back into his cot. “Your baby will start to associate these actions with falling asleep, rather than the feed itself,” explains Lyndsey. “Another clever trick is to pop a body-temperature hot water bottle into his empty cot as he feeds so that the sheet stays warm, remembering of course to remove it before putting him back in.”
If you’re breastfeeding, then your body gives you a helping hand to speed you back to sleep. The hormone oxytocin and other neurotransmitters are released into your bloodstream as you feed your baby, inducing a sense of sleepy relaxation in both of you. If you’re bottle-feeding, then be proactive and figure out what helps you drop back off into dreamland: simply breathing slowly in through your nose and out through your mouth, and counting your breaths, works wonders.
Cherish the moment
Sitting up at night can be an isolating experience, but remember that you are not alone. “Tell yourself that you are joining millions of loving parents around the world, all doing the same thing at that very moment,” says Lyndsey. It can really help if your partner is sharing the responsibility of night feeds, whether that means taking turns bottle-feeding so you get to stay in bed sometimes, or staying awake with you if you’re breastfeeding. But it’s fine if you want to enjoy those moments of having your baby all to yourself. Those peaceful, middle-of-the-night moments with your baby can become something to treasure, especially if your time with him during the day is limited. “Try to find something about him that you haven’t noticed before,” says Lyndsey. “Study his face, his ear, his hand or nose, and marvel at how perfect he is. And congratulate yourself on making such a beautiful little person!”