Night nursing, healthy sleeping and reduced crying: these three little items go together like gems in a perfect setting. Babies need to feed around the clock and that is one of the main reasons why they wake at night and alert us to their state of panic and abandonment.
Meanwhile, mothers are programmed to doze while tending to their nursing babies. Hormonal changes mean that a nursing mother doesn’t go into the fourth, or deepest, stage of sleep at all. At the same time, the action of the baby’s gums against the areola (the soft brown circle around the nipple) stimulates a hormonal ‘snooze button’, making the mother drowsy.
These strange chemical reactions mean that nursing mothers were designed to fall asleep on the job, not tiptoe up to a beautifully decorated nursery to lower the lightly sleeping baby into a lonely crib. They mean nursing mothers were adapted to sleep lightly around their babies in order to protect them. The whole picture tells us that breastfeeding was meant to go on during the night, not just at pre-set intervals during the day.
There are a couple of major advantages to night nursing. For a start, the night feeds are the calmest ones: unwatched, unhurried, baby and mother can get into a rhythm which concerns no one but themselves. Once you learn how to lie down to feed (the post-caesarean nursing position – on your side with your upper leg supported – is ideal) baby can drink deeply from each breast. As he suckles, he becomes drowsy until he drops off. There are chemicals in breastmilk which are similar to those found in commonly prescribed tranquillizers and he enjoys their effect.
On a scientific note, night feeds produce more prolactin than day-time feeds. Prolactin is the hormone that stimulates the milk supply for the next few days. It is also the hormone that gives the mother contraceptive protection, delaying the return of her periods. This in turn helps to give her reproductive system a rest and protect against a number of different cancers.
When mothers are told they do not have ‘enough’ milk for their babies, does anyone check whether the baby is feeding right through the twenty-four hours? When periods return quickly and second babies are conceived sooner than planned, does anyone ask about the night feeds?
In eighteenth-century Europe, when it become the fashion to send babies out to wet-nurse, many women gave birth to twenty or more babies, one after the other without cease. Mothers who were freed from the ‘burden’ of breastfeeding were saddled with repeated pregnancies and perilous births.
In hunter-gatherer groups, where frequent breastfeeding is practised day and night, there is a natural break of four years between each baby. Humans were not designed to give birth to more than around seven babies in a lifetime. Even without the benefit of the pill, our species was protected against over-population and women were sheltered from excessive child-bearing.
Night nursing is part of the small print in the breastfeeding contract. By keeping your baby near you, at least you can sleep while you nurse.