Mothers are given lots of reasons to breastfeed but getting lots of sleep isn’t usually one of them. Mostly we hear that formula-feeding mothers are the ones sleeping. Dads and others, for example, can take over a feeding or two at night, allowing mom consecutive sleep cycles.
But over on the Science and Sensibility website, there’s a spirited defense of nighttime breastfeeding. The author, psychologist and lactation expert Dr. Kathleen Kendall-Tackett, cites a number of studies and concludes:
“Breastfeeding mothers are less tired and get more sleep than their formula- or mixed-feeding counterparts.And this lowers their risk for depression.”
Kendall-Tackett’s post is written in response to advice circulating that avoiding nighttime nursing can reduce risk of depression. She sets aside debates about benefits of breastfeeding for the baby, and looks exclusively at how exclusive breastfeeding affects mom’s sleep and mental health.
According to the largest and most recent of the studies she mentions, one of the factors contributing to disrupted maternal sleep is not exclusively breastfeeding. (Others included depression, previous sleep problems, being a first-time mother, and a younger or male infant). In another 2007 study, researchers suggest that sedating hormones may be the reason breastfeeding moms are getting quality sleep:
“Using supplementation as a coping strategy for minimizing sleep loss can actually be detrimental because of its impact on prolactin hormone production and secretion. Maintenance of breastfeeding as well as deep restorative sleep stages may be greatly compromised for new mothers who cope with infant feedings by supplementing in an effort to get more sleep time.”
In a smaller study, co-sleeping breastfeeders got the most sleep. Exclusive breastfeeders with the baby in the crib got the least.
I don’t know enough about every study conducted on sleep to provide much context here, but I do think the gist of Kendall-Tackett’s argument will ring true for some new mothers. I know plenty of women—especially those with histories of depression and/or insomnia–who become very dependant on breastfeeding hormones to fend off tense all-nighters. Night nursing can be the “silver bullet” sending everyone back to bed.
I also know moms who say they never would have survived the first year without dad taking over (with formula) for at least part of the night, as well those for whom night nursing helped early but not so much later on. For still others it was really hard early and then became easier. Anecdotal evidence can be varied and contradictory; maybe it’s just a question– like it so often is–of what you become accustomed to and what works best for your family.