Breastfeeding: How to Breastfeed a Sleepy Baby

Newborns like to sleep—a lot! That's great, unless it gets in the way of a proper feeding.

Every new mom can relate to this scene: You latch your newborn baby onto your breast and she nurses contently for a few minutes, then slips into a peaceful sleep. Ten minutes later, just as you settle down to have a nap yourself or maybe put in a load of laundry, she wakes up and wants to eat again. The cycle continues.

So how can you keep your newborn from falling asleep too soon into a feeding?

  1. Figure out if she's asleep at your breast from the energy it takes to eat and just be a newborn or because she's full. If you have only offered one breast and she has only nursed for a few minutes, she has probably nursed herself to sleep without filling up. (Learn more: How to know Baby is Getting Enough at Each Feeding)
  2. Pull her closer to your breast (that prompt might wake her), then compress your breast, which will express milk into her mouth. Swallowing is a reflex, so the milk in her mouth might help remind her of what she's supposed to be doing.
  3. If she's still asleep after that, take her off your breast and put her down on a flat, firm surface, such as a blanket on the floor or the changing table. If you really want to wake her up, do not keep her in your arms or put her in something that wraps around her, such as a car seat or stroller, which is too similar to the feeling of your arms holding her snugly. Putting her down on a flat, safe surface prompts her that she's no longer being held, and she'll probably wake up just enough to realize she's still hungry.
  4. At this point you might want to burp her and undress her a bit (so she's not so warm and comfortable) before latching her on again. This will ensure that she's more awake and ready to feed.
  5. When you begin breastfeeding again, use your other breast instead of the one you started with. This is called switch nursing, and it's a good technique, especially with newborns. That's because the new breast has a pooled supply of milk, one where the flow is faster, so your baby won't have to work so hard to eat. Women often switch breasts 3 or 4 times per feeding to ensure their sleepy newborn gets a full meal.

(Don't be concerned about foremilk and hindmilk at this point because your baby is getting the nutrients and fat content she needs. Think of it this way: The foremilk in your breast is the hindmilk from the last feeding.)

Remember, newborns are flow-dependent, meaning they need a steady flow of milk from your breast in order to keep feeding. Once your milk supply starts to slow down, your baby will slow down too, and that's usually when she'll fall asleep. Using techniques such as breast compression and switch nursing help keep the flow going, while putting her down on a flat, safe surface will wake her up and remind her she's still hungry.

The trick to keeping your newborn awake for a feeding is to follow all of the above guidelines. As much as you love holding your baby in your arms while she sleeps, if she hasn't filled up during breastfeeding, you'll be encouraging what could be a non-stop cycle of feeding.

Tips for success

  • If your baby falls asleep after only a few minutes of nursing on one breast, she probably hasn't had a full feeding.
  • Try breast compression or switch nursing to increase your milk-flow rate. If you need to wake you baby, put her on a flat, safe surface such as the floor or changing table and undress her a bit.
  • Don't take no for an answer. If your baby hasn't had a full feeding, you must wake her up and try again. (Learn more: Waking Your Baby To Eat: When do I stop?)

Source: Heather Kelly is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) who also sits on the Bravado Breastfeeding Information Council Heather has been practicing in New York City since 2001.

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Heather Kelly
Heather is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant.
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