Why excessive night feeds promote and encourage further night time disturbance’s…
We all dream of the day our baby will sleep that golden 6-8 hours, so that we as new parents can get some much needed quality shut eye at night.
For some parents this occurs as early as 6-8 weeks, others around 12 weeks, or for some people, once solids are introduced at 6 months.
If you have a baby over 3 months old who is not managing to last longer than 4 hours between feeds at night, you might be beginning to wonder when this will let up?
You may have even noticed if your evening starts out rocky your night often turns to custard.
For whatever reason your baby wakes as early as 2-3 hours after going to bed for the night, you might think “oh I’ll just feed him”, since you are still awake – this is not an inconvenience.
They may then wake again at midnight, and since it still isn’t the wee hours of the morning yet – you feed them again.
Now where previously they may have been sleeping for 6 hours; because tonight you fed them at 9pm and midnight, suddenly they wake again at 3 or 4am demanding to be fed.
You’re confused; you know previously they have slept for longer than this. Maybe it is a growth spurt, so you feed again, and again at 6am when they wake ……again.
Maybe it is a growth spurt………
Two weeks later you are now feeding your over 3 month old baby 3-4 times a night and this cycle is not showing any signs of changing.
Maybe instead of feeding after midnight you decide no he’s not hungry and you settle your baby back to sleep, then he sleeps until 6am without a further feed, but wakes and grizzles on and off between 3 and 5am………why is this?
Perhaps you have a 7 or 8 month old who is still waking 2-3 times a night for a feed, and also not showing any signs of sleeping for longer at night, he might be losing interest in solids during the day, so you're concerned he is hungry at night…………..how do I know if he genuinely hungry at night?
Your baby probably is genuinely hungry at night; you have used external cues (breast milk or formula) known in the science world as zeitgebers to entrain your baby’s internal biological clock to expect a feed at this time of night.
The classic example of this is the “early bird who gets the worm.” How does it “know” to wake up at the hour most advantageous?
The bird doesn’t actively plan to wake up at a certain time and head out for worms. The availability of the food entrains (conditions) the bird’s circadian rhythm (biological clock) to wake at 5am for that worm.
So this circadian rhythm - what controls this in babies and when is it developed?
The newborn infant develops the components of circadian rhythm postnatally. A rhythm of cortisol develops at 8 weeks of age, melatonin and sleep efficiency develop at approximately 9 weeks, and body temperature rhythm and that of circadian genes develop at 11 weeks.
This internal biological clock is controlled by a part of the brain called the hypothalamus – in a small section known as the SCN, the SCN receives information from the eyes (light – which is why I recommend a red or orange night light, not a blue or white light), and from temperature, social cues and food availability.
So if food is always available from 7pm to 7am, you are en-training your baby’s circadian rhythm to be awake at night expecting food.
If you were not confused enough already – excessive night time feeding also delays the production of a hormone called ghrelin, this hormone helps control appetite.
Studies show as the number of hours of sleep increase, ghrelin concentrations decreases, thereby reducing appetite. This reduced appetite allows your baby to sleep for longer period without waking hungry.
So not only are there hormones disrupting his sleep, the excessive fluid intake can cause him to wake up wet and uncomfortable, and the milk in his digestive tract is sending information to tiny little biological clock controls, to tell his body to wake up, as food available = day time!
Finally social cues; each time your baby sees your beautiful face at night – this contributes by sending messages to that SCN in the brain that this is a social time of day and not a time to be sleeping. Further confusing your baby’s circadian rhythm. So, some truth behind the strict “no eye contact no smiles at night” some sleep expects encourage. But seriously who can resist smiling at their little cherub at 3am when you haven’t seen them for at least ….oh 2 hours….
So what to do… what to do?
Excessive night time feeds in my baby over 3 months old is causing excessive night time wake ups, but how to a change this pattern?
We don't want to try to night wean all feeds at once.
Try creating some consolidated sleep between bed time and 10.30pm first. This is the time of the night when you baby most naturally wants to be in a deep sleep, and this all lines up with their internal biological clock.
Settle with a pat, or a cuddle, or if old enough work on self settling. Either way try to create that longer stage of early deep sleep to avoid a night of hourly or 2 hourly feeding.
Emma is the owner and founder of Baby Sleep Consultant, she is a certified infant and child sleep consultant, Happiest Baby on the block educator, has a Bachelor of Science, and Diploma in Education. Emma is a mother to 3 children, and loves writing when she isn't working with tired clients and cheering on her team helping thousands of mums just like you.
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