Why Breastfeeding Makes Me Sleepy

Breastfeeding make you sleepy? Don’t worry, you are not alone.

Many new moms are exhausted. I would say MOST (if not all) new moms are exhausted. They may feel sleepy while breastfeeding, frequently. I’d say it is reasonable to assume that it is the missed sleep, getting up multiple times throughout the night to feed their baby, that is the cause.

But, even during the middle of the day, it is normal to struggle with being tired while breastfeeding. In fact, breastfeeding has been shown to make you sleepier than normal.

Blame the hormones

When a child breastfeeds, your body releases prolactin. This is the hormone that is responsible for making your body produce milk. Unfortunately, prolactin can also cause women to become drowsy. This hormone is known to make mothers very calm, allowing them to unwind.

At the same time that prolactin is being released, oxytocin is also present. This hormone reduces any stress that the mother feels and ALSO helps her to relax. When a woman is completely relaxed thanks to the presence of prolactin and oxytocin it’s very normal for her to become calm and drowsy.

When combined with how tired new moms are on a daily basis, it is no wonder that so many breastfeeding moms can struggle to keep their eyes open when nursing. Even a completely rested mother will feel tired thanks to the presence of these two hormones.

Beyond science

Now that we’ve got the science part, there’s some common sense in play here as well. In most cases, when you are nursing your baby, you are sitting in one place. Probably somewhere comfortable. Comfy couch. Maybe even lying down in bed. Your little one is tucked up close to you. Maybe you’ve got a cover draped over her head for privacy. Or, you’ve laid a blanket over the baby to help her feel comfortable, safe, and warm.

Perhaps you’ve done some work in the room to reduce stimulation. The curtains might be closed to keep out bright light. You’ve turned off the television or other noise-making devices or machines. Maybe you’ve even turned on a soothing white noise machine to cover up the noise other members of the household are making in other rooms.

Low stimulation for her also equals low stimulation for you.

You can’t move. In fact, you can’t really do anything, aside from watch television, read a book, or surf whatever is on your phone. Nursing can take just a few minutes when the baby is an efficient eater. For mothers with a snacker or lazy eater, nursing can be a marathon of just hanging out and doing very little else for a long time.

Cuddling with a warm nursing baby is a recipe for relaxation. Combine the rhythmic nursing and breathing of the child, a calm, quiet, warm environment, and you’ve got yourself some drowsiness.

And for a really tired mama, a nap. I found that some of the best naps I have ever had in my entire life occurred while nursing or just after nursing my babies. There was just something about holding them close to me that felt right is a primal way.

It’s hard to really describe the feeling. There aren’t really good words for something that is probably the result of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.

But if you feel sleepy while breastfeeding, don’t worry, you aren’t the only one.

Prefer to stay awake?

Napping with a baby can be wonderful. But you don’t have time to drift off? Here are some suggestions for beating the Zs before they get you:

  • Don’t let yourself get too comfortable. Try to avoid nursing while in your bed or other place where your body is accustomed to going to sleep. Try to nurse sitting up in a chair instead of lying down.
  • Drink water while you nurse. This will help keep you alert and may also cause you to have to use the bathroom, which will make it hard to relax too much.
  • Do something interactive that keeps your brain awake. Read, or play games on your phone instead of surfing mindlessly.
  • Nurse in a place where other people are. Your baby might get a little distracted, but you are less likely to take a nap when there are people talking to you and around you.
  • Don’t close the curtains. Nursing in the dark tells your body its time to sleep, and nursing in the light tells it the opposite.

Is it OK to fall asleep while breastfeeding?

Sleeping with an infant is a controversial topic. If you ask pediatricians, in most cases they will tell you not to sleep with your baby, ever. If you ask 10 different moms, you’ll find that many of them do sleep with their babies.

Let’s give pediatricians a break. They see the worst of what can happen when a parent falls asleep with a child and smothers them. Of course they are going to recommend that we don’t co-sleep. If they recommended co-sleeping, the would get sued the first time one of their patients died from co-sleeping.

I can’t speak for all the other mothers in the world, but I will admit to sleeping while breastfeeding. And not that I do it on purpose, but sometimes it just happens. Sometimes it just made sense for us. When I went back to work, I took my baby with me for the first nine months or so. But that meant I couldn’t sleep with her during the day like I did when I was on maternity leave. This meant that my nighttime sleep became so much more important. When my daughter woke up, I would put her to the breast and then immediately pass out again, because I knew from experience that she would nurse as much as she wanted and then fall asleep again herself.

This was an arrangement that worked for us because I was a very light sleeper, my baby enjoyed nursing while sleeping (all night buffet, yeah!), and my spouse didn’t mind exile from the bed (nursing the baby and her noise made it hard for him to sleep).

Here are some guidelines I think you should try to follow if you find yourself falling asleep while nursing:

  • Don’t let yourself fall asleep while nursing a brand new baby. These tiny humans are the more fragile and most vulnerable. They are also the smallest. If you were to fall asleep and put them into a position where they needed your help to rescue them, they have literally NO ability to self-rescue. Once the baby is bigger, can turn his own head or even move away from you a bit to make himself more comfortable, I think the danger is lessened. Set your phone alarm to wake you if you can’t keep from drifting off. Or make arrangements with your spouse to have him come in after an agreed upon time to rescue the infant so you can sleep.
  • Don’t nurse in a place where you are surrounded by potential SIDS problems. If you are going to fall asleep while nursing, don’t fall asleep on a soft bed where the baby rolls into you because of your weight on the mattress. Get rid of all the pillows, thick comforters, and extra decor. If the mattress is firm (and there are no blankets, pillows or other airway obstructing materials around, this reduces the risk of smothering.
  • Don’t drink or take medications if you are falling asleep nursing. This will make it harder for you to wake up and respond to your baby.
  • Make sure there is no danger that the baby will roll off the couch or bed if you fall asleep. I ended up taking my mattress off the frame and off the box mattress to put it on the floor. This meant that if my baby did end up crawling off the bed (or rolling off), that there was very little chance that she could be injured from such a short fall off the mattress onto the thick carpet. And let’s just mention that nursing on the couch can be a bad idea in general, if the baby can get trapped between your heavy body and the couch cushions. (Plus if they spit up, they’ve just done it on your couch and that is hard to clean).
  • Consider using a bedside crib (cosleeper) that attaches to your bed. You can nurse the baby and then if you feel yourself drifting off, move her into her bed just a few inches away so she’ll be safe.
  • Boot your spouse out of the bed if you are co-sleeping with your baby for nursing. This is just one less major danger to have to worry about (more concerns about rolling over, extra pillows, blankets, etc).

How do you breastfeed a sleeping baby?

Sometimes you need to nurse. The baby might be sleeping, but it is vital that you get food into them. Maybe you are headed off to an appointment, or you have other things to do, but you know that the session is due or even overdue because of a nap.

Funny enough, all of my babies nursed happily while sleeping. Sometimes they would fall asleep on the boob, and then just keep going even after they were slightly snoring. They’d sleep a little, then I’d notice their little mouths moving, then they’d subside and sleep some more. Those are actually some of my favorite times breastfeeding them, because it was so peaceful.

I found I could also get them to nurse while they were sleeping, or mostly sleeping. If I could get the milk started (let down) by massaging the breast or squeezing the areola for 30-60 seconds, my babies would rouse enough to latch. The key was to get the nipple (and the milk) onto their lips or tongue. Once that happened they would frequently act on instinct, and latch on. If I didn’t want them to fully wake, I would try to keep the room quiet and dark, and the sound machine (white noise) going.

However, sometimes you just can’t rouse a deeply sleeping baby enough to nurse them without waking them fully. I think this method will differ between children as well, because some children sleep very light (and rouse with the slightest sound or movement), while others are rocks and a plane crash wouldn’t wake them.

Do you have any other nursing tips for new moms reading this article? Let us know in the comments!

For more info about breastfeeding, check out our Breastfeeding FAQs post: 100 Breastfeeding Tips For New Moms.