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Do Breastfeeding Mothers Get Less Sleep?

November 10, 2010

A new study has found that women who breastfeed their newborns appear to get as much sleep as women who rely on bottles or a combination of both methods of feedings.

The results represent “good information to be able to tell women, (that) not breastfeeding is not going to help you get better sleep”¦ and the benefits (of breastfeeding) for both mom and baby are tremendous,” study author Dr. Hawley Montgomery-Downs of West Virginia University told Reuters Health.

Research has shown that breastfeeding has a protective effect on a number of pediatric illnesses and diseases, such as eczema, ear infections, pneumonia, asthma, type 1 diabetes and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

A recent study estimated that the US could save $13 billion a year in healthcare and potentially prevent more than 900 deaths, if 90 percent of new mothers breastfed for the first six months, as is generally recommended.

Just 70 percent of current new mothers breastfeed their babies at all and only 33 percent continue for a full 6 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Low breastfeeding rates have been attributed to various factors, including exhausted mothers’ fear of being even more exhausted.

There is a common misconception that women who breastfeed get less sleep, Montgomery-Downs noted, which could lead to hesitation by mothers to do so. Caring for a newborn is challenging enough, without being deprived of sleep, and some research has suggested that poor sleep after giving birth could lead to postpartum depression.

Since babies digest breast milk faster than formula, breastfed babies usually need to be fed more often in the middle of the night, Montgomery-Downs said. Some research has found that babies who breastfeed sleep less and wake up more at night, but the findings have been inconsistent.

For the new study, the researchers asked 80 new mothers to report how often they woke up and how rested they felt, and also asked them to wear sensors that measured how long and efficiently they slept.

Montgomery-Downs and her colleagues found no significant differences between those who relied on breastfeeding, formula, or both.

They found that even though babies who breastfeed tend to wake up more at night, those nighttime feedings may have less of an impact than if they were drinking formula, the researchers suggested. In order to prepare a bottle, mothers need to get up, turn lights on, and move around quite a bit, all of which may make it harder for them to fall back to sleep.

When breastfeeding, women may be awake for shorter periods and be less active, making it easier for them to fall back to sleep after feeding. Women who breastfeed also have higher levels of the hormone prolactin, which facilitates sleep, Montgomery-Downs explained.

Furthermore, there has been only limited research into the effects of breastfeeding on sleep, and it’s possible that babies who breastfeed don’t actually wake more than others, Montgomery-Downs noted.

“Better sleep really is not a reason not to breastfeed,” she concluded.

The team reports their findings in the journal Pediatrics.

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