For the first two weeks or so of your baby’s life, there is a rule that says baby may not go any longer than four hours without eating. Once baby is back to birth weight, which is typically by two weeks, it is okay to let baby start sleeping as long as she would like at night. Don’t get excited. It is very normal for your baby to continue to wake every two to three hours around the clock for, well, a long time. You are still aiming for eight or more breastfeeding sessions in a 24 hour period, so it may help to encourage frequent daytime feedings to increase the likelihood that baby will sleep longer at night. Stacking the feeds in the daytime, if nothing else, lets you go to bed knowing that baby had seven feedings already, so if he wants to bless you with one night waking, that would be safe.
If you are lucky enough to have a baby who sleeps more than three or four hours at night, don’t be surprised if you are awoken anyway at night… by your boobs. Maybe the baby is sleeping, but your breasts are full and ready to nurse at the two- or three-hour mark, just like you have asked them to be for the previous weeks. So, what are you to do with these full breasts that are ready to nurse and a baby who isn’t?
Let’s start with what you don’t want to do and why. You don’t want to slap on your electric breast pump and pump those puppies until they are soft. I mean, you want to, but you shouldn’t for two reasons. One, you don’t know if the baby is going to wake up 30 seconds after you are done pumping and be ready to nurse. Then you are screwed and you need to feed your baby the bottle you just pumped (or make someone else do that. Hint, hint). Two, if your baby is, in fact, starting a new sleeping trend, pumping at this time will tell your body that baby is waking to feed at this time. Tomorrow night, your baby will sleep and your breasts will awaken you again. Ideally, you want your body to follow your baby, and pumping in place of feeding sends the opposite message to your body.
So, here are a few options of what you should do:
Option #1: Go back to sleep if you can.
If your breasts aren’t uncomfortably full, just full, try to go back to sleep. Your body needs to get the message that it needs to hold it a little bit longer until the baby is ready. This will help your body learn to match the baby’s nighttime feeding patterns.
Option #2: Take the edge off if you can’t go back to sleep.
The rule of thumb here is: full, but not uncomfortably full. If your breasts are so full that they throb or feel very tight, so much so that you can’t go back to sleep, you need to take the edge off. There are a couple of ways to do that.
In order to maintain “full, but not uncomfortably full,” you want to take out just enough milk to take the uncomfortable sensation away, but not so much that you drain your breasts. Hand expression or hand pumping is perfect for this because it enables you to take out a little bit at a time. Express a little, feel your boobs. Express a little, feel your boobs. Once they are no longer chest boulders, stop expressing and go back to sleep. (P.S. Freshly expressed milk stays good for four to six hours at room temperature, so feel free to set that expressed milk on the bedside table rather than taking it to the fridge).
Option #2b: Wake the baby to feed her.
If you are up and your breasts are up, you always have the option to wake the baby up and ask her to help a mama out. This is probably the most convenient way to get your breasts back to where you need them to be so you can go back to sleep, but it isn’t going to help your chances that baby will continue this blessed habit of sleeping longer stretches. Feeding baby at this time will also affirm to your breasts that this is indeed a feeding time, so you can expect your boobs to wake you up again tomorrow night and the night after.
Once your baby starts sleeping for predictable periods of time, you may find you have one or two opportunities to pump some milk for storage if you need it. If baby’s bedtime is before yours and baby consistently sleeps for a few hours after you have gone to bed, you could pump your breasts to empty just before you go to sleep. You may get a few ounces to store and you can also go to bed with drained breasts, increasing the length of time it will take for them to get uncomfortably full and wake you up. You can also pump after the morning breastfeeding session. Chances are that your breasts will be a little bit overly full from a skipped night feed or two, so baby won’t be able to drink it all. Pump both breasts within fifteen minutes of finishing your morning breastfeeding session. You may get a few ounces to store.
Once your body adjusts to a new feeding pattern (typically three to five days after a new message is sent to the body), you won’t feel uncomfortably full or even full. Please don’t panic. Sure, there is satisfaction in full, firm, leaky breasts, but I know you don’t want to live that way. Once your body adjusts how much it is producing and at what times, your breasts may feel “empty” at times when they once felt full to the brim. They aren’t empty, they have simply begun making the right amount. Listen for baby’s swallowing and you will see baby is getting exactly what she needs.
I am not making any promises that your kid will sleep anytime soon, but if she does, now you know what to do with your breasts!