Why do babies sleep while breastfeeding?

Ever wonder why your baby gets so sleepy when breastfeeding? There can be multiple factors contributing to this. If you have a newborn, what better place could there be for a nap other than snuggled up next to mom’s warm breast? This is one of the many reasons for doing skin to skin while breastfeeding is beneficial. It is easier to stimulate a sleepy baby when you have bare skin to tickle. Other newborns may be sleepy at the breast because they were early or premature.

Some newborns do not have the stamina to stay awake because they are losing weight or not gaining weight well enough. The sooner you get help with a newborn in this situation, the quicker the issue can be resolved. If you go in for a weight check with baby’s doctor and the baby is not gaining an ounce per day, you should not be told to just come back in next week for another weight check. There are many interventions to help improve the situation, so coming in for a lactation consultation at that point is imperative!

But what if we are talking about the normal healthy newborn whose mother’s milk is in, and she has a good milk supply? You have probably heard the term “drunken sailor look” when the baby has a good feeding and is full, sleepy and content. The physiological reason why this occurs involves the release of cholecystokinin.

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Is Falling Asleep at the Breast Normal?

Babies are biologically programmed to fall asleep at the breast. Falling asleep at the breast is normal behaviour and is mostly due to a hormone called cholecystokinin or CCK. CCK makes your baby feel full and sleepy, and it is released in your babies gut as soon as they start sucking.

Younger babies generally have higher concentrations of CCK which can make it harder to keep them awake during a feed. This is a perfect system if your baby is waking frequently and feeding well, but for the baby who is needing to be woken or to be encouraged to feed, it can be a challenge.

So how do you keep a sleepy baby awake at the breast? There are some simple but effective things that you can do to help.


Try Skin-to-Skin Contact

Keeping your baby in the skin-to-skin position can help ignite your baby’s natural feeding instinct and encourage them to feed. After all, if you are in the kitchen, you want to eat! Babies can easily find the breast in this position and may spontaneously feed.

Skin-to-skin contact also allows you to notice subtle feeding cues that otherwise may be missed. Your baby may only make a slight wiggle to signal to you that they are ready to feed, and if you are holding them closely on your chest, you are more likely to notice.

Learn Your Baby’s Early Feeding Cues

Understanding your babies feeding signals and feeding them when they are showing early ready to feed signs can help them to feel better. Check out the Australian Breastfeeding associations Feeding cues article for pictures of early and late feeding cues.

Compress Your Breasts

While your milk is flowing, your baby will be actively sucking, but once the flow of milk slows down, your baby may slow down or stop sucking altogether. By gently compressing your breasts, you will be encouraging your milk flow to continue, and this can help your baby to begin sucking and swallowing again.

Here’s how to tell if it is full or still hungry

Does baby sleep while breastfeeding?

It’s quite normal to see your baby falling asleep while you’re breastfeeding. This is mostly considered as a healthy indication as the baby is full and satisfied and now calmly dozes off. But if your little one does it quite frequently and too early, then it’s something that should be taken care of.

Why does a baby sleep while nursing?

Mostly, babies fall asleep while breastfeeding during the initial few months of their birth. Newborns tend to sleep for 14 to 18 hours a day, and it’s quite normal. Every child is different and might take their own time to get adjusted to the new environment. So, if your child sleeps while nursing, it’s their sleeping pattern, and once they get adopted, they will stay more active.

What to notice

Health experts say that babies who struggle to nurse in the early stages of their life tend to sleep while breastfeeding, even if they have not got enough milk. These babies often get tired of sucking and fall asleep. They might also quit in frustration as they are not able to get the milk and rather, prefer to sleep. This might impact their growth and weight. Some babies might take the feed for five minutes and feel full while other infants may latch onto their mother’s breast for 20 minutes, yet still not feel satisfied.

Check for these expressions

If you want to know whether your baby is full or still hungry, then look for this: In case, the baby has fallen asleep at the breast and hands are open and relaxed, it is full. If the fingers are tightly clutched, and face looks tense, then your baby is still hungry.

WHAT TO DO? If you find these signs and feel that your baby is not keeping full, contact your doctor. Your doctor will tell you ways that will help you feed milk to your child so that it stays full and healthy.

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What is normal?

Your newborn baby needs to breastfeed effectively at least 8–12 times in 24 hours to gain weight and stimulate your milk production. Most babies nurse every 2–3 hours from the start of one feed to the next, with one longer sleep of 4–5 hours. ‘Cluster nursing’ is also common, where a baby breastfeeds on and off for several hours, especially in the evening. As well as breastfeeding and sleeping, your baby will probably also have periods of quiet alertness. Your newborn needs to nurse actively from one or both breasts at each feed. Offer the second breast after he seems to have finished at first, although he may not want both sides at every feed. Look at our page Beginning Breastfeeding for more information.

Normal newborn feeding cues

Offer feeds generously. Don’t make your baby wait until he is desperate—by that point, he is unlikely to feed well. In order of urgency, signs your baby is ready to feed include:

  • Mouth movements, including smacking or licking his lips.
  • Sucking on lips, tongue, hands, fingers, toes, toys, or clothing.
  • Rooting, head bobbing or nuzzling against whoever is holding him.
  • Fidgeting or squirming a lot.
  • Fussing.
  • Crying—a late sign of hunger.

Why is my baby sleepy?

In the first few days, some babies are sleepy or uninterested in feeding. This can be especially true for small babies, after a difficult labour or birth, or if you received drugs for pain relief during labour. Jaundice or infection may make a baby sleepy. Frequent breastfeeding helps prevent normal newborn jaundice from becoming a problem. Your baby may sleep to conserve energy if he is not getting enough food. He may also sleep longer than is good for him if he is apart from you.

Good attachment

Getting a deep, comfortable latch is crucial. If your baby is not latched on well at the breast, he will have to work harder to get your milk. He may tire easily and fall asleep. Sometimes just a small adjustment to the way your baby comes to the breast can make a huge difference. An LLL Leader can provide individual suggestions tailored to your circumstances. If your breasts are engorged, gently hand express a little milk and/or ease swelling back with your fingertips to make it easier for your baby to latch on deeply and prevent you from getting sore.

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Tips to Keep a Baby Awake During Breastfeeding

Firstly, try and fix a day sleeping and nap schedule. Start your day by giving yourself a 30 or 90-minute window and feed the baby at the start of the day, as soon as the baby is awake. Give the next feed after the nap. This way, the baby will be wide awake while nursing because he has just finished his nap. However, if your baby’s sleeping cycle is 120 minutes or longer, then you may want to give the second feed 20 minutes before the nap so that your baby doesn’t wake up too early due to hunger.

If you feel that even after devising a predictable feeding and nap schedule, your baby is not taking a full feed and falling asleep amidst the nursing, then try out the following tricks.

  • Break the suction in between by putting your finger in between your breasts and the baby’s mouth.
  • Switch breasts after short intervals or when you realise your baby is falling asleep.
  • Drip some milk in one corner of your baby’s mouth to encourage sucking again.
  • Compress your breast to make the milk flow faster during the feed.
  • Keep a wet cloth handy to wipe your baby’s head, tummy, and feet in between feed. This will keep him awake and encourage him to suck again.
  • Burp the baby by making him sit in an upright position.
  • Use less sleep-inducing feeding positions like football or straddling positions.
  • Tickle your baby under the arms, feet, or neck from time to time to keep him awake.
  • Keep your baby’s feet uncovered during the feed.
  • Change the diaper before the feed so that it feels fresh.
  • Keep a dim light on in the room.
  • Play some light music in the background to keep him engaged with the environment.
  • Gently run a finger down your baby’s spine during the feed.
  • Feed him as soon as he is awake

Falling asleep while getting breastfed isn’t a big deal, as the baby may do it when tired. However, it does become a problem if he is unable to drink enough, which may make him underweight. Use the above tips to keep him active and prevent him from falling off to sleep too quickly.

Studies show that to get all the milk that they need, the majority of new babies feed at least eight to twelve times every 24 hours – and even more than that, sometimes.

So if your baby is very sleepy at the moment, this can make it difficult for him to establish that healthy milk supply. 

There can be lots of reasons why your newborn may be sleepy at the moment, and this is certainly not an uncommon situation.

Many mothers may find their babies are sleepy in the first, or second, even up to the third week after birth.

Sometimes medications given during labour may cause a baby to be tired.

It could also be a slight infection or jaundice, or sometimes it’s that the baby is not latching at the breast very well at the moment and therefore not stimulating the breast well.

Consequently, he may not be getting the milk that he needs and so becomes more and more sleepy and less interested in feeding.

Your baby may be very sleepy, perhaps ‘hanging out’ at the breast, with little active swallowing, and not many wet and dirty nappies as expected and may not be gaining weight – or may even be losing weight. If this is the situation, then there are several things that you can do:

First of all, make sure your baby is not too warm. Sometimes babies are so cozy and warm that they do not even wake up to feed.

Take the blanket away or strip him down to his nappy – that can often wake up extremely sleepy babies. 

Also, watch out for your baby’s early feeding cues – even when in light sleep, a baby can feed at the breast, so give him every opportunity to do that.

Try changing your baby’s nappy, or lying him on a changing mat, holding him upright, as some of these things can be useful to help him to wake up a little bit more.

Sometimes just patting your baby’s back or rubbing his hands and feet can be helpful.

It’s worth noting that one of the most important things you can do is kangaroo care (skin-to-skin) with your baby – stripping him down to his nappy and lying him against your bare chest.

Spend at least two hours doing this per day, as a minimum. All of this will help to boost the hormones that make milk, and it will also stimulate his breast-seeking behaviours. 

We know that frantic babies often calm down while in skin-to-skin, and strangely, sleepy babies often wake up and start thinking about milk, and begin to crawl down to the breast, even to self-attach at the breast.

Studies have also shown that one of the most common reasons for babies to be sleepy at the breast is because they have a shallow latch, so it’s a good idea to pay close attention to getting a good, deep latch, which will help.

So, please look at the articles on positioning, and laid back, biological positions, that can aid a baby’s breast-seeking behaviours.

If your baby is struggling to latch, it could also be because you have become a little bit engorged.

When you get engorged (which is general congestion of the breast), your nipple and areola will also get engorged, often causing the nipple area to be flatter than it was, which in turn can create an added challenge for your baby while trying to latch.

If your baby is already sleepy, it can be a double challenge! Learn about how to deal with engorgement, so that you can allow your baby to latch as effectively as possible.

If your baby is very sleepy, you may see him do the fast sucks initially which ‘call’ the milk down, and then to swallow that milk – but as soon as the flow starts to slow at the end of the let-down, he is very likely to fall asleep again, and may have only really swallowed that first let-down of milk. 

Your body can make lots of let-downs on that side, but a sleepy baby isn’t likely to call those subsequent let-downs.

A useful tool is to use your hand to do what is called breast compressions, a technique to help ‘push’ milk from the breast. Your baby will feel the milk hitting the back of his throat, and that will cause him to swallow.

So, look at the article relating to breast compressions and use that technique around the clock-face of the breast, and on the other side, until your baby starts to become more alert and able to do this himself.

Try to feed your baby every two hours, if possible, or at least ten times in every 24 hours, which will ensure that he’s getting all the milk that he needs.

Look at the signs to tell you that he’s getting enough milk, i.e., the wet and dirty nappies, and the weight gain.

Very soon, as the days go by, your baby will become more alert and start to regulate his intake of milk.

When the baby gets to that sleepy stage, sitting baby up and burping helps to see if the baby is truly full or just temporarily satisfied. It can also be an indication that your baby not only got the more watery foremilk at the beginning of the feeding but emptied the breast well enough in order to get the nice creamy hindmilk. This also helps the baby to feel and satisfied, go longer between feedings and gain weight well.

When babies have a good feeding, cholecystokinin is released, giving babies the message they are full. This is also one of the reasons that breastfed babies have fewer issues with childhood obesity. Their brain gets the message they are full, and they quit eating. You cannot force a baby to latch on and nurse longer than they choose to so it helps their brain to get programmed not to overeat. We have a huge epidemic of childhood obesity in this country, and breastfeeding starting at baby’s birth is the best way to help this issue from the beginning.

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