"Never wake a sleeping baby." You have probably heard this old saying before. It seems to be a widely held belief in our society, based on the conversations I have on a regular basis with new mamas. Unfortunately, practicing this idea can be detrimental to the breastfeeding relationship and the wellbeing of the baby overall. New babies need to eat often and a mother's breastmilk supply depends upon the regular removal of milk, but many infants will sleep right through feeds, especially in the early weeks.
Babies need to be fed on demand, but what if a baby is not demanding as often as she should or hardly at all? "Sleepy Newborn" is a common issue in the breastfeeding world and one I encounter often as a La Leche League leader (and with my own second baby!). Every light, sound, and smell is new and overstimulating to baby--they tire quickly! And this can lead to long periods of sleep, engorgement for mother and a drop in milk supply if baby is allowed to sleep for many hours at a time regularly.
Scheduling feeds is not recommended longterm or in place of feeding a baby on demand (whenever and wherever she shows signs of hunger), but sometimes it is necessary to wake a baby every two to three hours until the initial fatigue wears off. The general rule is a new baby needs to nurse every two hours during the day and every three hours through the night until she is back to birth weight and the breastfeeding relationship is established.
But what about the baby who acts like she has zero interest in the breast? After hearing breastfed babies like to nurse constantly throughout your pregnancy, you may be feeling totally lost if your baby is instead sleeping all day and barely stirring or sucking at all. Fortunately, this is usually very temporary and many mothers claim their babies suddenly wake up at around two to three weeks old. But it can be incredibly overwhelming when you are in the thick of it and feeling like your baby will just not eat!
Methods for Waking a Baby to Nurse
1. Unswaddle and Undress
In most cases, swaddling in the early days is actually not recommended because it can cause a baby to sleep through hunger and thirst. Try not to swaddle your baby for sleep so she is able to stir naturally and take any tiny movement as a sign of readiness to nurse. If she is still sleeping for long periods without being swaddled, try changing her diaper and even undressing her. A little cool air and skin to skin with mama can help alert her enough to eat.
2. Tickle Feet and Cheeks
Many mothers swear by gently tickling their babies awake. Stroke the bottoms of her feet, massage her cheeks and jaw, and talk to her until she stirs enough to latch and start nursing.
3. Pick Up, Put Down or Switch Sides
Often a sleepy baby begins breastfeeding only to fall asleep after two or three sucks. Try setting baby down somewhere safe so she realizes she is no longer against mama, and then pick her up again once she begins rooting. Do this as often as necessary throughout a feed.
Switching breasts is also another method of moving baby to re-alert her. If she falls asleep on one side, unlatch her and switch sides so she starts nursing again.
4. Massage and Compress Breasts
When baby starts to drift back off after drinking a little, try massaging your breasts toward your nipple and then compressing them to get more milk flowing. A baby will often start sucking again she tastes milk. If baby begins actively nursing again, you can slowly decrease the compression on your breast and then compress again as she slows down. Many mamas use this method throughout entire nursing sessions in the early days with great success.
You may have never considered a baby who actually sleeps long stretches to be a problem until your newborn was struggling to gain weight or have enough dirty diapers. Luckily there are a few tried and true techniques to keep your sleepy babe alert enough to breastfeed.
Keep up the good work mama! You're doing a great job and this struggle is only temporary! Remember to let your love and your milk flow!