When you have a new baby, you often get a lot of warnings about how your little one — and you! — will sleep. But you may be surprised to find that in the first few weeks of your baby’s life, they do almost nothing but sleep. In fact, many newborns will spend the majority of their 24 hours snoozing.
This may seem like a good thing, and in most cases, it is. Enjoy these sleepy days while they last! But sometimes your baby ends up sleeping so much that they can’t seem to get in a good feed. This is especially true for breastfeeding or chestfeeding babies, who have to actively work to extract milk than their bottle-fed counterparts.
If your baby can’t seem to stay awake to get a full feeding session in, you likely have concerns. You may be wondering what you can do to keep them awake, if there’s anything wrong with your baby, or if all the sleeping is a sign that feeding isn’t going well.
Let’s take a look.
It’s common for newborns to have days or even weeks when they’re very sleepy and hard to keep awake. Your baby is adjusting to life outside the womb, and this adjustment can be tiring. Plus, your baby may still have their days and nights mixed up, causing them to sleep a lot during the day when you’re ready to feed them.
Luckily, in most cases, “sleepy at the breast” babies don’t stay that way for many feeding sessions in a row or for that long. Most sleepy babies will usually get in enough feeding sessions during a day, even if they have a few sleepy feedings sometimes.
In general, if your baby has enough dirty and wet diapers (usually four to six wet diapers and three to four poopy diapers per day) and is putting on weight at a healthy pace, there’s nothing wrong with them having a couple of sleepy, less vigorous nursing sessions every now and then.
Even falling asleep at the breast is usually fine. In fact, many babies will fall asleep after getting in a good feed. A full tummy makes babies tired, and falling asleep is a natural reaction.
Some babies empty the breast in just a few minutes and fall asleep satisfied. You can usually tell that your baby has had enough when:
- you’ve heard gulping or swallowing while nursing
- your breast feels less full after your baby has detached
- your baby goes from actively sucking to sucking lightly and falling asleep
You may also notice that their body is tense — their hands in tight fists — at the beginning of the feed. But when they’re done, they have unwound and seem more relaxed.
If your baby shows signs of not getting enough milk (fewer wet or dirty diapers and slowed weight gain), then waking them up for those feedings is definitely something you’ll want to focus on.
If you’re not sure if your baby is getting enough milk, visit your pediatrician for a wellness visit and weight check. Again, if your baby is healthy and growing well, falling asleep while nursing isn’t something to stress out too much about. Having your doctor examine your baby can help you sort out what’s going on.
There are some cases in which a “sleepy at the breast” baby may not exhibit typical newborn behavior. In those instances, extra sleepiness is a sign of a medical condition.
The most common newborn condition that tends to make babies extra sleepy is jaundice. In addition to lethargy and poor feeding, babies with jaundice may have yellowish skin, fewer wet or dirty diapers, and may be extra fussy.
Babies with jaundice should see a pediatrician to make sure there are no serious health concerns.
Rarely, babies who are sleepy during feeds may have underlying medical conditions such as a cardiac or respiratory condition. They may also be battling a virus or bacterial infection.
If your baby is having difficulty breathing, has a fever, is vomiting, or is difficult to rouse, speak with your doctor or seek emergency medical attention.
Luckily, there are many things you can try if your baby keeps falling asleep while breastfeeding or chestfeeding. Here are a few favorites.
Tip 1: Switch sides
If your baby falls asleep frequently while nursing, you can try a technique called switch nursing. This is as simple as it sounds.
As soon as your baby starts falling asleep (you may notice that their sucking becomes less frequent or fluttery), you can try switching them to the other side. This may wake them up, and they may find that the other side has milk more readily available.
Tip 2: Compression
Your baby may become sleepy when milk flow slows down. It’s normal for there to be times during a nursing session when the milk flows faster — this is usually during letdown — and times when it slows. But some babies get frustrated when this happens and tend to zonk out.
You can help get milk flowing again by doing something called breast compression. Using your free hand, cup the side of your breast, making a C shape with your hand. Then gently squeeze. You should feel your baby’s suckling become more active as the milk starts to flow.
Tip 3: Strip your baby down to their diaper
Babies that are too warm tend to get sleepy. So strip your baby down to their diaper and try nursing them. You can also apply cool washcloths to their skin to keep them awake.
If you’re concerned that your baby is too cold, you can drape a breathable blanket over them. But don’t worry too much: When they’re skin to skin with you, they’ll stay warm enough.
Tip 4: Tickle those toes!
Gentle stimulation of your baby’s senses can wake them up. Try tickling their toes, walking your fingers up and down their arms, or swirling your finger around the top of their head.
Tip 5: Check the latch
If your baby isn’t latching well, they may not be able to get enough milk, and not getting enough milk can make your baby sleepy.
A good latch means that your baby’s mouth is wide open and they’re taking in a good portion of the areola. If you aren’t sure that your baby has a good latch, consider contacting a lactation consultant for assistance.
Tip 6: Get to skin-to-skin
Having skin-to-skin time with your baby is a great way to wake them up to feed. Dress your baby in their diaper only and place them belly to belly with you. This allows them to tap into their newborn instincts, which include searching for and locating the breast.
See if your baby wants to smell, lick, and explore. They may latch onto the breast themselves without any coaxing!
What if nothing is working and your baby just simply can’t stay awake while breastfeeding or chestfeeding? This is definitely an instance where you want to seek out professional lactation help or medical attention, if you haven’t already.
If your baby has gotten to the point where they’re not taking in milk while feeding, supplementing may be necessary.
Supplementing — when done mindfully, and with your own expressed milk when possible — might be just the thing that perks your baby up so that they can have the energy to nurse well. Working on latching, positioning, and other possible issues may also be vital in helping you solve this concern.
Most of all, don’t give up. So many nursing parents have been in this situation at one time or another and have gotten to the other side. You’ll get through this, too.