My baby falls asleep while breastfeeding. What can I do?

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 labor 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 behaviors. 

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 behaviors.

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.

Review dates, references & further resources

Review Dates

Version 1.1 published in March 2019. Next review date: Jan 2022

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