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Feeding the Sleepy Baby

Feeding the Sleepy Baby

April 12, 2021

Trying to breastfeed your sleepy newborn can be a difficult challenge. Those first few weeks can be especially hard. We are often waiting until baby is awake to try and feed but for some babies that may not be for several hours.. which isn't exactly helpful for establishing your milk supply. It may come as a surprise, but the best time to feed a newborn is actually during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep.


The REM stage of sleep is characterized by rapid movements of the eyes under the eyelids. It's also considered the light sleep state. This stage typically occurs every 30 minutes, on average, but varies from baby to baby. Babies will typically transition through the following stages: 


1. Drowsiness/beginning to doze off

2. Light sleep. May startle or jump to sounds.

3. Deep sleep. Baby is quiet and does not move.

4. Very deep sleep. Baby is quiet and does not move.


After reaching a very deep sleep state, baby will then transition from stage 4, to 3, to 2, and then to REM. This cycle could then occur several times. As baby begins to transition from sleeping into awake they will transition through these stages:


1. Quiet Alert. Body is still. Eyes may be focused. Baby is likely cuddly and taking in their environment.

2. Active Alert. Movement becomes more frequent. Baby may start to make sounds and look around. 

3. Crying. If baby is hungry, lonely, or uncomfortable they may then start to cry. 


The length of time it takes to transition through each of these stages varies from baby to baby and can happen quite quickly for some. We often think of the Active Alert stage as the right time to try to feed baby but as we can see, this may not leave us enough time before the crying starts. And once the crying begins, it could take some time to get baby to calm down enough before being able to feed well. When you find yourself in this situation (because we've all been there!) it could be really helpful to initiate skin to skin. Skin to skin is a great way to help regroup, calm baby down, and initiate those feeding cues.


Although it may not seem like it, REM is in fact an early hunger cue. Along with rooting (opening mouth and turning head side to side), sucking on hands, and soft cooing sounds. It can take some time to be able to recognize these as hunger cues and not just cute little movements and sounds but with time it gets easier.


So the next time your little one is asleep, keep an eye out for those eye movements :) When you begin to notice them you can start by un-swaddling baby (if swaddled). Bring baby in with tummy towards you and allow their little hands to embrace your breast. You may be surprised to see just how well baby begins to nurse while "asleep". But your familiar scent and warmth is just what baby wants and helps them find their way. 



Photo by Jenna Norman on Unsplash

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