There are many reasons you might want to keep a baby awake while breastfeeding. The number one reason is that they keep feeding! While babies can “dream feed,” they might stop drinking if they fall asleep at the breast, and it’s important they keep going, especially in the earliest weeks. You might also not want them to fall asleep in the later weeks because of trying to get them on a sleep schedule.
Your touch, warmth, smell, and milk are so comforting and calming for your baby. They feel perfectly relaxed when with you to feed with all of their needs met, and they relax right into sleep time. Because of the reasons above, you might not want that to happen, while still making sure nursing is a happy and comfortable time for them. Don’t worry– they’ll still loving nursing even if you tickle them a bit to stay awake.
First, consider the timing. Feed them right after they’ve woken up so they are rested instead of sleepy, or right after a bath so their wet hair might make them a little colder.
Next, think about the environment. Keep the white noise machine off, the room cool, and blanket and snuggly clothes off. You could also lay them on a flat surface while you sit next to them so your warmth and softness don’t encourage them to fall asleep. Advice differs on whether to keep the lights on or off. Lights on may make it harder for them to fall asleep, but may also encourage them to close their eyes. You’ll have to experiment with what works for your baby.
Besides setting yourself up in those ways, the main way to keep a baby awake while breastfeeding is to change things up during the feeding session. When you see your baby drifting off, use these methods to make a change to keep them awake:
- Change the hold position
- Change the breast they are feeding from
- Take off a piece of their clothing like socks
- Change their diaper before continuing
- Blow air on their face
- Move their limbs
- Tickle them
- Make eye contact
- Talk to them or make other sounds
- Rub a wet washcloth on their head or skin
- Pause for a burping break
- Squeeze your breast so the milk flow increases
- Turn music on
- Take a deep breath or make another movement
Sometimes a baby might fall asleep to tune everything else when things get overwhelming, so if you’ve turned on the lights, music, and everything else to make it hard to fall asleep, it can end up having the opposite effect. If your baby is falling asleep with little stimulation or lots of stimulation, just try doing the opposite to see if that helps. Baby may need to concentrate on eating to be able to keep going so you can back off on all of these above methods if it’s not working.
Kathy Kuhn, RN, BSN, IBCLC says that stroking under the baby’s chin from chin to Adam’s apple with medium pressure can help promote staying awake to feed.
The Dr. Sears website recommends if you are waking baby up from sleep to feed, try to do it during REM sleep: “This lighter stage of sleep is recognized by fluttering eyelids, sleep grins, clenched fists, and limbs that are not limp. A baby in a deep sleep is harder to rouse.”
Anne Smith, IBCLC gives these tips to increase stimulation: “Rub his back in a circular motion from the shoulder blades down and back up; stroke his scalp in gentle but firm circles, squeeze gently in the cavity between his neck and collarbone (remember in grade school when someone wanted to get your attention, and they sneaked up from behind and grabbed your shoulder blade? Remember how you jumped out of your chair? This is effective, but do it gently); rub his hands or feet by applying pressure with your thumb (your partner can do this while you are nursing to help keep him stimulated); walk your fingers up his spine; move his arms and legs in a bicycling motion, play pat-a-cake; or circle his lips with your fingertip. Keep talking to him and trying to establish eye contact.”
Be sure to follow the advice of International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLCs) when it comes to breastfeeding. If a baby is falling asleep, they may be done feeding and you don’t want to force them to overeat. You know the context of your feeding journey best, so trust yourself.
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