The Sleep Hormone

Everyone warns new mothers about the sleep deprivation, yet it still comes as a shocker because you simply can’t fathom what it means to get up every couple of hours with a newborn night after night. Luckily, breastfeeding provides a secret weapon for sleepy mothers: the hormone cholecystokinin (CCK).

Photo by Hector Landaeta

Photo by Hector Landaeta

When the baby suckles, the mother releases CCK. The hormone infusion relaxes her and readies her to drift off to sleep again. If mother and baby are co-sleeping, the mother might even drift off before the baby finishes the feed! What a peaceful experience compared to getting up to prepare a bottle, sitting up to feed, placing the baby back in a crib, and finally climbing back in bed to attempt to fall back asleep after that wide-awake period, without the benefit of sleep-inducing CCK! Even better news: the baby produces CCK as well, both from suckling and from the fatty hindmilk reaching the baby’s stomach at the end of a feed. The Australian Breastfeeding Association explains:

There are actually two CCK peaks, one at the end of a feed, and the other higher peak between 30 and 60 minutes after the feed. The baby sucks, gets sleepy, dozes off for a while then wakes again for a top-up feed. That higher-fat feed causes the second peak and the baby goes into deeper sleep. Top-up feeds are also great for the mother’s milk supply.

Some parents mistakenly believe that feeding a baby formula will help the baby sleep longer at night and that will translate into more sleep for the parents. Two things parents should know: (1) the reason formula-fed babies’ tummies feel full for longer stretches is that formula is harder for babies immature systems to digest, and (2) formula-feeding results in less overall sleep for parents! A 2007 study published in the Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal Nursing concluded that parents of breastfed babies enjoy an average of 40 more minutes of sleep per night!

So, in honor of World Sleep Day today, celebrate how breastfeeding actually helps mothers and babies get more rest through the wonderful sleep hormone CCK, through the side-lying sleep position, and through co-sleeping!

It’s 9:49 p.m. here, I just nursed the baby back to sleep *yawn* and I’m off to bed….

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    • Amber

      I heard that statistic about parents of breastfed babies getting more sleep, too. So often lack of sleep is listed as a downside of breastfeeding, so I think the results of that study are really great.

      Either way, like most nursing moms I have experienced that CCK hit myself. I’ve even used nursing to help me sleep when I was restless. ;-)

    • Michelle

      I’ve never had trouble getting my breastfed babies to sleep. Over course, the first two months they are up every two to three hours, but so is a formula fed baby. I’ve discovered it’s all about full feedings and being consistent. Mine all sleep 6 to 8 hours by 3 months…heaven for mom:)

    • Bettina

      OK! No, I understand why my baby and me are lapsing into the “milk coma”! Nature is so clever sometimes…

    • mary

      i’ve never heard of the hormone, i just thought breastfeeding was relaxing, plain and simple. breastfeeding forces you to slow down which is relaxing. i think its addictive. bf helped me with post partum depression because it put me in such a good mood on my grujpy days

    • Nyrie Roos

      Did you know that a great way to relax you and your baby is to breastfeed skin to skin whilst doing Kangaroo Mother Care with your baby. It feels great and has amazing benefits as well.

    • Georgia

      this is an awesome post!!

    • Amy

      Yep. I will totally go into the nursery at 10 or 11 (my bedtime) and dream feed my infant in order to help me get to sleep. Otherwise, my mind keeps revving, and revving. It also helps to get one more big feed into him (at 7 mos. he nurses much better when mostly asleep) during the night, so he sleeps better.

    • Sleepymum

      That’s so true!! I get so sleepy esp when I feed the baby in a dark room! My question is when I feed the baby in a side lying position how can I ensure that the gases have been released as I fall asleep before burping him? My baby is 7 weeks old now.

      • Elsabie

        Breastfeeding babies don’t take is as much air as bottlefed babies because there is no air in your breasts. I hardly ever had to wind my baby. Your baby will wake up if she has trapped wind :) Enjoy, that is such a wonderful time when they are that small.