“My baby feeds all evening, and my breasts feel empty – have I run out of milk?”
“Every time I try to put my baby down to sleep, he cries! What am I doing wrong?”
“Why does my baby cry at the breast sometimes, even though he still seems hungry?”
If you’ve ever asked questions like this during the rollercoaster weeks of new parenthood, you’re in good company! Most new parents, unless they have been around newborn babies a lot before, are surprised and sometimes confused by how intensely their baby needs to be held and comforted. At times, it can feel like very hard work, or even as if, whatever you try, nothing quite works. Babies on the TV might sleep quietly in their beds between feeds, but real babies often don’t! Here is some information that may help you make sense of your baby’s behaviour and work out whether there is a problem that needs fixing, or whether your baby is just doing what normal babies do. If you haven’t had your baby yet, reading ahead can help prepare you for what to expect, so that you take this stage in your stride!
This article about normal newborn behaviour assumes that your baby is full-term, healthy, feeding well and growing normally. If your baby was born early, is unwell, or if you are not sure whether your baby is feeding or growing well, please check with your midwife, health visitor, doctor or breastfeeding supporter. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of signs that more could be going on than just normal newborn behaviour: your baby’s poo output is less than expected (What’s in a nappy) your baby loses more than 7% of birthweight by day 5 or keeps losing weight after day 5; your baby grows at an average of less than 20-30g per day after day 5; your baby doesn’t wake at least 8-12 times in 24 hours to feed; your baby seems to be in pain; your baby cries inconsolably for hours, even in your arms; your baby develops patches of dry skin/eczema or a wheeze; your baby has green/mucousy stools or blood in their stool; breastfeeding is painful for you and not getting any better; your baby is often unhappy or frustrated at the breast; your baby often feeds for more than 40 minutes per breast or doesn’t stop breastfeeding until you take him off the breast. If any of these apply to you, please seek further help from your healthcare provider or a breastfeeding supporter.
When they aren’t feeding, many babies sleep most of the time during the first few days after birth. This may be nature’s way of letting both mother and baby recover from their birth experience. Around 10-14 days old, though, your baby may “wake up”, sometimes quite suddenly, and you may be shocked by the change! From now on, your baby will spend increasing amounts of time awake. At times, it can feel like hard work to make sense of what he needs and to help him get back to sleep when he’s had enough of being awake. Many young babies have a “fussy period” of a few hours each day, when they especially need lots of calming and soothing. This is most commonly, though not always, in the evening and first part of the night, and tends to build in intensity over the next few weeks. The peak age for crying is around 6-8 weeks.
Why babies need so much help in the evening
Many pregnant women notice that their unborn baby seems most active when they lie down at bedtime. This could be because they have stopped walking around and lulling their baby back to sleep! It is common for newborn babies to continue this pattern of evening wakefulness during the first few weeks after birth. By about 6 weeks, most babies are learning that the night is for sleeping, and (though they may still need to feed at night for many months) will begin to settle to sleep more quickly after a feed. You can gently help your baby learn the difference between night and day by taking him out in the daylight, especially in the morning, and keeping the lights low at night.
Another reason for babies to be unsettled by the end of the day is that their brains feel like they are on fire! Babies’ brains are growing amazingly fast – they double in size in the first year. Every day, they take on lots of new information and experiences, and by the evening they are so excited by the day’s learning that it takes them a long time to wind down towards sleep. In busy households, with other adults and children coming back at the end of the day, some babies may find all the extra activity overwhelming, too. And if it’s been just you and the baby all day, by the evening you may be feeling frazzled yourself, and in need of nurture and care, just like your baby! Unlike adults, babies can’t just “switch off” and relax; they need lots of help from calm, loving adults.
Breastfeeding – more than just milk
Breastfeeding provides babies with much more than just milk. A frazzled baby seeks the breast because the rhythm of sucking, the closeness and security of being held, and the feel and smell of his mother’s body help him to feel safe and calm. Most babies like to feed more often in the evening. Milk flow might be a bit slower than it is first thing in the morning, but this isn’t a problem; it means that babies can do lots of calming, soothing sucking at the breast without getting uncomfortably full. If your baby cries when you offer the breast yet again, it won’t be because the breast suddenly doesn’t work! It’s much more likely that they’ve just had enough for the moment. The signals for “I’m hungry” are very similar to “I’m bored/tired/sad/uncomfortable/need a cuddle”. Your baby still needs help, they just don’t want the breast again right now. You can find some ideas below of other ways to soothe a frazzled baby. If you’re not sure what your baby wants, try offering the breast first, but if it seems to make things worse, try something else, and offer again when they are calmer.
The “fourth trimester”
Some experts talk about the “fourth trimester” of pregnancy; the first few months after birth, when babies’ brains are still in an “unfinished” state. Human babies have to be born while their brains are still relatively immature, in order to fit through their mother’s upright, restricted pelvis. Your baby will learn to calm down and manage his own emotions when he is ready, but a young baby can’t do this yet. You don’t need to be worried that, by giving her the help she needs now, she will be “clingy”, “spoiled” or more dependent later. In fact, the opposite is true. Psychologists know that babies whose needs are met promptly early on are more likely to develop into trusting, confident children, because they find the world to be a safe place and know that they can always find help if they need it. In the early months, if you are managing to keep your baby safe, fed, comfortable and reasonably happy, you are doing a great job.
A typical evening with a newborn
You feed your baby until she looks fast asleep. You carefully put her down in her bed. Either immediately or soon afterwards she wakes up and cries. You think she must be hungry… maybe breastfeeding isn’t working? You feed her again until you think she can’t possibly fit in any more milk, and put her down…. and so on, until the early hours of the morning.
Although (especially if you haven’t breastfed before) you may worry that your baby cries at the breast because there’s a problem with feeding, as long as the signs of milk intake (weight, wet & dirty nappies) are OK (What’s in a nappy and My Baby needs more milk) , and your baby is happier the rest of the time, it’s probably nothing to do with hunger, or a breastfeeding malfunction! Your baby is most likely to have woken up because they were put down. The conditions that adults might prefer for sleep – quiet, dark, being left alone – are scary for babies, who fear being abandoned more than anything. For our ancestors, a baby who was left alone was a baby who probably wouldn’t survive. Your baby has an “alarm”, carefully developed over thousands of years of human evolution, that is programmed to go off if she senses that she has been left alone.
What can you do about it?
- Babies, like other small primates, feel safest held closely against an adult body, especially an adult who is moving around. Try swaying or gently dancing with your baby.
- If you want to put your baby down, try to help him feel he is still with you: warm his bed, put something in it that smells of you, rock the crib, leave your hand resting on him while he falls asleep, etc.
- Wait about 20 minutes until he is in deep sleep before putting him down. If you put him down too soon, he is more likely to wake up, perhaps quite upset, because he wanted to be asleep.
- Carrying your baby in your arms or a sling meets most of the same needs as breastfeeding, and can be done by another adult. Dads or other close care-taking adults are often brilliant at this. A baby who is not hungry will still head towards a milky breast if they smell it close by. If they really don’t want to nurse again, they might protest when they get there, which can be confusing for everyone!
- You don’t need to put your baby down if you don’t want to.
- If you do want to, enlist the support of other people who can get to know and love your baby. If you don’t have another adult living with you, could a family member or friend come and stay for a while? Do you have an older neighbour who misses their grandchildren? A teenager who is brilliant with babies? Even very young babies can have close relationships with several adults (and older children) at once, and another pair of arms can be helpful to both you and your baby at the end of a long day.
- Try going outside – babies are often happier outdoors.
- Babies often seem more relaxed when you are surrounded by other adults; they know the sabre-toothed tiger can’t get them! Visiting a pub garden can work really well on summer evenings. If you are at home and don’t have company, try the radio or TV on a channel with people talking.
- Experiment with singing, dancing, music, massage, bathing, rocking, walking.
- Try turning the lights and the noise down. Some babies are more sensitive to lights and noise than others.
- If you can do so safely, (Safe sleep and the breastfed baby) you might want to experiment with sharing a bed with your baby. Learning to feed lying down in a safely prepared bed means that you won’t have to move your baby once he’s asleep, and you can get some rest while you feed. If you are worried about whether your baby will be safe in bed with you, you might want to try it in the daytime first, with another adult keeping an eye on both of you.
- Make sure you get something to eat (prepare a meal/snack in advance) and get a nap or at least a rest earlier in the day if you can, to prepare for the time of day when your baby needs you the most.
- Sometimes nothing works; you can still let your baby know you are there with him in his distress.
- If your baby is crying as if they are in pain, check with your doctor. There is more information here about possible reasons for crying. (Unhappy baby)
- If you feel overwhelmed by your baby’s needs, get help & support. Looking after a crying baby is really hard, but much harder if you feel unsupported. Your midwife, health visitor, GP or a parent support group can all help.
- Although attending a La Leche League meeting will not guarantee you more sleep, knowing that this phase is normal and will pass can really help. Other mothers who have experienced the intensity of the early weeks with a baby will welcome and encourage you. Many LLL groups offer support on Facebook too. (Find a group)
You are working enormously hard to understand and meet your baby’s needs. Every baby is different, and you are becoming an expert on your baby. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to be with your baby (any more than there is a right or wrong way to be with a partner or friend); there is only what works for you both, today. This can feel scary at first (if only babies came with an instruction manual!), but as time goes on, you will feel able to try different ideas for calming your baby, and come up with some new ones. As the weeks go by, you will learn more about what helps your baby (and what doesn’t!) and become more confident about knowing when they are OK, and when to get help. As your baby gets older and more experienced, he will find the world, and his own bodily sensations, less alarming. These early weeks, which can feel like “forever”, will pass. Before you know it, you will be able to support a newer parent who is wondering how on earth they will get through it, because you did!
Written by Jayne Joyce, on behalf of LLLGB, January 2019