Can a “relief bottle” help you get more sleep with a newborn?

The problem: broken sleep

Some people have virtually no problems while nursing their new baby, while others feel like they’re working down the list, checking off every possible problem you could possibly have! But there’s one struggle that’s almost universal: sleep.

There’s a simple biological reason behind this: newborns have tiny tummies and they’re not very efficient eaters. So by the time one long feeding session is done, it feels like it’s almost time for the next one to start! Many people discover that by the time they get the baby settled, they only have time for an hour or two of sleep before the baby’s asking to eat again.

Newborns are happy to sleep this way – in fact, their REM sleep cycles are designed for short sleep stretches. But adults are not!

The advice to “sleep when the baby sleeps” is a wise one – despite the shorter stretches, your baby is getting 15+ hours of sleep every day! So if you join them in their daytime naps, you’ll get a lot more sleep than if you try to stick to a more conventional adult sleep schedule.

But some people have difficulty sleeping during the day, and others don’t feel restored by these short, newborn-length bursts. If you can’t get enough sleep, it’s not unusual to feel stretched to (and past) your breaking point. In a study that looked at the correlation between sleep and postpartum depression symptoms, how well someone slept (for example, how many times they woke up) appeared more important than how long they slept in total (adding up all the minutes they slept). For those who are dealing with postpartum mood disorders like depression and anxiety, protected sleep can be part of the treatment plan.

Whether you’re coping with postpartum mood issues, or just desperate for a night or two to catch up, you may hear people suggesting a “relief bottle”.

Can a "relief bottle" help you get more sleep with a newborn?

What’s a relief bottle?

A relief bottle means that instead of you waking up for a middle-of-the-night feeding, you sleep while someone else gives a bottle of milk that you pumped earlier. Timed right, you may be able to get 4, 5, even 6 hours of sleep before you need to wake up for the following feeding. (Would pre-baby you have thought that was a lot of sleep? Probably not, but now you appreciate it!)

But you may have questions – will the baby still nurse well? Will it impact your milk supply? When will you pump? Here are some thoughts about when a relief bottle might help – and when it might not:

Can a “relief bottle” help you?

Relief bottles may not help if…

You get so full, so quickly, that you wake up at the next feeding time anyway. Some people make so much milk, at least in the early days, that they can’t go longer than a few hours without emptying before they get very uncomfortable. You may be able to prolong this by nursing or pumping right before you lie down, but if your full, aching chest wakes you up 3 hours later, you’ll probably decide it’s easier just to nurse the baby again.

You have trouble fitting in pumping sessions throughout the day to get enough milk together for the overnight bottle. When you’re nursing non-stop, you may wonder how you could possibly find time to pump when you can’t even find time to go to the bathroom! Passive suction milk collectors like the Haakaa may help, but not everyone gets much milk with these.

Relief bottles may help if…

You have a support person who will use paced bottle feeding techniques to give your baby the bottle, to minimize the chances your baby will have difficulty going back to nursing.

You have a space where you can sleep separately from your baby and support person, so their noise doesn’t wake you up when the next feeding time comes. If you live in a small apartment or house, you may need to get creative – earplugs and/or a white noise machine can help you stay asleep.

You’re able to pump enough milk at other times of the day to get enough for a feeding. (Often 1.5-3 oz for a newborn, depending on their weight and how often they feed.)

Could you give formula or donor milk in the bottle instead, so you don’t have to pump?

Yes – but it may impact how much milk you make. Milk production is based on a supply and demand system. Pumping – even if it’s not at the exact same time as the feeding – tells your body that there’s a demand for milk. If you simply skip a feeding and don’t pump at another time of day, your body will see that there’s less demand for milk. Your body will then begin to decrease your milk production. (How much of an impact it will have is hard to predict, and depends on a lot of individual factors.) This trade-off may be worth it to you, or it may not – only you can decide. Don’t let other people or outside expectations pressure you into making decisions that don’t feel right for you.

Reach out if you need more help

Whether or not a relief bottle is right for you, if you feel like you’re at the end of your rope with how to balance sleep and feeding – reach out. I have supported many parents through managing their sleep needs while continuing to nurse their babies – it does not have to be an either/or choice! An International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant can also help you think through how to manage your feeding goals while taking care of yourself – look for one local to you, and feel free to reach out to me if you need help with the search.

If you’re concerned about postpartum depression or anxiety, reach out to your care providers (no, you don’t need to wait until your next appointment – you can call them now), talk a trusted friend or family member, or use the resources and helpline through Postpartum Support International.

Almost no one looks back at this time in their baby’s life and says “Wow, I slept so well! That was so easy!” – but I hope you can look back and say “I had the resources I needed to manage through a challenging phase in my baby’s life.”