Should you pump at night, or is it okay to sleep? When you’re exclusively pumping, the answer depends on your baby’s age, your milk supply, and how you are feeling. Here’s what you need to know.
Do you need to pump at night?
The answer to this depends on a few things:
1. Your baby’s age
The younger your baby is, the more beneficial pumping at night may be.
In first months after birth, frequent pumping or nursing may increase the number of prolactin receptor sites:
The prolactin receptor theory suggests that frequent milk removal in the early weeks will increase the number of receptor sites. More receptor sites means that more prolactin can pass into the lactocytes and thus milk production capability would be increased.
Therefore, if you’re exclusively pumping, it’s a good idea to pump at night if possible for the first few months to ensure that you’re able activate enough receptor sites to establish a good milk supply.
2. Your milk supply
Whenever you drop a pumping session, there is a risk that your milk supply can be affected. Anything can happen – your supply can stay the same, it can go down, or it can even go up.
This risk is something you have to keep in mind when deciding whether or not to continue pumping at night. Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure what will happen when you drop your middle of the night pumping session until you try it.
Therefore, you have to consider your milk supply along with your risk tolerance and feelings about your milk supply. If you have oversupply, making the decision to drop a the night time session will be easier. If you’re a “just enougher” who is anxious about pumping enough every day, it may be harder to make the call.
The other risk to your milk supply is that longer breaks in lactation can result in getting your period back sooner than you otherwise would, which for some women can impact milk supply.
3. Your sanity
Pumping at night can be important to establishing your milk supply. However, you can’t sleep in one hour chunks for an extended period of time and keep it together.
If your mental health is affected by the amount of sleep that you’re getting, that’s an important factor in deciding whether or not to pump at night.
Remember: Breastmilk is important, but your mental health is more important.
What does it mean to “pump at night”?
First, let’s talk about what night includes, as sometimes I am asked what specific times of the day you’d need to pump for it to be considered “pump at night.”
A 1990 study analyzed prolactin levels in 20 lactating women, and they found that levels were the highest between 11 pm and 7 am, and lower the rest of the time. The authors theorized that since babies typically go longer stretches without nursing at night, the high prolactin levels may help maintain milk supply during this time.
Our data suggest that the mechanisms responsible for the circadian rhythm in PRL secretion are relatively independent of the mechanisms of suckling-induced release. We propose that the nocturnal rise in PRL during lactation functions to ensure a robust milk supply during an extensive nonsuckling interval.
So we know that prolactin levels vary along a circadian rhythm. Unless you have a drastically different sleeping schedule (say, you work nights), I would consider “pumping at night” to be pumping during time that you would normally be sleeping.
How many times should you pump at night?
There are a few different ways you can set up your pumping schedule.
My preferred way was to pump every time that my baby woke up. This way, I knew I was pumping at the same timeframe as when he would have been nursing. It also eliminated issues where I’d wake up to pump on schedule and then get woken up an hour later when my baby needed to be fed.
However, if your baby is sleeping through the night, or your partner handles the feedings, or if you prefer to be on a set schedule, I would recommend pumping between 1-3 times per night when your baby is younger than 2-3 months. You might want to do 2-3 sessions when your baby is first born, and 1-2 later on in the newborn phase.
(I’m giving a range rather than exact numbers because so much depends on the factors we talked about above. If your baby is three months old and you’re trying to increase milk supply, it might make sense to pump twice at night. On the other hand, if your baby is two weeks old and you’re struggling with PPD, it’s okay to only pump once per night. Just do the best you can.)
How often should you pump at night? How long can you go at night without pumping?
If possible, I would suggest trying to get at least one longer stretch of sleep (say, 4-5 hours). This will get you through one complete sleep cycle and can be really helpful for maintaining your sanity. (Of course, this may not be possible depending on your baby’s sleep.)
Before you start to wean, the longest that I would suggest going at night when you are exclusively pumping is about 9 hours, if possible. For example, that might mean that your last pumping session of the night is at 9pm and your first is at 6am.
You can see some sample pumping schedules (including how much I pumped at night here.)
Do you pump at night? Tell us your experience in the comments!References
- Bonyata, Kelly, IBCLC. “How does milk production work?” https://kellymom.com/hot-topics/milkproduction/
Stern JM, Reichlin S. Prolactin circadian rhythm persists throughout lactation in women. Neuroendocrinology. 1990;51(1):31-37. doi:10.1159/000125312 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2106085/