When I was expecting my first child, I was determined to know everything there was to know about having a baby, raising a child, and everything that had anything at all to do with parenting (I KNOW I am not alone in this!).
But I wasn’t prepared for the sheer amount of information out there and how conflicted the experts were with each other’s points of view. Even among medical professionals, the number of times I must have read one person say that one thing was absolutely essential just to have it denounced as objectively wrong or harmful by another - talk about WHIPLASH!
But I took that information, analyzed it, filtered everything through a combination of common sense and personal beliefs, and came up with a strategy I was comfortable with. But one thing I was never really able to get any kind of clarity on was whether or not I could sleep train while I was breastfeeding. Most of what I read say no, eek!
One argument for this is that breast milk gets digested faster than formula, and therefore babies who are breastfed need to wake up several times a night in order to feed. This is true. Mostly. But it still didn't answer the question of whether I can sleep train and breastfeed.
And…when digging deeper, I also learned something else….
Nobody sleeps through the night.
Yup. NO ONE. Not even you. Not me! Not formula fed babies. Not breastfed babies.
When we sleep, we go through what are called “sleep cycles,” and these cycles go from light sleep to deep sleep and back again, typically about four or five times a night. When we get to the end of a cycle and enter into that really light stage of sleep, we often wake up. People who think they sleep straight through the night typically don’t remember these little rousings, but they experience them nonetheless. As adults we often don’t remember these little wakings because we have sleep skills that help us go right back to sleep.
Babies’ sleep cycles are shorter than adult ones, so they wake up more often in the night. Babies who are said to sleep through the night are still waking up, but they manage to get themselves back to sleep on their own without any help from Mom and Dad. What we’re really just saying is that they’re able to get to sleep on their own, or as we call it in the baby sleep industry, they have “independent sleep skills.”
It doesn’t matter if baby’s breastfed, formula fed, or eating McDonald's twice a day. They’re going to wake up at night, several times, for the rest of their lives just like everyone else.
What about those newborns who sleep through the night?
Now, breast milk digests faster than formula, that’s true, but not to the degree that a lot of people describe. Most newborns can go about 2 1/2 - 3 hours between feeds if they’re breastfeeding. If they’re eating formula, that number is closer to 4 hours. Neither will help your little one feel full and satiated for 10 or 11 hours. Their stomachs are small and they’re going to digest liquid food quickly, whether it comes form a bottle or a boob.
What does that mean for parents of newborns in regards to their newborn babies sleeping 11 - 12 hours through the night? Well...it is unlikely that it will happen. It is simply an unrealistic expectation.
Some babies are such sleep aficionados that they’ll go down for the night regardless of hunger, but they’re few and far between. Both of my brother’s kiddo’s are like this and there is no real reason as to why (am I jealous? YOU BET!). Chances are, you’re going to have to get up a couple of times a night to feed your little one until they’re about 6 months old.
Teaching your baby independent sleep skills
I don’t start working with families to formally sleep training children until at last 4 months, but there are several things parents can do to teach your baby to fall asleep independently early on. Just keep in mind that if your little one is under 6 months old, you might not get a full night’s sleep just yet, but it doesn’t hinge on whether they’re breastfed or formula fed. Both are going to have similar results when it comes to keeping baby feeling full.
Around the six month mark, your baby should be able to start sleeping through the night without a feed and that includes babies who are breastfed. Often, this involves some type of sleep training aka teaching your baby independent sleep skills
What about "Breastfeeding on Demand?"
Breastfeeding on demand is a very popular approach and one that I fully support if it works for you, your baby, and your schedule. If baby’s waking up five times a night for a feed, the principle of feeding on demand would require you to get up and feed baby five times a night, right?
But if baby’s six months of age, gaining weight at a normal rate, and able to eat as many calories as they need during the day, then the chances are that baby is, in fact, not waking in the night for food.
The most common reason for waking at night past the six month mark is because feeding is part of their strategy for falling asleep. This was EXACTLY Vivian’s sleep challenge at 6 months – she relied on me breastfeeding her to sleep.
This is something else that we adults have in common with our babies. We all have strategies for getting to sleep. As grown ups, we establish our own little ritual for bedtime. We might get a glass of water and put it on the nightstand, brush our teeth, get into a specific position, or read a book for a little while, but in the end, it’s a strategy that helps to signal our brains and bodies that it’s time for sleep.
Baby sleep strategies are less sophisticated, but they still serve the same purpose. They help baby get into a familiar, comfortable place where their system recognizes what it’s supposed to do, and they nod off.
If feeding is part of that strategy, then it doesn’t matter to them if there’s actual food coming their way. It’s the sucking motion, the feel of mom next to them, the familiarity of the situation that helps them to get to sleep and they can get very dependent on it.
Obviously, every baby is different, and some may actually still be getting hungry enough during the night to need a feed.
Is my baby waking because they are hungry or out of habit?
With that in mind, there are a few indicators that can help let you know if those nighttime wake ups are the result of hunger or a lack of independent sleep skills.
Does baby only take a small amount when they feed in the night?
Do they fall asleep within five minutes of starting their feed?
Does baby eventually go back to sleep if they don’t get fed?
Do they only sleep for 45 minutes to an hour after a nighttime feed?
If you answered yes to most or all of those, then your little one probably falls into the “feeding as a sleep strategy” camp and could benefit significantly from learning a few sleep skills. It doesn’t mean that you can’t breast feed on demand, just that perhaps you reassess when exactly baby’s demanding a feed and when they’re looking for help getting to sleep.
So to answer the question I asked in the title of this post, can you breastfeed and sleep train? YES!! 100% yes. Breastfeeding is an absolutely wonderful experience for both mother and baby, and I fully support it having done so with both of my kiddos.
Having a baby who sleeps through the night is maybe not quite as magical, but it sure comes close, and there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t have both together! There is no reason why you would need to choose. Take this decision off your plate and take a deep breath :-)
And, as always, if you need a little help guiding you through the occasionally tricky process of teaching your baby to sleep through the night, schedule a call with me and let's chat!