Like a lot of other parents, the day I found out I was pregnant with my first child I started reading. I was determined to know everything there was to know about parenting, newborns, infants, toddlers, teens, nappies, prams, development, behavior, the list went on!
I was not prepared for the amount of information out there, let alone how conflicting it was. Even among medical professionals, the number of times I must have read one person claim something as absolutely essential, whilst another deem it wrong or even harmful was overwhelming.
As most parents do, I analyzed the information I read with as much of an open-minded approach as I could muster. I then measured it against my personal beliefs and came up with a strategy I was comfortable with.
I think my biggest questions stemmed from a lack of consensus when it came to sleep training AND breastfeeding. Could they be done simultaneously or were they incompatible?
Does it all boil down to digestion?
From what I read, the basic argument against sleep training whilst breastfeeding was that breast milk is digested faster than formula. This means that babies who are breastfed need to wake up several times a night in order to feed.
I know the conversation can heat up very quickly when you start to talk about breastfeeding vs formula. So, to be clear my aim is not to preach a particular method or strategy or sway your own personal opinions. The decisions you make for you and your family are based around exactly that; you and your family. I support a ‘whatever works’ kind of approach.
What I do want to do is to present a few facts to try to help you decide whether or not to start introducing some sleep training principles whilst you are breastfeeding. No doubt you do not wish to compromise either sleep or nutrition!
Your baby will NEVER sleep through the night
Yep, you read that right! This is not due to a lack of independent sleep skills, or a hungry tummy. Nobody ever actually sleeps through the night! You might think you do, or at least you did before you had kids! I assure you that unless you are heavily sedated or falling into bed after a truly heroic bender, you wake up at least 3-5 times during the night, every night.
When we sleep, we go through sleep cycles which go from light sleep to deep sleep and back again. This happens four or five times a night in adults. When we come to the end of a cycle and enter a lighter stage of sleep, we often wake up. Most of the time we are able to roll over and return to a deep sleep. This usually happens so quickly and easily we don’t remember these brief rousings, but they definitely happen numerous times every night.
A baby’s sleep cycle is shorter than adults. This means they wake more often in the night. Even babies who are said to ‘sleep through the night’ still wake up, but they manage to get themselves back to sleep on their own. They don’t need help from Mum and Dad to settle between sleep cycles.
In the baby sleep industry, this would be referred to as having ‘independent sleep skills’. All this means is that a baby is able to drift off to sleep on their own.
Breast vs bottle
What this leads me to believe is that whether a baby is breastfed, formula-fed, or a combination of the two, they are going to wake up several times at night. In fact, this is going to continue to happen for the rest of their life, just like everyone else.
What about the faster digestion in breastfed babies?
Breast milk is digested faster than formula BUT it’s not to the degree that a lot of people tend to think.
Newborns can go about 2½ – 3 hours between feeds if they’re breastfeeding. If they’re having formula, that number is closer to 4 hours. When you look at these figures, it’s not like formula is a magical elixir that’s going to keep your little one full for 10 – 11 hours. Whether it comes from the breast or a bottle, babies have small stomachs so food is going to be digested quickly.
So, when will your baby sleep through the night?
At this point, if your baby is under 6 month old, I’m saying not now! That’s not to say no baby under the age of 6months can sleep through, there are plenty that do. But most bubs 0 – 6 months will require round the clock feeding. So chances are you’re going to have to get up a couple of times a night to feed your little one.
What about sleep training?
Just because your baby is not going to sleep through the night before 6 months of age, it does not mean you need to put the sleep training on the back burner. Quite the opposite!
Teaching your baby to fall asleep independently is something you can start from the day they are born. This is the case whether your baby is breastfed or formula-fed.
Following the magic 6 month mark
After the six month mark, or thereabouts, your baby should be able to start sleeping through the night without a feed. This includes babies who are breastfed.
-this is where the debate heats up!
For the next little scenario let’s look at breastfeeding on demand.
Ok, so baby is waking up five times a night for a feed. When feeding on demand, this would mean you get up and feed baby five times a night, right?
My understanding is yes you would. BUT if baby is 6 months old, gaining weight at a normal rate, healthy, and able to eat as many calories as they need during the day, the chances are that baby is not waking in the night for food.
The most common reason for waking at night past the 6 month mark is because feeding is part of their strategy for falling asleep. It has become what I call a ‘sleep prop’.
Strategies for Sleep
As well as sleep cycles, something else adults, newborns, infants, and children have in common is that we all have strategies for getting to sleep. As adults, we set up our own rituals for bedtime. Think about what you do before you get into bed and close your eyes. Do you wash your face, clean your teeth, read, scroll through your social accounts? Would you say you tend to do these in the same order every night? Chances are you have a fairly set routine in place.
This is a bedtime routine that helps to cue your body and mind that it is time to settle down and go to sleep. Our children look for a routine as well. The difference is they need Mum or Dad to set them up with one.
Even though the sleep strategies used by babies are much less sophisticated, they still serve the exact same purpose as that of an adult= to prepare the body and mind for sleep.
If feeding is part of your little one’s strategy of falling asleep, it doesn’t matter if there’s actual food coming. It’s the sucking motion, the feel of Mum holding them, the familiarity of the situation, that is helping them settle to sleep.
How can you be sure baby isn’t waking due to hunger?
Every baby is different, and some may well be getting hungry enough during the night to need a feed. I’ve put together a few indicators that can help you decide if those nighttime wakings 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 45minutes to an hour after a nighttime feed?
If you are answering ‘yes’ to most/all of these questions, your little one probably falls into the ‘feeding as a sleep prop’ camp and could benefit significantly from learning a few sleep skills. It doesn’t mean that you can’t breastfeed on demand, but if you’re looking to support your little one in sleeping through the night you will need to learn when baby is demanding a feed vs looking for help getting to sleep.
Are sleep training and breastfeeding mutually exclusive?
So, to answer the question posed earlier, the answer in my mind is a straight-up no!
Breastfeeding is a wonderful experience for both mother and baby, and I support it 100%. Having a baby who sleeps through the night may not be as magical, but it sure comes close. AND there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t have both!
As always, if you need a little help guiding you through the occasionally tricky process of teaching your baby to sleep through the night, I’ve got you covered