Breastfeeding and Sleep Training: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

– Written by JoAnna Inks 

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When I was pregnant with my first child (yep, that’s my preggers belly in the photo!), I did A LOT of reading.  Probably more than in all of my schooling combined. I was really dedicated to learning about having a baby, raising a child, and pretty much everything related to parenting.

What I was surprised about is the enormous amount of information out there, and how conflicting the “experts” can be.  Even within the medical community, I would read that one doctor said such and such was absolutely essential, just to have it denounced as wrong or harmful by another doctor.

To say it was confusing is an understatement!

I like to think of myself as a fairly level headed person, so I gook ALL of this information, thought about it, filtered through it and through common sense and my own beliefs came up with a few strategies about parenting that felt good to me.

There was one area that remained confusing to me no matter how much research I did and that was whether or not you can breastfeed AND sleep train.

The argument against breastfeeding & sleep training is that breast milk gets digested faster than formula and babies who are breastfed must wake several times each night to feed.  If they don’t, they’ll be hungry, unable to sleep, and potentially suffer malnutrition.

There are several schools of thought on sleep training and breastfeeding and whichever one you believe in you’re most likely convinced that you’re right.  And, you probably are, assuming you agree with me 😉

I’m joking, of course!  Like almost everything in parenting, there’s no “right & wrong”, there’s almost always “right for your child”.

There are, however, undoubtedly some facts you should know about sleep training and breastfeeding and trying to decide what’s “right” for your family.

There would obviously be no point in sleep training if your baby’s nutritional needs prevented them from being able to sleep through the night.

So, here’s the truth:  Are you ready? NOBODY sleeps through the night, EVER!

You might think you did before you had kids, or that your partner sure does, but I can assure you unless you are drugged, you wake up a few times every night.  You always have and you always will.

During sleep, we go through sleep cycles, and these go from light sleep to deep sleep and back again.  Typically, you cycle through sleep about 4-5 times per night. When you get to the end of a sleep cycle and enter light sleep, you often wake up.

If you ever think you sleep through the night, it’s because you don’t remember these little wake ups.  But, they’re there nonetheless.

Babies sleep cycles are shorter than ours, so it’s safe to assume they wake up more often every night.  Even babies that are “sleeping through the night” are still waking up at the end of a sleep cycle, but they know how to get themselves back to sleep without any “help” from you.

So, when we talk about a baby sleeping through the night, what we’re really referring to is their ability to get back to sleep on their own.  We sleep consultants call this “independent sleep skills”.

It really doesn’t matter whether your baby is formula fed, breastfed, or eating In ‘N Out burger twice a day!  They’re going to wake every night, several times FOREVER! Just like us 🙂

Breast milk actually does digest faster than formula, but not as quickly as people commonly describe.

Newborns can typically go 2.5-3 hours between feeds if they’re breastfeeding.  If they’re formula fed, that’s closer to 4 hours.

Therefore, formula isn’t some kind of “magical elixir” that’s going to keep your baby full for 11-12 hours.  Their stomachs are tiny, and they digest their liquid food quite fast whether it is from the breast or a bottle.

What does this mean for newborn babies and sleep?

They’re probably not going to sleep 11-12 hours straight through.  Although, it DOES happen. I’ve had a client who had a 4 week old, and he started sleeping 11-12 hours every night and never looked back.  

But, most of my client’s newborns are sleeping 11-12 hours between 3-4 months.  

Most likely, with a newborn, you’re going to be getting up a few times in the night to feed, often until 6 months old.

But, that doesn’t mean you don’t start teaching sleep skills until then.  

Quite the opposite!

Teaching a baby to be a good sleeper is something you can do right from the start.

You might not get a full night’s sleep until baby is close to 6 months but it certainly doesn’t hinge on the fact that you breastfeed or formula feed your baby.

Both of these will have very similar results when it comes to keeping baby satiated.

By about 6 months, your baby should be able to sleep through the night whether you breastfeed or not.

This is where the debate gets interesting!

If you breastfeed on demand (which is common and I support it 100% if that works for you, your baby, and your schedule) and your baby wakes 5 times in the night, you would be required to get up and feed all of those times, right?

Yes.

The “but” here is if baby is 6 months or older, a healthy weight and able to eat as many calories as they need during the day then there’s a good chance baby is waking from something other than hunger.

What’s that you ask?

Strategy!  Most likely your baby uses feeding as a “strategy” to get back to sleep.  Unable to put together sleep cycles on their own, they wake to look for “help” from you.

We all have strategies for putting ourselves to sleep.  As adults, we have rituals each night that help us with bedtime.  I want you to pay close attention to what you do in the 30 minutes leading up to bedtime.  You probably do many of the same things over and over each night as you prepare for sleep.

All of these rituals that we do each night signal to our brain that sleep is coming.

Brushing our teeth, getting a glass of water on the nightstand, turning out the lights, getting in our “sleep” position.  

A baby’s sleep rituals are a bit less sophisticated but serve the same purpose.  They help baby know sleep is coming.

If feeding to sleep is part of that ritual for your baby, then it doesn’t matter to them that they’re actually being fed.  It’s the sucking, being close to mom- the familiarity of this situation. Babies become VERY dependent on it.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this scenario.  If you don’t mind getting up 5 times every night to nurse your baby back to sleep and that works for you and your family.  

Fantastic!

My clients come to me because this is just NOT working for their families health and well-being and they’re not sure how to help their baby not wake so many times every night.

Every baby is different.  

So, I’ve come up with a checklist to help you determine whether your baby is waking out of hunger or lack of independent sleep skills.

* Does baby take a good, full feed when they wake in the night?

*Does baby fall asleep five minutes into the feed?

*Does baby ever go back to sleep without a feed?

*Does baby only sleep 45 minutes to 1 hour after a night time feed?

If you answer yes to some or all of these, then your baby is using feeding to sleep as a strategy and could really benefit from learning some sleep skills.

This doesn’t mean you can’t breastfeed on demand, it merely means you’ll need to assess when it’s a feed and when the feed is only being used for sleep purposes.

To answer the question about sleep training and breastfeeding being mutually exclusive, the answer to me is a no.

Breastfeeding is AMAZING!  I support it 100% and breastfed both of my children for a year.  No bottles, no pumping, just me until they took a sippy cup.

You might not think that a baby that sleeps through the night is as magical as breastfeeding, but I can tell you from personal experience, it’s a close second!

And, there’s no reason why you can’t have both things.

It can be tricky to know how to help a baby sleep through the night if you’ve gotten into the habit of feeding to sleep.

This is where some additional guidance from a well-qualified sleep consultant can help.  The 7- Sleep Tips are a great place to start.

You can also book a complimentary call with me so that you can tell me more about your specific sleep challenges and I can share exactly how I can help.

Here’s to a baby that sleeps through the night!

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