Sleep training a breastfed baby
One of the reasons I have dedicated my life to helping new parents is because of the sheer amount of information available and how conflicted many experts are with one another’s points of view. Even among medical professionals; the number of times I have read that one person insists that “this way is absolutely essential” just to have it denounced as objectively wrong or harmful by another person is absolutely staggering.
When making parenting decisions, I encourage parents to educate themselves, analyze their findings, filter everything using common sense and personal beliefs, and move forth as confidently as possible with a strategy that feels comfortable to them.
In helping parents make those important decisions, I want to shed some light on a question I get time and again: whether you can sleep train while breastfeeding. I’ve spoken to many parents who, after hearing what I do, tell me, “It would be nice to sleep, but I can’t change anything about my situation because I’m breastfeeding.”
But guess what? You CAN maintain the breastfeeding relationship AND get a full night of sleep!
HOW you feed your baby doesn’t really matter
There are a few things you should know if you are currently breastfeeding but also would like to sleep train your child and help everyone feel more well-rested.
First of all, no one sleeps through the night. You might think you do, or that you did before you had kids, or that your partner does, but I assure you, unless you’re heavily sedated you wake up at least a few times during the night, every night (and you always have!) 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 several 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. As adults, we typically don’t remember these little arousals, but we experience them nonetheless.
Babies’ sleep cycles are slightly shorter than adult ones, so they experience these partial arousals more often in the night. Babies who “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. So when we talk about a baby sleeping through the night, what we’re really saying is that they’re able to get (back) to sleep on their own, or as we call it in the baby sleep industry, they have “independent sleep skills.” So it doesn’t matter if baby’s breastfed, formula fed, or eating Chick-Fil-A twice a day; they’re going to wake up at night, several times, for the rest of their lives, just like everyone else.
Newborns can usually go about 2.5 - 3 hours between feeds if they’re breastfeeding. If they’re getting formula, that number is closer to 3.5-4 hours. So it’s not like formula is some kind of magical elixir that’s going to keep your little one full and satiated for 11 to 12 hours. Their stomachs are small and they’re going to digest liquid food quickly, whether it comes from a bottle or a boob.
So, what does that mean for parents of newborns in regards to their babies sleeping 11 - 12 hours through the night? Well, simply put, forget it. 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.
Now, that doesn’t mean that you should put your baby’s sleep on a back burner until they hit 6 months of age. Quite the opposite, in fact. Teaching your baby to fall asleep independently is something you can’t start too early. I just want you to understand that if they’re 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.
When do breastfed babies sleep through the night?
After the six-month mark adjusted age (and assuming your little one has been gaining weight relatively well), your baby – breastfed or not – should be able to start sleeping through the night without a feed. (This is the part where the debate heats up a little.)
Let’s say you breastfeed on demand (which is a very popular approach and one that I fully support if it works for you, your baby and your schedule) …
If your baby is waking up 5 times a night for a feed, the principle of feeding on demand would require you to get up and feed your baby 5 times a night, right? Technically, yes. But if your baby is 6 months old, gaining weight at a normal rate, and is able to eat as many calories as they need during the day, then the chances are that your 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. Full stop.
This is something else that we adults have in common with our babies. We all have strategies for getting to sleep. As adults, 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. Routines differ from person to person but in the end, routines are strategies 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 just like adults fall into the comfort of their rituals and routines, babies become very dependent on theirs.
Obviously, every baby is different, and some may actually still be getting hungry enough during the night to need a true feed. 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?
Does baby fall asleep within 5 minutes of starting their feed?
Does baby eventually go back to sleep if they don’t get fed?
Does baby 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 breastfeed on demand, just that you’ll have to reassess when exactly baby’s demanding a feed and when they’re looking for help getting to sleep.
To answer the question posed at the start of this post, can sleep training and breastfeeding live in harmony? The answer in my mind is a straight-up YES. Breastfeeding is an absolutely wonderful experience for both mother and baby, and I support it 100%. 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.
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, I’ve got you covered.