When we become new parents, we soak up information about pregnancy, parenting, breastfeeding, sleep training, and everything in-between. We read, analyze, and filter the appropriate choices based on common sense and our personal beliefs. We get advice, sometimes unsolicited, from books, friends, family members, and more.
One belief that I have encountered is that you can’t breastfeed and sleep train your child at the same time.
The basic argument against breastfeeding is that breast milk is digested quicker, so your baby is hungry more often and wakes up more. This allegedly causes your little one to be unable to sleep as well. However, the benefits of breastfeeding your child, if you are able, are incredible and generally encouraged.
So, I am asked, “What’s the point of sleep training if your baby’s nutritional needs prevent him or her from sleeping through the night?”
With my experience as a sleep coach and lactation counselor, I am going to outline a few facts that you should know if you’re breastfeeding and trying to decide whether or not to sleep train your child.
So, here’s the most interesting fact. Ready for it?
Nobody sleeps through the night.
Yes, even you and your partner don’t sleep through the night. You actually wake up a few times during the night. We generally don’t remember those little times that we are awake.
When we sleep, our bodies go through a natural cycle, involving light sleep and deep sleep (REM sleep). We typically move through this 90 to 120-minute cycle four or five times per night.
Baby Sleep Cycles
Babies’ sleep cycles are shorter than adult ones, around 50 minutes, so they wake up more often in the night. Their sleep cycles have longer periods of deep REM sleep, which helps with brain development. You can learn more about the difference between adult and baby sleep cycles at the National Sleep Foundation.
So, when we talk about babies who are sleeping through the night, they are still waking up, but they have managed to get themselves back to sleep on their own. In the sleep coach world, we call this becoming an independent sleeper.
When working with you and developing your plan, our goal is for your baby to learn to fall back asleep on their own.
Breastfeeding and Sleep Training
So here it is: Your baby is going to wake up several times a night, for the rest of their lives no matter if they are breastfed or formula-fed.
Newborns, who are breastfed, can go about 2.5-3 hours between feeds. Formula-fed babies can go closer to 4 hours between meals, not 11-12 hours which is the typical requirement for nighttime sleep. So, no matter which method of feeding, your baby will need to be fed at night. Their stomachs are small and they digest their liquid diet quickly.
Unless your baby can sleep for 11-12 hours regardless of hunger, you will have to get up and feed your little one until they’re about 6 months old. After six months, your baby should be able to sleep through the night without a feed.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t sleep train your child until they reach that 6 months mark. It is never too early to teach your child the skills to fall asleep on their own. If you want to learn more about these skills, please schedule a time to chat.
Breastfeeding on Demand
I fully support your decision if this approach works for you, your baby, and your schedule. My caution is that it is easy to confuse hunger and comfort in the middle of the night. If your baby is 6 months old, gaining weight at a normal rate, and eating well during the day, it is likely that breastfeeding at night has become your baby’s strategy for falling asleep.
The act of breastfeeding, the comfort of mom, and the suckling motion become the signal to go to sleep, rather than being able to fall asleep without these aids.
Here are a few ways to determine whether your baby is actually hungry or using breastfeeding as a sleep strategy:
- 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 the 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 these questions, then your little one is most likely using feeding as a sleep strategy. It doesn’t mean that you can’t breastfeed on-demand, just that you’ll have to reassess when your baby is demanding a feed and when they’re looking for help getting to sleep.
Breastfeeding and Sleep Training are NOT mutually exclusive.
Breastfeeding is a wonderful experience for both mother and baby. Having a baby sleep through the night is also just as wonderful. Breastfeeding and sleep training can work together.
With my experience as a Lactation Counselor, I am able to support you in your breastfeeding journey while we help your little one develop the skills necessary to sleep independently.
Just remember that if your little one is under 6 months old, you might not get a full night’s sleep. just yet. This doesn’t depend on whether they’re breastfed or formula-fed. It is due to their natural sleep cycles. These sleep cycles prompt us to help teach our little ones the skills to fall asleep on their own.
And, as always, if you need a little help guiding you through the process of teaching your baby to sleep through the night, you can contact me and the Tender Transitions team with the link below.