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How to Successfully Navigate Sleep Training while Breastfeeding

A child can sleep through the night independently, whether you are breastfeeding or not

What do breastfeeding and sleep training have to do with each other? Well… actually not that much. On the internet or in your friend circle, you might hear, “I had to stop breastfeeding because we wanted to sleep train” or “Your baby won’t fall asleep by themselves if you keep breastfeeding”. These statements are simply not accurate.

There’s a big difference between nursing or feeding your child to sleep and breastfeeding and then allowing your child to fall asleep on their own. The first of these promotes your child being dependent on a sleep prop (in this case the breast) to fall asleep. The second allows you to continue breastfeeding while promoting independence and teaching your child to both fall asleep and stay asleep without your help. 

As a sleep coach, my priority is to support parents in the choices they have made or want to make, including whether or not to breastfeed their child. It’s a very personal choice. At the same time, breastfeeding is recommended for babies under 6 months and has many benefits. In this blog, we will cover the advantages of breastfeeding as well as how breastfeeding and sleep training can be strong partners to each other.

Breastfeeding is Personal

First things first, whether or not to breastfeed is entirely your call. Every family, every situation, every baby is different. Yes, organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggest breastfeeding for at least the first six months. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what feels right for you and your little one. What’s most important to understand is that, as your sleep coach I will support your feeding goals regardless what that looks like.

Breastfeeding Benefits

Whatever choice you make regarding breastfeeding, there’s no denying that it has a large number of benefits for both you and your baby. Beyond the obvious nutritional benefits, breastfeeding helps foster a unique and critical bond between you and your baby.

Nutritional value of breastfeeding

Here’s the scoop: breast milk is pretty much the perfect meal for your baby. It’s loaded with vitamins, protein, and fat, all in just the right amounts. It’s also specially designed for your baby’s digestion. And get this, breast milk is not a one-size-fits-all kind of deal. It changes as your baby grows, customizing itself to meet their evolving needs. While formula manufacturers work as hard as possible to reproduce the benefits of breastmilk in their products there’s no denying, the two aren’t equal.

Breastfeeding and emotional connection with your baby

Breastfeeding is about so much more than just feeding your baby. When you breastfeed, you’re in close contact with your baby, establishing a rhythm of care and connection. Your responses to your baby’s cues, the shared gazes, the gentle caress—each moment enriches the emotional tie between the two of you. These interactions during breastfeeding can significantly strengthen the bond between you and your child.

For you as a mother, nursing your baby offers a unique form of satisfaction. Knowing you’re meeting your child’s needs in such a profound way provides a sense of fulfillment and joy. And these moments of togetherness can positively shape your relationship with your baby in the long run.

Breastfeeding and immunity

Let’s not forget about one of the most crucial features of breast milk – it’s basically your baby’s first line of defense against getting sick. Breast milk contains antibodies that help fight off viruses and bacteria. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) points out that breastfeeding can help reduce your baby’s chances of getting ear infections, respiratory illnesses, diarrhea, and allergies.

Myths Busted: Breastfeeding and Sleep Training 

Let’s get one thing straight: there’s a lot of misinformation out there about breastfeeding and sleep training. So, it’s high time we busted some of those myths wide open.

Myth: breastfeeding prevents effective sleep training

Breastfeeding is about how your baby eats. Sleep training is about how your baby learns to fall asleep and stay asleep. The fact is, breastfeeding and sleep training are not mutually exclusive.  Some might argue that breastfeeding keeps your baby reliant on you to drift off to sleep, but here’s the thing: it’s not the feeding but the habit of feeding to sleep that can create a sleep crutch. You can continue to breastfeed while teaching your baby to self-soothe and fall asleep independently. It’s about distinguishing feeding times from sleeping times and building a consistent routine around it.

Myth: you must stop night feedings to sleep train

Not true. Babies, especially those under six months, may need to nurse one or more times during the night. That’s perfectly normal. Sleep training isn’t about eliminating necessary feeds; it’s about helping your baby learn to go back to sleep without assistance after they’re done eating. It’s about balancing their nutritional needs with their ability to self-soothe (and your need for sleep). Remember, every baby is unique and has different needs. Make sure you check with your pediatrician before dropping any feeds at night.

Myth: breastfed babies don’t sleep as well as bottle-fed babies

This one has been around for quite some time, but it’s simply not accurate. It’s true that formula takes longer to digest than breastmilk, which is where this myth comes from. But sleep patterns vary widely among babies, regardless of how they’re fed. Many factors influence a baby’s sleep pattern, from their age and development to their sleep environment. Some breastfed babies sleep like champs, while some bottle-fed babies might struggle. Good sleep habits are key, and they can be taught irrespective of whether a baby is breastfed or bottle-fed. Breastfeeding and healthy sleep aren’t rivals; they can happily coexist.

How to Sleep Train Successfully While Breastfeeding

We’ve got some clear, simple steps to guide you as you navigate teaching your little one to sleep through the night, all while keeping up with breastfeeding.

Separate breastfeeding from sleeping

One of the first steps towards successful sleep training while breastfeeding is to separate the act of breastfeeding from sleep time. This is a crucial step to avoid creating an association between breastfeeding and sleeping. So it will be easier for your baby to self-soothe when they wake during the night, without needing to feed.

Here are a few simple steps you can use to achieve this:

  • Rethink the feeding schedule: Instead of breastfeeding right before bed, move the nursing session earlier in your baby’s bedtime routine.
  • Introduce a gap: After your baby stops nursing, create a small buffer of time before actually putting them down to sleep.
  • Fill the gap with quiet activities: Use this buffer time for calm and quiet activities. This could include reading a book, singing a lullaby, or simply cuddling.
  • Teach self-soothing: Do not rush in to help your baby at the slightest whimper. Give them time to try to get themselves back to sleep independently.

Separate nutritional needs from emotional needs

It’s also important to distinguish between when your baby is hungry and when they simply need comfort. Newborns feed often, but as they grow, they can go longer between feeds. Sometimes, what might seem like hunger could be your baby’s need for reassurance or a desire to be close to you. If your baby is frequently waking up but not really eating much each time, they might be seeking comfort rather than nutrition. In such cases, consider other ways of soothing, like a gentle pat or a soft lullaby.

Establish the right sleep training environment while breastfeeding 

The sleep environment plays a pivotal role in successful sleep training. A tranquil, comfortable, and consistent sleep environment can signal to your baby that it’s time to rest. Consider a dark room with a comfortable temperature, a quiet environment free from stimulating sounds or activities, and a cozy sleeping area. Consider nursing in a separate area away from their sleeping space. The goal is to create an environment that encourages sleep and doesn’t rely on nursing as the sole sleep cue.

Involve other caregivers

If possible, involving other caregivers in your baby’s bedtime routine can be an excellent strategy for sleep training while breastfeeding. Having a partner, or someone else such as a grandparent, perform the pre-sleep ritual can help break the association between breastfeeding and sleep. Your baby will begin to understand that sleep time can happen without breastfeeding, helping them develop self-soothing skills for better sleep. Plus, it gives you a well-deserved little break, and allows others to bond with the baby.  

The Role of a Sleep Coach to Create Tailored Strategies to Support Families 

Navigating breastfeeding can be one of the most challenging aspects of sleep training that parents have to deal with. As a sleep coach that’s also a lactation counselor, I am well-prepared to guide you through this process.  

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to sleep training and breastfeeding. Every baby is unique, every parent is unique, and every family situation is unique. That’s why I work closely with you to understand your family’s specific needs and dynamics.  Then I develop a tailored, flexible plan that respects your parenting choices, aligns with your baby’s temperament, and takes into account your family’s schedule. 

It’s all about creating a plan that works best for you and your little one. Because at the end of the day, your family’s well-being and peace of mind are my ultimate goals. So if you need some support, book a free 20-minute call to find out how we can help you with this transition. 

Additional Resources: 

https://www.who.int/health-topics/breastfeeding#tab=tab_1

https://nationaltoday.com/world-breastfeeding-week/

https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/baby/breastfeeding/Pages/Why-Breastfeed.aspx

https://llli.org/

https://kellymom.com/

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