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Can I Breastfeed and Sleep Train?

When I was expecting my first child, I probably did more reading than I did throughout my entire academic career. The thought that a little life was about to be entirely in the hands of my husband and myself was daunting! I needed to learn everything I could. Maybe you can relate.

If you have done even just one Google search for information on newborns, baby sleep, breastfeeding, anything really, you will agree with me that there is so much information and so many points of view out there! Even among medical professionals.

I found myself going through stages with all of the information I read and advice I heard. It began with overwhelm and ended with me filtering everything through common sense and my personal beliefs to come up with a strategy that I was comfortable with.

One thing that you may not have found a clear answer on is if breastfeeding and sleep training can go hand in hand.

The basic argument against the idea, as I understood it, is that breast milk gets digested faster than formula, and therefore babies who are breastfed need to wake up several times a night in order to feed. Otherwise, they’ll feel hungry throughout the night, be unable to sleep, and potentially suffer from malnutrition.

So that should settle it, right? What’s the point of sleep training if your baby’s nutritional needs will prevent them from sleeping through the night?

Now bear with me for a moment while I address one thing. Nobody sleeps through the night.

Everybody wakes up at least a few times during the night. Adults, children, babies. Everyone.

When we sleep, we go through what are called “sleep cycles”. These cycles go from light sleep to deep sleep and back again, typically about four or five 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. People who think they sleep straight through the night typically don’t remember these little rousings, but they experience them nonetheless.

Babies’ sleep cycles are shorter than adult ones, so they wake up more often in the night. Babies who are said to 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 or Dad.

So when we talk about our babies sleeping through the night, what we’re really saying is that they’re able to get to sleep on their own, or as we call it in the baby sleep industry, they have “independent sleep skills.”

Now, back to the question at hand.

Newborns can go about 2 1/2 - 3 hours between feeds if they’re breastfeeding. If they’re eating formula, that number is closer to 4 hours.

So not a huge difference. All babies will need to eat several times throughout the night, no matter how they get their nutrition.

What does that mean for parents of newborns in regards to their newborn babies sleeping 11 - 12 hours through the night? Well, simply put, forget it. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen occasionally. You’ve all heard of the baby who is just weeks old and sleeping through the night. Boy are those moms lucky! Unfortunately, we aren't all gifted perfect sleepers.

Chances are, you’re going to have to get up at least once per night (obviously more when your baby is a newborn) to feed your little one until they’re around 6 months old.

That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about your baby’s sleep until they are 6 months old. You can actually begin to gently teach your baby to fall asleep independently from a very early age, no matter how your baby is fed! Just know that if they’re under 6 months old, you might not get a full night’s sleep just yet.

After the six month mark, your baby should be able to start sleeping through the night without a feed, and that includes babies who are breastfed!

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 baby is waking up five times a night for a feed, the principle of feeding on demand would require you to get up and feed baby five times a night, right?

Technically, yes. But if baby is six months of age, gaining weight at a normal rate, and able to eat as many calories as needed during the day, then chances are that 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.

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, but in the end, it’s a strategy 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 then they fall asleep.

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 and smell of mom and the familiarity of the situation that helps them to get to sleep. They can become very dependent on it.

Obviously, every baby is different, and some may actually still be getting hungry enough during the night to need a feed.

So how do you know if your baby is waking up because he/she is hungry or because of 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 another 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 breast feed on demand, just that you’ll have to reassess when baby is demanding a feed and when they’re looking for help getting to sleep.

So to answer the question posed at the start of this post, “Are sleep training and breastfeeding mutually exclusive?” The answer is no.

Breastfeeding is an absolutely wonderful experience for both mother and baby, and I support it 100%. Having a baby who sleeps through the night might not be 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.


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