breastfeeding and sleep are not mutually exclusive

Breastfeeding and Helping Baby Sleep Well

Like most things in parenting, there’s not so much a “right or wrong” as opposed to a “right for your child.”  I always encourage parents to do what is right for their child, because you know your child the best. However, there is a lot conflicting information out there about sleep and breastfeeding. I want to address some of the claims and debates out there about this topic so that you can decide what is right for your family. 

Before we dive into whether helping your child learn to sleep independently while breastfeeding is right for you and your little one, let me hit you with this interesting fact. 

No one sleeps through the night, including breastfed babies

Let that sink in for a moment because you may think you do, or that your spouse who somehow sleeps through your baby crying multiple times a night does, but none of us really sleep all night long. As adults, we don’t remember these brief wakings that occur in between sleep cycles, but we experience them nonetheless. Sleeping through the night really just means being able to get back to sleep from these brief wake-ups easily, quickly and on our own. Or as we call it in the baby sleep industry, having independent sleep skills. 

During these brief awakenings throughout the night, our brain is taking in everything around us. If everything is the same as when we fell asleep we likely just roll into the next sleep cycle and don’t even realize we were awake. 

Now that we have our definition of sleeping through the night, let’s dive into the issue at hand. Regardless of if baby is breast-fed, formula-fed, or eating fancy chef-prepared meals, they are going to wake up throughout the night, just like everyone else. 

breastfeeding baby in nursery before sleep

Are breastfeeding and sleep mutually exclusive?

In short, the answer, in my opinion is a big-fat-No. But, let’s dig into some more specifics on why this is often seen as true. 

Breastmilk digests faster than formula. 

This is true! However, the difference in time it takes to digest breastmilk compared to formula is not great enough that it causes formula to be a magical elixir that helps babies sleep through the night. So the good news is that if you are breastfeeding, you can still help your baby learn to sleep well! 

If your baby is a newborn, you are going to have to get up and feed your baby because their tummies are small and they are going to digest liquid food quickly. However, helping baby learn that the activity of eating is a separate activity from the activity of going to sleep can help baby learn to sleep well and not compromise baby getting the food and nourishment that they need. What I mean by keeping the feeding separate from sleep is that the feeding is for the purpose of filling their tummy when baby is hungry (and some closeness and snuggles with mom, of course). So that feedings are not for the purpose of getting baby to fall to sleep. 

Sleep training while breastfeeding can cause your milk supply to dry up or decrease

Well, if you go from nursing baby every hour on the hour all night to not feeding at all at night cold turkey, your milk supply could be negatively impacted. But, the breastfeeding relationship is a special relationship that many mommas (myself included) value immensely, so this is not typically what I recommend. We’ve got to help you and baby adjust because this is a big change for both of you!

Putting steps in place to help you both adjust is an important piece of the puzzle. Breastmilk is a supply-and-demand system, so there are steps you can take to help your milk supply adjust to know that the majority of milk is taken during the day so that is when production is needed. Helping baby adjust their calorie intake so they are still getting sufficient calories is very important as well.

Here are some ideas* for breastfeeding Mommas to help their supply adjust to their baby’s evolving needs and feeding schedules.

  • Add a pumping session before you go to bed for the first week or so. This will help avoid discomfort for you during the night when baby is stretching the time between when they are hungry for a feed again. It also allows you to put away some extra milk for your baby to increase calorie intake during the day.
  • When you wake in the middle of the night with full breasts, get up to pump! Pumping just until you feel relief will help your body slowly down-regulate your supply and eventually even out to your baby’s needs.
  • Add in an extra breastfeeding (or pumping) session or two during the day to help signal to your body that more milk production is necessary during the day now as opposed to at night. Plus, this gives baby an extra chance to start increasing intake during the day. I typically recommend this feed(s) to take place about 45 minutes before baby’s next nap. 

*I share these strategies that I have received from multiple Lactation professionals (IBCLCs) to ensure I am supporting Mommas in their breastfeeding goals. Please reach out to me or a lactation consultant for more details.

‘Sleeping Well’ means different things for different families.

Some families may want their babies ‘sleeping through the night’ without a feed as soon as baby is big enough and healthy enough to do so. Some families opt to keep in a night feed until both mom and baby are ready to drop it. (For babies 12 months and older and some babies younger this does not work well depending on your child, but often times it does!)

Helping baby learn independent sleep skills can help baby take the lead to extend their own personal best in terms of time between the bedtime feed and their night feed until that night feed is really just their first feed of the day! Some babies need an extra push when mommas are ready, but many do it all on their own! 

Waking up due to hunger or due to habit?

Here are a few scenarios to help you figure out what is likely causing your baby to wake frequently. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • You start nursing and baby almost instantly falls asleep.
  • Baby only nurses for a few minutes during night feedings and never takes a full feed.
  • For some reason, baby seems to need to ‘eat’ more at night than during the day.

If any of these sound like your situation, it may be that baby is waking up out of habit and because the primary way they know how to get back to sleep is by nursing or feeding.

Learning to Fall Asleep

Learning to sleep well is a skill because the falling asleep part of the sleep equation is learned. As adults, we have been working on our own routines, strategies and bedtime rituals to help ourselves easily fall asleep for many years. These routines signal to our bodies and brains that it is time to sleep. 

Babies have a lot less experience working on these routines and figuring out what works for them. Plus, the way they are falling asleep is often determined or helped by their parents. If breastfeeding, or bottle feeding, is a major part of baby’s sleep strategy, every time they wake up they are going to need that part of their sleep ritual in order to go back to sleep. Hence, frequent wake ups when it doesn’t seem like you baby is really all that hungry. 

Falling Asleep Independently

Helping your baby learn to fall asleep independently can allow your baby to tell you when they are no longer hungry and don’t need their tummies filled up during the night.

How will baby tell you this? Because they will get themselves back to sleep when they have brief wakings between sleep cycles. 

When they are hungry or uncomfortable, they will wake up and call out. Then you will be able to address that need and once it is fulfilled you will both be able to get back into bed and peacefully go to sleep. 

I absolutely encourage Mommas who want to breastfeed to also help their babies learn to sleep well if they want to. These two things in motherhood are not mutually exclusive like many people (both sleep training advocates and breastfeeding advocates alike) may like you to believe. 

‘Now that I think my baby is using feeding as part of their sleep strategy, what can I do to help them learn a new strategy?’ 

My answer is it depends. Every child is different so the exact strategy to help your child learn to sleep independently is likely different than your neighbor’s baby or your sister’s baby. 

I recommend you sit down with your partner or other caregivers and define what ‘sleeping well’ means for your family. Then create a plan to gradually help baby learn to fall asleep that everyone is comfortable with. 

An example is gradually and methodically reducing the amount of help (nursing, rocking, patting, etc.) you are providing to your child on a nightly basis for a week or two until they are falling asleep on their own. When you are ready to implement your plan, be ready to stick to it. Your child will be learning something new and learning new things can be tough. Being consistent in your approach to helping them practice this new skill is key!  (You can read more about things to take into consideration when making and implementing your plan here.)

Navigating all the sleep information out there

With all the information out there, it can definitely be confusing to determine the best approach with your baby and specific situation. Helping parents take the guesswork out of the finding the best strategy for their baby and family is what I am here for. 

When you are sleep-deprived and feel like you are barely able to function, this sleep stuff can feel overwhelming. Schedule your free evaluation call with me so we can chat more about your specific situation and how I can help you find the right plan for your family and make sure you feel supported and never alone during this process. 

Cheers to healthy, happy sleep!


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