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Whilst breastfeeding your baby is the best thing you can do for your little one: it certainly isn’t without its challenges for most new mums. Exclusively breastfeeding your little one is incredibly demanding both physically and mentally and this can feel even more overwhelming when you’re running on very little sleep. Often, breastfeeding mums look at formula milk as the answer to their long nights; with the idea that if the baby is full of formula milk in the evening then they will sleep for a longer amount of time before waking for their next feed. But how true is this? In this article, we explore the impact of breastmilk and formula milk on a baby’s sleep and help you to decide which is best for you and your baby.
Can a breastfed baby sleep through the night?
Regardless of whether a baby is formula fed, breastfed or they’re fed combination of the two: all babies are different and where some may sleep through from being a few weeks old whereas others may take a while longer. Babies wake in the night for many reasons (in fact, we as adults wake on multiple occasions throughout the night too) they may be hungry, thirsty, too cold, too hot, or simply want a cuddle. The belief that formula fed babies sleep through the night quicker may come from the fact that formula milk takes longer for your baby to digest and therefore they are less likely to wake up from hunger after just a few hours. Breast milk is digested in around 2 hours whereas formula milk can take 3-4 hours to digest. Although feeding your baby formula milk may mean they sleep a little longer, it is not a guarantee as babies wake for many reasons. Avoid comparing your baby’s sleep patterns with other mums as all that matters is whether you are happy with your situation.
When can a baby sleep through the night without feeding?
Firstly, it’s important to establish what the phrase ‘sleep through the night’ actually means. The phrase refers to your baby sleeping for a minimum of 6 hours without needing your intervention to get them back to sleep. Your baby’s age, weight and the type of milk they consume can impact how soon they start to sleep through the night without feeding. Generally speaking, most parents notice that once their baby starts consuming solids (around 6 months of age onwards) then there is a decrease in the amount they feed during the night. It’s important to note here that the NHS recommends weaning at around 6 months of age. This will vary depending on whether your baby is breastfed or formula fed as babies often use breastfeeding for comfort as well as to satisfy hunger and thirst. Some parents notice an increase in their baby waking for a feed when they are teething, going through a developmental leap and if they’re unwell. The transition to consistently ‘sleeping through the night’ is not linear so some weeks your baby may sleep for longer without a feed than other weeks you may find them waking more frequently for feeds again.
How often should a breastfed baby wake at night?
Breastfed babies wake for many reasons: hunger, thirst, teething, developmental leaps, being unwell, separation anxiety to name just a few. During the newborn phase, babies tend to wake every 2 hours for a feed: breastmilk takes two hours to digest so when their stomachs are small they are likely to wake regularly for hunger reasons. As your baby grows, so do their stomachs meaning that they may start to sleep for longer stretches of time. As we have already mentioned though, baby’s sleep does not necessarily increase in a linear trajectory as there are many reasons they can wake at night and often breastfeeding is the solution to their troubles!
Why do breastfed babies wake more at night?
There are two main reasons that it can appear that breastfed babies wake more at night: firstly, breastmilk is more easily digested than formula milk and secondly, breastfed babies are in control of how much milk they consume whereas when the baby is being fed by a bottle it is possible to overfeed as they do not control the milk flow. That being said, if your baby has been exclusively breastfed thus far, giving them a bottle of formula milk of an evening may cause more sleep disturbances due to tummy ache as they process this new milk. Although it can feel relentless when you’re in the midst of it, night waking doesn’t last forever. If you choose to continue to breastfeed your baby on demand, day and night, rest assured you are doing the very best thing for your baby.
Breastfeeding your baby has so many lifelong benefits for your little one but when you’re sleep deprived it can seem like the best option would be to look for an alternative method of feeding to get your little one to sleep longer to give you a chance to rest. When it comes to getting your breastfed baby to sleep through the night, unfortunately there are no quick fixes. Any baby’s ability to sleep for long stretches of time is a milestone they will reach in their own time and until then, breastfeeding them will be the best thing for them at that moment. Your baby may be waking because of hunger or thirst, teething or discomfort, being too hot or too cold: whatever the reason they have woken up you can be sure that breastfeeding will help to settle them back to sleep. Remember that this won’t last forever; the nights are long but the years are short and before you know it they will be sleeping through and one day you might even find yourself missing those night feeds… maybe!