There is a lot of opinions out there that you shouldn't or can't start sleep training your baby while continuing to breastfeed. From my understanding, one of the big arguments is that breast milk is digested quicker, therefor the baby will need to eat several times a night or otherwise may suffer from malnutrition.
There are several school of thought on this matter, and as long as you agree with mine, then you are definitely right. Juuuuuusssst kidddddding.... Like most things in parenting there isn't a "right" or "wrong" most of the time, there is more of a "right for your family" decision. But... here are a few facts for you to consider if you are breastfeeding and currently deciding if sleep training is something you would like to pursue.
One may ask, what is the point of sleep training if my baby's nutrition needs are going to prevent her from sleeping through the night?
Nobody sleeps through the night.
Maybe you think you do, or that you did before having a baby. But you don't and you didn't. During a night, we go through sleep cycles of light sleep and deep sleep about four or five times a night. When we get to the end of a sleep cycle we enter into really light sleep and we often wake up. You may not remember these brief awakenings because they are short and you go back to sleep quickly.
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 and Dad.
So when we talk about sleeping through the night, in terms of babies anyways, what we’re really just saying 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.”
So it doesn't matter if a baby is breastfed or formula fed, they are going to wake up several times a night regardless.
As for the statement that breast milk digests faster than formula, this is true. Just not to the degree that a lot of people describe.
Newborns who are breastfed can go about 2 1/2- 3 hours between feeds. Formula fed newborns may go 4 hours before needing a feed. So while breast milk may digest faster, it is not a magic elixir to sleeping 12 hours through the night.
So regardless of how you choose to feed your baby, chances are you are going to have to wake up a few times in the first few months no matter your choice. Some babies naturally wean themselves from night time feeds, while others do not. This doesn't mean that you should put your baby's sleep on the back burner until they hit 6 months of age. Quite the opposite, in fact. Teaching your baby to fall asleep independently is something you should start as soon as possible. If your baby is under 6 months of age, you may still need to get up a time or two for night feeds, but teaching your baby healthy sleep habits will help them to sleep more peacefully.
After the six month mark, or thereabouts anyways, 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, an approach that I fully support if it works for you, your baby, and your schedule. If baby’s 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?
But if baby’s six months of age, gaining weight at a normal rate, and able to eat as many calories as they need during the day, then the chances are that baby is 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.
Sleep Strategies, we all have them... even adults. These are our bedtime rituals: the lotion we lather on our hands, the pajamas we put on, the book we read before closing our eyes. It is a strategy to signal our brain and body that it is time to get some rest.
If feeding is part of a baby's strategy, then it doesn't matter to them if there's actual food coming their way. It's the sucking motion, the feel of mom, the calming effect of the situation that helps them get to sleep.
Every baby is different and 6 months in not a definitive line in the sand where it is time to cut babies off from night feeds. Some will be ready earlier (sometimes as early as 10-14 weeks) while other babies may need to hold on to theirs longer. Here are a few indicators that can help let you know if those night time wake ups are a result of hunger or lack of independent sleep skills.
Does your baby only take 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 45 minutes to an hour after a night time feed?
If you answered yes to most or all of those questions, then your baby is probably using feeding as a sleep strategy and could significantly benefit from learning some more independent sleep skills.
So, are sleep training and breastfeeding mutually exclusive, the answer in my mind is a straight-up no. Breastfeeding is an absolutely wonderful experience for both mother and baby, and I support it 100%. In my mind, having a baby who sleeps through the night is also magical, 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.