Have you ever wondered whether structuring your baby’s feeds or giving them solids will sort out their sleep? Did you hang on to the promise of better sleep once you’ve started them on solids, only to find that it didn’t make any difference?
You probably know that I’m an international board certified lactation consultant. In fact, that was what I did first. If I’m honest, it’s my first love. But the reason I got into doing sleep work was that nearly ALL my breastfeeding clients had questions about sleep and settling. But how close is the connection between feeding (whether breast or bottle for that matter!) and sleep?
Well, I don’t know if this will depress or reassure you, but the two things are not as closely linked as you might think. Certainly, in my experience, I’ve found that most mums feel there is a link, but truthfully it’s only really strongly associated when there is an actual feeding problem – such as insufficient weight gain or weight loss. Here are the things that aren’t really feeding ‘problems’ per se, and certainly if you changed them they probably wouldn’t have any effect on sleep:
- cluster feeding
- feeding very irregularly
- feeding for short periods
- feeding very frequently
The above are all perfectly normal behaviours. Giving a bottle of formula, trying to get your baby onto a schedule, or starting solids early are likely to have NO effect on these behaviours. In studies looking at whether formula makes babies sleep for longer periods between feeds than breast milk alone – babies slept on average for 20-30 minutes longer on formula. This is really not very significant if you think about it. Particularly when you have to make the feed up. The time works out at about the same. Getting your baby onto a schedule can be very difficult, traumatic and stressful! Some babies just won’t tolerate it at all! And recent research has shown that babies who feed on demand are, on average, significantly more intelligent than their schedule fed peers, even when accounting for parental educational and socio-economic status. Interesting huh? The research examined nearly 11’000 children over 10 years and found that on-demand fed children were about 7 places ahead in the classroom if you were to rank their grades. This is no small thing! And as for starting solids – that’s a whole blog post in itself! Starting solids early significantly increases the chances of developing an allergy. Also, on a practical level, there is nothing more calorific that milk. It’s illogical to replace a highly nutritious food such as milk with say, carrots. It doesn’t make any sense!
But what about the argument that your baby is ‘feeding just for comfort’? Ah, that old chestnut! Well, let me get you to look at it another way. How often in a day do you do something that is ‘just for comfort’? When was the last time you had a cheeky snack just because you felt like it? Or because you had a bad day? Or you were bored, lonely, uncomfortable? We don’t dismiss our need to eat for comfort as insignificant, or invalid. It’s just as real a need for babies! I often come across families who have worked really hard to get their baby onto a more regular feeding pattern only to find that it didn’t alter their child’s sleeping pattern one little bit. In fact, all it did was remove the one highly effective tool they had up their sleeve to help their child back to sleep!
Research indicates that babies spontaneously fall into a more consistent sleep-wake pattern at around 6 months – of roughly 3 daytime naps and longer stretches at night.
So, is there ever value in tackling sleep issues before 6 months? Well, sometimes. If you find it difficult to get your baby to go to sleep at all, if they are over-tired and cranky at the end of the day, if they only go to sleep with one sleep trigger, or you are becoming very stressed about their sleep, then there may be value in looking at it. But my message here is don’t overthink it! Sleep in young babies is highly variable and does tend to evolve with age and maturity. There’s no harm in a ‘wait and see’ approach. You know where I am if you’re still struggling at 6-9 months!
By the way, if you’re not sure whether you have a sleep issue or a feeding issue – you can always take advantage of my ‘ask a one-off question’ option. I can give you highly comprehensive advice and information tailored to your personal situation :-).
Lyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC, birth trauma recovery practitioner and holistic sleep and behaviour coach, and is also a respected International speaker and the Co-founder and Clinical Director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program. You can pLyndsey Hookway is a paediatric nurse, health visitor, IBCLC, holistic sleep coach, PhD researcher, international speaker and author of 3 books. Lyndsey is also the Co-founder and Clinical Director of the Holistic Sleep Coaching Program, co-founder of the Thought Rebellion, and founder of the Breastfeeding the Brave project. Check Lyndsey’s speaker bio and talk brochure, as well as book her to speak at your event by visiting this page. All Lyndsey’s books, digital guides, courses and webinars can be purchased here, and you can also sign up for her free monthly newsletter here.