Can you breastfeed and sleep train?

If you’re a mother who’s breastfeeding and trying to decide whether or not to sleep train your child, here are a few facts to know to help with your decision.

First thing’s first – nobody actually sleeps through the night. When we sleep, we go through “sleep cycles”. At the end of a cycle we enter a very light stage of sleep and often wake up. Babies’ sleep cycles are the same but shorter, meaning they wake more often. Babies who are said to sleep through the night are still waking up, but manage to fall back asleep on their own. As we call it in the baby sleep industry, they have “independent sleep skills.”

It doesn’t matter if a baby is breastfed or formula fed, they’re going to wake up at night just like everyone else. The basic argument against sleep training while breastfeeding is that since breast milk digests faster than formula, babies who are breastfed wake up more frequently during the night to feed. That’s technically true, but not to the degree that many believe. Newborns can go two and a half to three hours between feeds when breastfeeding and close to four hours when eating formula. It’s not like formula will keep your baby full for 10 hours. Their stomachs are small and digest liquid food quickly, whether breastfed or formula fed. Chances are, you’re going to have to get up a few times a night to feed your baby until they’re about 15lbs and/or six months.

That being said, teaching your baby to fall asleep independently is something you can start early, that way they’ll be able to sleep through when they are ready to drop night feeds. Just understand that if they’re under six months, you might not get a full night’s sleep yet, but it’s not dependent on whether they’re breastfed or formula fed.

After six months (sometimes sooner), if your baby has independent sleep skills, they should start sleeping through the night without a feed, including babies who are breastfed.

If your baby is six months, gaining weight at a normal rate, and able to eat as many calories as they need during the day, chances are they’re not waking at night for food. Most commonly, babies who wake at night past six months use feeding as part of their strategy for falling asleep. If this is the case, it doesn’t matter if there’s actual food coming your baby’s way – it may be the familiar situation that helps them fall asleep, and they can become dependent on it.

Here are a few indicators to help determine if those nighttime wake-ups are from hunger or lack of independent sleep skills:

• Does baby only take a small amount when they feed at 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 nighttime feed?

If you answered yes to most of those, your baby is probably “feeding as a sleep strategy” and could benefit from learning some independent sleep skills. This doesn’t mean that you can’t breastfeed on demand, just that you’ll have to reassess when baby’s demanding food and when they’re looking for help falling asleep.

To answer the question at the start of this post, there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t breastfeed and sleep train.

If you need a little help navigating through the tricky process of teaching your baby to sleep through the night, I’ve got you covered.