Monday, 13 April 2015

Will formula help my baby sleep?

If you are the breastfeeding mum of a baby who wakes at night it won't be long before someone suggests that switching to formula, or formula at bedtime, would help. Unfortunately many mums who enjoyed breastfeeding do stop in the hope of improved sleep, but usually find it makes no difference. So, is there any truth in the myth?


Formula milk is digested more slowly than breast milk so in the very early days a formula fed baby might sleep a little longer between feeds. That phase doesn't last very long though and waking in older babies is more likely to have other causes.

What if my baby is hungry?

An older baby who is genuinely waking from hunger in the night might not be getting the milk they need during the day. In this case they do need more milk, but breast milk will help as much as formula would. Try taking a few days to rest as much as you can, eat well, stay hydrated and feed the baby as often and for as long as you can during the day, or express extra milk between feeds. This
should boost your milk supply and reassure you that hunger is not the problem. If your baby is old enough to eat solids, make sure you are offering as much food as he wants and not restricting meal sizes.

If a baby wakes they need to be fed, right?

Frequent night waking is not normally due to hunger. Many mothers are happy to feed their baby once or twice during the night, just not every half an hour! If that is your aim it is a perfectly good one and you can encourage your baby to sleep well in between feeds without giving up breastfeeding. When the baby is sleeping well between feeds you should find that feeds are dropped naturally when they are no longer needed.

The problem is most likely to be with the way your baby falls asleep. If they always fall asleep while at the breast (or being rocked, or whatever it is you do to get them to sleep) then the baby will expect to be at the breast whenever they come into a light sleep or need to resettle. Imagine falling asleep in your bed and waking up on the kitchen floor, you wouldn't be able to go back to sleep until you went back to bed. The same is true for a baby. They fall asleep sucking at the breast, in dim light, held in arms. These are the things they associate with sleep. So they are surprised to wake in a bed in the dark and cry out to have "normality" restored.

The solution is to teach your baby the sleep associations you want them to have. For most people this will be sleeping in a bed, without any artificial aids. Even things like music should be avoided unless you want to have it playing all night, and remember to take it with you when you travel. There are lots of ways to help your baby form new sleep habits, and different methods suit different babies and families.

Can I do anything else?

If your baby is sleeping well between feeds there are some things you can do to get more rest while you wait for them to be ready to sleep through the night. Bed sharing isn't for everyone, but if it appeals to your family it can be a good way to get more rest, since you may find you feed your newborn without ever really waking up at all! You do need to make sure the bed is safe for your baby, see here for how to do it. If you like having your own sleep space, or worry that your bed isn't safe for some reason, then a sidecar or co-sleeper crib is the next best thing.

For some families bed sharing and co-sleepers are not the right choice. If you want to keep your little one in his own cot or Moses basket but just want a night off occasionally it can be done. Even if you don't use bottles someone else (like Daddy, Grandma or even a night nanny) can do most of the night time work, bringing your baby to you so you can feed him in bed but doing nappy changes, settling and any other care he might need. Let whoever is doing night shift know that they shouldn't turn on bright lights or start conversations when they bring the baby to you, the idea is that you feed your little one while half asleep and then drift off, knowing baby is in good hands.

Need help?

If you need some personalised help with sleep, feeding, routine or any other aspect of newborn care please get in touch, I'll be happy to help. And for more information on sleep, have a look at my free video.