Will formula help my baby sleep?

This is a guest post from Lorna Clark of Greatvine, a website with expert advice for parents.  For further details about guest posts please contact me and have a quick look at my disclosure policy.   

Sleep deprivation is tough for everyone and if your little one wakes several times a night you can soon find yourself desperate for answers. Parents of breastfed babies sometimes wonder if switching to formula, or formula at bedtime, would get them a good night's sleep.

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. Having said that, after the first few weeks breastfed babies can sleep just as well, and many formula fed babies have trouble sleeping all night. I believe that mums should be supported in achieving their feeding choices, whatever those are, and there are many reasons why you might choose to use formula. Having said that, breastfeeding is great for you and your baby and I always feel very sad when I speak to a mum who has given up breastfeeding (even though she wanted to continue) just because she hoped her baby would sleep better. Please do seek advice regarding breastfeeding problems if you’re in this situation.

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 formula might help, but so would more breast milk. 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.

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.

For personalised advice for your family contact Lorna at Greatvine.

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