BONUS MATERIAL: Watch my FREE sleep masterclass where I will show you how to get your little one consistently sleeping 11-12 hours at night and napping like a champ (even if you feel like you’ve tried everything).
If I had a nickel for how many times new parents in the throws of sleep deprivation ask me if formula fed babies get longer stretches of sleep, I’d be swimming in a pool FULL of nickels.
There seems to be a very common belief that:
- breastfeeding automatically leads to less sleep;
- bottle-fed babies are naturally better sleepers; and
- offering your baby formula is the secret sauce you need to get a champion sleeper.
Some moms have even expressed fears about feeling the need to choose between breastfeeding and sleep training. And that breaks my heart!
Because here’s what I want to scream from the rooftops:
- Formula fed babies (past the newborn stage) do NOT naturally sleep longer.
- You do NOT need to give up breastfeeding for sleep training to work.
- Your baby does NOT need to take a bottle to develop solid sleep habits.
In this blog post, I’m delving into the nuances of this topic. I’m discussing when a bottle of formula *sometimes temporarily* helps with longer stretches of sleep, why breastfeeding babies can still learn to sleep through the night, as well as what ACTUALLY helps ALL healthy babies stay asleep longer.
Understanding infant sleep patterns
Before exploring the potential impact of formula feeding on a baby’s sleep, it’s essential to understand the natural sleep patterns of infants.
Newborns in those first few weeks typically sleep for short periods, ranging from 2 to 4 hours at a time. As they grow, their sleep-wake cycles consolidate, allowing for longer stretches of sleep. However, even as infants progress through different developmental stages, it’s important to recognize that variations in sleep duration are entirely normal.
Even though a newborn’s need to eat at night is a sizable factor contributing to their night-wakings, their sleep patterns become multifaceted as they get older. At this point, nutrition no longer plays the most important role contributing to their night-wakings.
Rather, *various* important factors now contribute to a baby’s sleep patterns. Some of these include:
- sleep habits;
- routines; and
- developmental milestones.
It’s crucial to approach the question of improving sleep with a holistic perspective, looking at ALL contributing factors.
Before I go on…
I want to emphasize my strong advocacy for the “Fed is Best” philosophy. Both breastfeeding and bottle feeding are respectable choices. Whichever path you choose, the most important thing to remember is that both options are wonderful and will keep your baby well-fed and healthy. How you choose to feed your baby will NOT hinder your efforts to establish solid sleep habits for your little one.
For those dedicated to breastfeeding, there’s no need to compromise the success you’ve achieved in order to get your baby sleeping longer periods.
But first- why do newborn babies who are formula-fed sleep longer?
So the early weeks of a baby’s life are probably where many of the myths and misunderstandings around infant formula and sleep come from. The reality is that certain factors associated with formula feeding may contribute to longer stretches of sleep *in this newborn stage*.
The composition of formula
One key element is the composition of formula itself.
Studies suggest that formula tends to have a higher protein content than breast milk. And protein is known to be a satisfying nutrient that can help keep babies feeling fuller for a more extended period. Consequently, formula-fed newborn babies may experience longer gaps between feedings, contributing to more extended sleep stretches.
Newborn growth spurts
The other factor to consider about formula-fed newborn babies versus breastfed babies is how their sleep plays out when experiencing a growth spurt.
See, the breastfeeding relationship works on a “demand-supply” basis. Meaning, when a baby’s appetite increases, he naturally breastfeeds more. And this increased demand signals to the mom’s body to increase her milk supply.
Except that mom’s milk supply doesn’t usually increase immediately. It can take 12-48 hours for her milk supply to catch up to her baby’s increased appetite as he goes through this growth spurt. Until her milk supply catches up, this baby is likely going to require frequent feedings…and not sleep very much.
And remember…growth spurts in the newborn stage happen VERY frequently!
On the other hand, when a bottle-fed baby experiences a growth spurt, the parent simply needs to prepare a bigger bottle for their baby. That’s all! This is why formula fed newborn babies can sleep longer stretches despite experiencing growth spurts.
Why formula doesn’t help with sleep after the newborn stage
As babies transition from the newborn stage to smaller and older infants, their stomach size expands. This enables them to take in extra calories during daylight hours. This growth in stomach capacity diminishes the significance of any potential advantage formula might have in terms of slower digestion and managing growth spurts.
Do formula-fed babies go longer between feeds?
The short answer is yes. Bottle-fed babies can go longer between DAYTIME feeds. But keep reading…
See, a formula-fed baby is typically able to consume more calories in each feed than a breastfed baby can. This is because breastfeeding is usually more work for the baby than it is to drink from a bottle.
This doesn’t mean a breastfeeding baby can’t match the daytime calorie intake of a bottle-fed baby. It simply means that, when breastfeeding is established, breastfeeding babies may need to feed more frequently during the day than bottle feeding babies.
For example, a typical exclusively breastfeeding infant usually needs to eat every 2-3 hours during the day. A bottle-fed baby, on the other hand, can usually go 3-3.5 hours between bottles…sometimes 4 hours.
But when breastfeeding is established, both breastfeeding and bottle feeding babies can consume the same amount of calories during the day. Once your baby has graduated the newborn stage, he CAN ingest enough calories during the day to sleep longer stretches of sleep at night, just like his formula-feeding friends!
So giving my older baby formula won’t automatically help him sleep longer?
When we’re talking about older babies who have graduated the fourth trimester and are at least 3-4 months of age, things change.
By this stage, formula-fed babies do NOT automatically give you longer stretches of sleep. And breastfeeding will NOT automatically get you shorter stretches of sleep.
This is because, by this stage, getting longer stretches of sleep becomes MUCH more multi-faceted. It’s no longer simply a matter of tanking your baby up with a big feed before bedtime. There are other factors we need to address that have NOTHING to do with nutrition.
What helps babies stay asleep longer?
Falling asleep by themselves
If your baby doesn’t know how to fall asleep by themselves, this can cause TONS of unnecessary nightwakings. After your baby goes through the 4 month regression, they experience a permanent neurological change to their sleep patterns. Now, they’re cycling in and out of deep and light sleep.
So at the end of a 45-minute infant sleep cycle, there’s a good chance your baby will wake up and need your help falling BACK asleep.
This is why breastfeeding and breastfeeding *to sleep* are two very different things.
It doesn’t matter if your baby is breastfeeding to sleep, bottle-feeding to sleep, getting patted to sleep, or relying on something else to fall asleep. These are ALL examples of sleep associations that can cause your baby to fight sleep, wake frequently, and give you short naps.
As a result:
- replacing your breastfeeding-to-sleep habit with bottle-feeding your baby to sleep WON’T help your baby sleep longer;
- you CAN breastfeed your baby as long as you want AND teach him how to sleep by himself; and
- bottles of formula DON’T contain a magical sleepy potion to help breastfed babies sleep longer.
If you need any proof of this, I’ll happily share with you that approximately 50% of the families who work with me have formula fed babies or young children who rely on the bottle to fall asleep. These parents might even be MORE exhausted because they have to get up and prepare a bottle, which takes much longer.
Don’t find yourself jumping from the fire into the frying pan. Instead, work on moving your baby’s feeds AWAY from bedtime. This way, your baby can learn to fall asleep without eating…and on their own!
**And if you need some help figuring out how in the world to do that, watch my free masterclass below!**
An age-appropriate daytime schedule
As I’ve always said- what goes on during the day directly impacts what happens at night. And if your little one isn’t napping well during the day, he’ll likely become overtired.
And guess what happens when your baby becomes overtired? That’s right- he won’t sleep well.
In fact, overtiredness can cause every sleep problem out there- difficulty falling asleep, night-wakings, early rising, and short naps. It’s not fun!
The solution to an overtired baby has NOTHING to do with whether they are breastfeeding or bottle-feeding. Rather, it involves ensuring your baby has an age-appropriate daytime schedule with properly timed naps and wake windows. This is crucial!
**If you’re wracking your brain trying to figure out a proper schedule for your baby, grab a copy of my FREE sleep chart that has all my suggested wake windows, sleep totals, and nap totals for babies and children ages 0-5!**
But how do I get longer stretches of sleep at night if my baby is HUNGRY?
Your baby is likely reverse cycling
I get it.
You have an otherwise healthy 5 month-old baby who’s growing well and meeting their milestones. You KNOW she doesn’t need to eat more than once a night at this point- your doctor said so himself!
Or maybe you know your healthy 11 month-old REALLY doesn’t need ANY night feeds anymore.
In theory, that’s wonderful.
Except that your baby wakes up multiple times a night STARVING, taking down full feeds! She chugs that 7-ounce bottle as though she’s never seen food before.
So then you’re thinking “What am I supposed to do? Let her starve?”
I want you to know that I agree with you! If your baby is used to consuming TONS of calories at night, we can’t simply take those calories away cold turkey- even if she doesn’t need them.
Rather, the solution is to decrease the size of the unnecessary night feedings *gradually*.
See, your baby is likely experiencing what’s known as “reverse cycling”. This describes a very common scenario where your baby is eating more at night time than necessary, leading to smaller daytime feeds, which then leads to bigger night feeds. And the cycle continues.
Sort of like this…
Medically there’s no problem here. Your baby is probably gaining weight beautifully, leaving your healthcare provider with no concerns. But from a sleep standpoint, you’re losing your mind!
How to fix a reverse eating cycle
Don’t worry, we can break this cycle by gradually decreasing the nighttime feedings in order to simultaneously up the daytime feedings. Even though your baby IS hungry at night, it doesn’t mean he NEEDS to be hungry at night. This is fixable!
Wouldn’t it be a dream for your little one to be waking up once to eat, or not at all?
I want you to know that this is doable! But it’s going to be a LOT harder to get you there when you try removing all these feeds cold turkey.
And trying to break the cycle by first getting your little one to eat more during the day won’t help either.
After all, your little one IS getting all the calories he needs over a 24-hour period. He’s simply eating more at night than necessary.
This is why you want to break this cycle by gradually decreasing the size of your little one’s night feeds each night. This way, you can transfer some (or all) of those nighttime calories to the daytime.
And don’t worry if you’re breastfeeding. You can decrease the length of these feeds instead of tracking the actual size.
Will my milk supply decrease when my breastfed baby sleeps longer stretches?
If breastfeeding has been going well with no milk supply issues, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about. Your baby will naturally breastfeed more during the day to compensate for the calories she’s no longer getting at night. As your baby demands more milk during the day, your body will adjust to this increased demand and begin producing more milk during those daytime hours.
And for the record, if you HAVE had struggles with your milk supply, it likely doesn’t mean your 5 month-old needs to breastfeed every 2 hours at night. It might simply mean he eats twice a night instead of once.
That being said, always consult with your lactation consultant for further guidance.