You don’t have to be a health expert to know that when it comes to baby feeding, breastfeeding is the best option for most babies. Besides usually being less expensive than buying formula (aside from your time, of course!), breastfeeding provides a whole host of health benefits to both mom and baby. But let’s be honest — if you have a baby who’s still waking frequently at night, the benefits of breastfeeding are probably among the last things you’re thinking about during those middle-of-the-night feedings! Instead, you’re probably thinking about how tired you are, and wondering how on earth you can get your baby to start sleeping more at night. You may be even feeling like you’re a worse parent because of it.
Some breastfeeding moms may find themselves wondering if formula is the solution to their problems. They wonder if adding a bit of formula to their baby’s diet might encourage sleep. And a few particularly exhausted moms may toy with the idea of switching to formula altogether as the solution to their babies’ night waking. Nicole remembers being told that her son was waking at night because “Breastfeeding isn’t enough.”
Will Adding or Switching to Formula Help Baby Sleep?
We can answer this question in two words: probably not. If you’re breastfeeding and having issues with your milk production, and if your baby isn’t getting enough to eat as a result, then formula may help your baby sleep better, simply because it would give her the nourishment that she isn’t getting from nursing. However, this isn’t a problem for most nursing moms. In fact, oftentimes, when moms think they’re experiencing low milk production, they actually aren’t. If your baby is nursing just fine, then adding a bottle of formula in here and there, or switching to formula altogether, isn’t likely to help her sleep any better.
The logic behind assuming formula will help baby sleep is easy to trace. Formula takes longer for a baby’s system to digest than breastmilk. For this reason, formula-fed babies tend to need fewer feedings per day than do breastfed babies. What’s more, babies tend to drink more from a bottle than they do from a breast. Add all of this together, and it’s easy to assume that formula-fed babies must sleep far better than breastfed babies since they won’t wake as much from hunger. The truth is, baby sleep isn’t as straightforward as that. This line of thinking assumes that the only reason a baby wakes at night is out of hunger. That’s simply NOT the case.
This excerpt from our article “Will Starting Solids Help Baby Sleep?” explains why the causes of a baby’s night waking can be complicated:
“But (as any parent who’s cross-eyed with exhaustion can tell you) hunger isn’t the only reason a baby wakes at night — far from it. Many babies sleep poorly at night due to sleep associations, or perhaps because they’re experiencing a sleep regression. In these cases, hunger has nothing to do with a baby’s night waking.
Keep in mind too that as babies grow, they need fewer and fewer nighttime feeds. By 4 months, most babies need 1-3 nighttime feedings. By 6 months, (the earliest age that experts recommend starting solids), that number drops to 1-2. Keep in mind, this is provided your baby is receiving all of their necessary daytime calories! So if your baby is waking frequently during the night, the problem probably isn’t hunger (or at least, it’s not just hunger). And that’s why there’s no actual link between feeding your baby solids and having him sleep better. If he isn’t sleeping well, it’s probably because he’s formed bad sleep habits, not because he’s constantly hungry.”
Of course, this article references solids, but the same principles hold true for formula. There’s no real link between adding/switching to formula and having your baby sleep better, simply because hunger isn’t the only reason a baby wakes at night. Our client base alone is proof of this, since our Helpdesk contains accounts for both breastfeeding, formula, and mixed feeding babies alike.
And here’s an interesting side note: even if formula helped your baby sleep a little better, your own sleep might not benefit at all. A 2010 study revealed that breastfeeding and bottle feeding moms get the same amount of sleep. Time magazine summarized the findings this way:
“It’s true that formula takes babies longer to digest, while breast milk is processed fully and quickly because of its composition. But even if bottle-fed babies are sleeping longer, their moms are not, say the researchers.”
So even if adding or switching to formula helped your baby sleep a little better (and odds are it won’t), research suggests that it wouldn’t do anything at all for your sleep. After all, a parent getting up at 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. is waking twice just like a parent waking at 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.
Should You Switch to Formula?
Some breastfeeding moms reach a point of desperation and begin wondering if weaning their babies completely to formula is the solution for a better night’s sleep. This isn’t a strategy that we recommend. Instead, we recommend that you continue nursing and begin to work on establishing good, healthy sleep habits with your baby.
Another side note: other breastfeeding moms may consider making the switch to formula for a different reason — they may be feeling pressure to switch because their babies aren’t gaining weight “properly”, or maybe even because a pediatrician has started using the “failure to thrive” label when discussing their babies’ growth. This can be scary for moms. On the one hand, they want to breastfeed, but on the other hand, they fear their baby isn’t getting enough nourishment. If you’re in this position, you may be wondering, “Should I just give up nursing and switch to formula?”
Before you take that step, consider Diana’s story. She was exclusively breastfeeding her daughter Bella, even though multiple doctors and nurses tried to convince her to switch to formula due to Bella’s small size and “failure” to gain weight. Despite all the pressure, Diana continued to breastfeed and searched for other ways to explain and treat Bella’s “condition”. Diana shares that Bella endured countless medical tests, and that she and her husband spent thousands of dollars searching for answers. And then something unexpected happened:
“Today we went in for our last appointment at Children’s. The doctor was pleased to see Bella gaining weight and doing so well. He turned the computer to show me the curve she was on, and how she was still under the 10th percentile but very healthy as all the tests had come back normal. And then?
He pulled up another screen. “And this is the WHO (World Health Organization) chart for breastfed girls/boys, we’ve just recently started using it. So as you can see, compared to other strictly breastfed babies, Bella is in the 50th percentile for height/weight. Which is right on target. It looks like you guys are good to go.
All the months we spent worrying about her weight – when probably for at least the past five months or so she’s been fine. Right where she should have been as a breastfed infant. She never had to go through most of those horrible tests.”
If you’re considering switching to formula out of concern for your baby’s growth and development, consider consulting the WHO chart and asking your doctor to look it over with you.
Should You Supplement With Formula?
Other breastfeeding moms want to continue nursing but wonder about “topping off” with a bottle of formula sometimes (like right before baby goes to bed for the night). It’s perfectly fine to combine formula feeding and breastfeeding if you are okay with it. You can even mix powdered formula with breastmilk. Keep in mind that any amount of breastfeeding is beneficial for your baby.
That said, there are three things to be aware of when you “top off” with formula.
- If you regularly offer bottles of formula while nursing, it may affect your milk supply, since nursing is a “supply and demand” process. Your baby will need less breastmilk if he regularly gets a bottle of formula each day, which will lead to a drop in supply.
- If your baby is a newborn, switching back and forth between breast and bottle can cause nipple confusion which is when your baby may become frustrated at the breast when they go back and forth between breast and bottle. Consider waiting to offer any formula until nursing is well-established (usually in the first 4 – 6 weeks). At that point, nipple confusion shouldn’t be a concern.
- Remember that formula is harder to digest than breastmilk and contains ingredients that your baby may not yet be able to digest easily. This means that formula can lead to digestive issues, like gas and constipation. And those digestive issues can make your baby’s already-problematic nighttime sleep even worse!
Change the Sleeping Habits, Not the Food Source!
While there are a few families we’ve come across who notice a marked improvement in sleep after night weaning, ultimately, changing your baby’s food source probably won’t help him sleep any better. Don’t let that discourage you, though! Even though the solution to your baby’s sleep issues might not be as straightforward and simple as adding or switching to formula, rest assured that there is a solution. And we can help you find it! Why not try a personalized, one-on-one consultation with one of our expert sleep consultants? Check out our one-on-one sleep support options here.