Sleepless, exhausted parents will do just about anything to get a few more hours (or maybe even a few more minutes!) of sleep each night. And as followers of this site know, there’s no shortage of advice out there on how to do just this. Everyone from your grandmother to your next-door neighbor has probably offered you advice that’s “guaranteed” to get your baby sleeping well.
Here’s a piece of advice many tired parents have heard at some point: “Just start feeding him rice cereal, and he’ll sleep all night long!” Sound familiar? I’m betting it does.
So is there any truth to this? Can starting solids really help your baby sleep longer and better? Let’s investigate.
Will Starting Solids Help Baby Sleep?
Short answer: probably not. There’s no evidence that starting solids helps a baby sleep any better than she did before. In fact, a 2010 study suggests that starting solids before the age of 4 months may actually disrupt sleeping! This study revealed that babies who began eating cereal before 4 months of age slept half an hour less each day than infants who weren’t eating cereal.
Keep in mind that the recommended age for starting solids has changed in the past few years. Now, the American Academy of Pediatrics (along with many other health organizations) recommends starting solids closer to 6 months of age. Researchers have found that waiting to begin solids until 6 months protects babies from a whole host of complications. This can include illnesses, food allergies, iron deficiency, and future obesity.
The logic behind the assumption that starting solids will improve sleep is easy to trace. It seems to make sense that offering your baby a big dish of rice cereal will fill her up and keep her full all night long. And if she’s full, she won’t wake up in the middle of the night crying, right? Perfect! Cereal = 10 straight hours of sleep. Problem solved.
If only the equation for a good night’s sleep were as simple as that!
It’s not, though. Not exactly. It’s true that hunger is one reason babies wake up during the night and cry. This is especially true for newborns, who need to eat at least every 3 hours. So if the only reason your baby is waking at night is that he’s hungry, then starting solids will likely help improve his sleep and get him sleeping for longer stretches at night.
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.) 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.
Picture it this way… Imagine that you have a terrible cold, and your sniffling and sneezing wakes both you and your partner a few times every night. Now, imagine that after three or four sleepless nights, your partner proposes a solution. He (or she) thinks that if you’d just eat two helpings of everything at dinner, you’d be nice and full before bed, and that would surely help you sleep all night long. Wouldn’t work, would it? Because your problem isn’t hunger, it’s illness. You don’t need food, you need medicine or for your body to recover from your illness.
As parents and caregivers, our goal is to uncover our babies’ actual sleep problems and then offer the right solutions. That may mean different things to different families, and that is okay too! We’re here to help no matter where you’re at!