For many new moms, the myth of the sleeping baby is exactly that. A myth. While some moms will do anything it takes to sleep even with a baby other parents find themselves navigating what I’ve come to believe is an old wives tale of formula-fed babies sleeping longer than their breastfed babies after nighttime feedings.
Did you hear that formula-fed babies sleep longer? Is it true that formula-fed babies sleep longer than breastfed babies?
And if so, does that mean formula-fed babies sleep longer at night? For many parents of formula-fed babies, it certainly seems like they sleep longer than breastfed infants.
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But is there data that supports this theory or is it all, truly, an old wives tale?
If you’ve recently had a baby, you probably have a lot of questions about if formula-fed infants- sleep better than their breast-fed counterparts. I totally get it.
In fact, I actually find this entire topic rather triggering to a time when I was a new mom, with a new baby in that dreaded 4th trimester when the sleep deprivation was at its absolute peak and no amount of googling or calls to my pediatrician could help me figure out the magic of those early weeks with my first baby.
My brother and his wife had their first baby shortly after we did. And unlike my troubles with breastfeeding , it came easy to my sister-in-law.
But also unlike us, sleep did not come easy for my niece and later my nephew. I vividly remember a phone call with my brother where he swore up and down that formula-fed babies “just sleep better than breastfed babies” and that’s why we’d never had any trouble with it.
Partly because I’d worked so hard to figure out the magic of sleep and trust my baby’s instincts with the pause, read all the books, and dedicated a lot of time and effort to make sure both my babies could sleep. Surely, the fact that I gave them formula couldn’t be the real reason they were good sleepers.
Or Was it?
Was my baby sleeping for longer stretches of time because their bellies were “full” like the old wives tale suggests?
Or was it something else I was doing as a new mom (maybe practicing the pause) from my favorite baby book by Pamela Druckerman.
I needed to know if it was true. Does a breastfed baby sleep less in the early days?
Does a formula-fed baby have longer stretches of sleep because of some magical sleep-inducing ingredient in the formula.
And now, with countrywide formula shortages, this topic seems ripe to unpack and get to the bottom of.
So let’s get into it.
The Importance of Baby Sleep
Sleep is absolutely essential for normal growth, development, and just functioning in general – it’s a no brainer.
However, a big problem for first-time parents is figuring out that magical recipe for getting those longer stretches to happen during your baby’s first months of life.
Many of my breastfeeding friends chose to co-sleep, even though there is a higher risk of sudden infant death syndrome, for the ease of being able to offer night feeds.
For us, the risk of SIDS was a bit too much stress, PLUS I am and have always been such a light sleeper – that I knew sleeping with my baby wasn’t gonna fly so we needed to figure out this sleep thing and stat.
If you’re new to my blog, then it’s important to know that breastfeeding didn’t work as well for me as it was sold to me. I struggled, a lot, and at the end of the day, I chose to exclusively formula feed out of necessity (spoiler alert my baby was starving).
As a fearless formula feeder, I have been in the parent groups, Facebook groups, and meet-ups where formula feeding moms share the highs and lows of parenthood but without the unintentional shaming that often comes from many well-intended breastfeeding moms.
And I can promise ya’ll, formula-fed babies struggle with their sleep just as much as a breastfed ones. At least anecdotally. But because how and why a baby sleeps isn’t a one size fits all question to answer, I wanted to learn a bit more about what is actually happening here.
Breast Milk vs Formula- What’s the Difference?
If you’re a new parent, you will inevitably have to get into the breast milk vs formula milk debate at one point or the other- and if you haven’t already, well, then, this is it!
Understanding the differences and similarities between breast and formula milk can help determine the factors specifically affecting your baby’s sleep cycle.
Hence, they are both almost equally nutritious and designed to meet your baby’s needs.
Formula milk aims to imitate the qualities of breast milk and is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA sets the criteria for nutrient inclusion in commercial infant formulas as seen by the recent back lash of the FDA’s whistleblower into Abbot formula plant’s recall recently.
A major and perhaps perceptible difference is that breast milk is relatively thin and less viscous compared to formula milk, plus it can be in different colors depending on the mother’s diet.
Unfortunately, although science has significantly improved what you’re putting into your bottle of formula, no amount of industrial-made formula can replace certain hormones, antibodies, or cells that are available in breast milk.
Why Do Babies Wake Up at Night?
Newborn babies cycle through a variety of sleep cycles depending on a number of factors.
Your baby will probably wake up regardless of what they eat, though the frequency can vary. Infants usually wake up at least 2-3 times during the night no matter what infant feeding method you’re using. And the problem is not really always hunger.
If you’re’ trying to survive the fourth trimester you’re going to want to understand the reason your baby is crying – a handy video is linked in that post to give you a sense of why your baby might be waking up in the middle of the night and (spoiler alerrt) it might not always be because of not having enough milk.
In fact, some babies wake up because they’re gassy, they are going through a variety of developmental and physical growth spurts, or they just might need some additional contact especially as a newborn.
Sometimes things like teething, digestive problems, etc. can also keep your baby up at night.
With my firstborn breastfed baby we were dealing with massive acid reflux and then a period of severe jaundice where he was made to sleep in a billiruben light 24 hours a day. At the time I didn’t realize how serious it was – because he was sleeping really well.
But I since later learned he was in survival mode sleeping those long stretches.
It wasn’t because he was getting enough food, but rather, that he was starving and his body was shutting down (because of the aforementioned — I was unintentionally starving my baby by trying to breastfeed exclusively — problem).
Once we began to feed him infant formula he actually started sleeping less at first, wanting to eat, wanting to finally feel full, but then eventually he started sleeping for longer periods again.
Still, hunger can be a major problem as well. Furthermore, transitions in your baby’s sleep habits can also make it difficult for your child to go back to sleep. And of course, no two babies are the same, and thus, the same logic cannot be applied to everyone.
Nevertheless, babies will wake up several times during the night, no matter what they’re fed.
Do Formula Fed Babies Sleep Longer at Night?
Sometimes, yes? Sometimes, no.
There is a school of thought that suggests that formula-fed babies sleep for longer periods of time at night because of the “heaviness” of the formula. That they are more full than their breastfed counterparts. These are common misconceptions.
Some breastfeeding moms might even add solid food such as powdered oatmeal into their babies breast milk bottles.
There’s a lot more to sleep than simply feeding your baby a certain diet.
Therefore, you can’t really know for sure if your baby is sleeping longer due to formula feeding or some other reason. I may never know why I had two good sleepers (although I definitely put a lot of my DGAF energy into figuring out that puzzle!).
The present literature is somewhat conflicting, and there isn’t any direct or conclusive answer to the question, ‘do formula-fed babies sleep longer at night?’.
Nevertheless, some studies claim that since melatonin is the hormone associated with sleep and formula milk does not have melatonin.
So, by theory breastfed babies should have better sleep. But there was no conclusive evidence found in this regard.
Furthermore, breast milk is theoretically meant to be digested much faster than formula – due to higher water content, and whey. Formula contains casein which is believed to digest slower than formula – which means that your baby will get hungry quicker than they would otherwise.
Why Do Formula Fed Babies Sleep Longer?
I hate to be the one to tell you something you probably already know – there isn’t enough evidence to suggest (yet) why some formula-fed babies sleep longer than breastfed ones. There just isn’t.
When it comes to why formula-fed babies sleep longer, the most plausible explanation is that breast milk is not as filling as formula milk.
Therefore, some babies who rely on breast milk tend to get hungrier faster and so, will wake up in the middle of the night to feed.
Plus, breast milk is also digested more quickly which again means the baby MIGHT get hungrier sooner.
But the truth is, most studies conclude that there is no real difference between the sleeping patterns of formula-fed and breastfed babies, and if there does exist such a disparity, it is either coincidental or negligible or anecdotal.
But What About Combo Feeding?
If you want the convenience of formula and also have a baby who will happily switch back and forth, then lucky you! As per research, there isn’t any specific effect due to hybrid feeding or combo feeding baby, either but it does ensure that your baby gets a wide variety of food source nutrition they need to grow and develop normally. As previously discussed, babies will probably wake up during the night regardless of their diet but that doesn’t mean that diet is not an integral factor.
In fact, diet is the most essential factor in your child’s growth. So, there is absolutely nothing wrong with combo feeding, and it can even be a great technique to help your baby switch to formula milk instead of breast milk.
Tips for Improving Your Baby’s Sleep
Like most parents, if you’re concerned about your baby’s sleep, you should know that their diet isn’t the only factor involved in affecting their sleep cycle.
So, if you think your baby always wakes up in the middle of the night because they’re hungry, it’s possible – but you need to be sure you’re trying other things as well.
There are several factors that you can control to make sure your baby gets a good night’s sleep. Apart from the type of milk they consume, you can help your baby sleep peacefully by following certain principles, such as:
· Keeping the room dark and cool (these blackout curtains are fantastic)
· Blocking out noise (using this white noise machine is awesome)
· Defining a sleep schedule and sticking to it – variations on an infant’s bedtime routine after about the first month can really impact their sleeping.
· Setting a specific time to get up – I’m a believer in letting baby sleep – but also keeping baby on a routine does help ensure that they get enough sleep.
· Monitoring their sleep or wake patterns is important to keep track of significant differences and try to figure out what might help or change.
When in doubt practice the pause which simply put, is waiting 2 – 5 minutes when a baby wakes in the middle of the night to see if baby is just connecting a sleep cycle, or if baby actually needs you. Don’t rush to pull out the formula and quiet the baby …sometimes if you wait long enough you actually will help your baby connect their sleep cycles and then everyone sleeps!
(5 minutes is not a lot of time, friend. You can set a timer. )
Read more about the pause here at my friend Busy Blooming Joy.
Choosing Between Formula vs Breast Milk
Breast milk and formula milk have their own benefits and it’s hard to declare one better than the other on all grounds, though we have people advocating for both. Breastfeeding supporters claim that breast milk is natural and has just the right nutrition for your baby.
The slight difference in sleep quality of formula-fed versus breastfed babies, if it even exists, is not worth stressing over.
Maternal sleeping patterns are also not very drastically affected by this choice. Ultimately, you should just follow the guidelines set by the WHO, the CDC, the American academy of pediatrics, and feed your baby whatever works for your family.
But if you’re still having a hard time taking this decision, I highly recommend speaking to a baby sleep specialist and consulting with your pediatrician.
Feeding your child is a serious matter and while both breast milk and formula milk are generally accepted, the debate about which is better is still ongoing.
There is no scientific data to suggest that a formula-fed baby is gonna sleep longer than a breastfed baby and vice versa. And it makes sense because if formula milk is essentially just the same as breast milk, how can we expect it to be magically drastically different in any regard, let alone sleep! What you choose to feed your baby just depends on you.