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Does the way we feed our babies impact how well they sleep? The answer may surprise you.

Ever since my daughter was born, I've had strangers come up to me at random and comment on the way I feed my child. Are you breastfeeding her? one person asked me while running past me on the jogging trail, motioning to her own breasts and mine as though I couldn't fully understand what she was saying without the visual. 

Usually I don't answer or tell the whole truth when people ask that all-too-common question, because I don't assume that these strangers have at least 15 minutes to sit down with me and hear about why I stopped breastfeeding when my baby was one month old. I won't bore you with that monologue either (at least not for now) because we have more important stuff to talk about. Today, I want to discuss how my choice to stop breastfeeding affected my child's sleep habits.

The answer? Not at all.

People tend to think formula fed babies sleep through the night faster, and I actually thought the same thing until I met Nikou, my business partner at The Baby Sleep Academy. Nikou breastfed both of her babies, both of whom were sleeping through the night by 4 months old.

I recently wrote an article about my experience with baby sleep for Wear + Where + Well. I was less than surprised when a few folks assumed my baby was only sleeping because she was formula fed, and one group even shared my post as a warning of what advice not to take if you've chosen to breastfeed. I didn't feel like I could debunk the comments myself since I did, in fact, stop breastfeeding early, so I decided to interview Nikou and hear a few of her thoughts on why breastfed babies can sleep well, too. Check out our conversation below:

Laura: As sleep consultants, we hear a lot of folks talk about how sleeping and breastfeeding don't mix. You breastfed both of your children, who were both sleeping through the night by 4 months old. How did you do it?

Nikou: Once our pediatrician confirmed that our first child was at the proper age and weight to sleep through the night without feedings, we did the gradual cry it out method to have him sleep through the night. I nursed during the bedtime routine and again in the morning. With our second child, because we became more educated on how to instill healthy sleep habits from the start, we never needed to sleep train him. Again, we would nurse during the bedtime routine and again when he woke up in the morning.

Laura: Is it easier for formula fed babies to sleep through the night initially? 

Nikou: According to Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Dr. Marc Weisbluth: At night, breast fed babies are often fed more frequently than formula-fed babies, but it is not known whether this is caused by the breast-feeding mother responding more promptly to her baby’s quiet sounds or whether breast milk digestion causes the baby to wake up more often. In general, research has shown that sleep/wake rhythms evolve at the same pace whether the baby is breast-fed, formula-fed, demand-fed, or schedule-fed. Some babies with a birth defect of the digestive system are fed continuously by vein or tube in the stomach. Because of the constant feeding, they are never hungry. These babies develop the same sleep/wake rhythms as all other babies. This is why I tell parents that “Sleep comes from the brain, not the stomach.”

Laura: Would you ever encourage a parent under any circumstance to change their feeding habits to get their child sleeping through the night?

Nikou: No, never. You can continue to breastfeed or bottle feed while sleep training your child.

Laura: There's a lot of misinformation out there. What would you encourage breastfeeding parents to understand about baby sleep?

Nikou: I always say that sleep is the second lesson you can teach your child, following feeding. It’s one of many lessons that you will teach your child (yes, it’s taught) and it will affect them for their lifetime. Healthy sleep habits make healthy children. Sleep is crucial to brain development. Healthy sleep habits make healthy children - Research shows that fragmented sleep and an overall shortened sleep duration before 3.5 years old is associated with lower cognitive performance, hyperactivity-impulsivity (ADHD), and impaired neurological development. People will often say—it’s just a phase, they’ll grow out of it! They usually do not.Research shows that 84% of children who struggle with sleep will continue to do so until at least 5 yrs old. The only reason the research doesn’t show that it lasts into adulthood is because a study has not yet been undertaken to track sleep information for longer than 5 yrs. Also, sleep is vital for a successful career and a successful family life.

Laura: Would you say that getting good sleep is, in some ways, more important for breastfeeding mamas and their babies? How have you helped some breastfeeding parents look at sleep differently?

Nikou: I will NEVER say that sleep is more important than breastfeeding. Feeding methods and sleep are two very different topics and do not relate. How a mother feeds their child is their personal decision, as is when they would like to stop middle of the night feedings. Usually when I share my own personal story and what Dr. Weisbluth said, most breast feeding parents feel motivated and empowered to sleep train their child while continuing to breast feed their child. 

Whew. Thanks, Nikou, for clearing that up! Breastfeeding and sleep aren't independent of each other. Let us answer more of your questions and help you our along the way: sign up for one of our classes or consultations and get your whole family sleeping again!