One of the most common questions I get is about breastfeeding and sleep. Can I help my infant develop healthy sleep habits or sleep train while breastfeeding? The answer is 100% yes. My definition of healthy sleep habits is not the same as “sleep training.” I view healthy sleep habits as helping your little one to develop skills to fall asleep in an age appropriate way in a safe sleep space. Sleep training is the process of teaching your little one to fall asleep independently at age 3-4 months or older.
There are many ways to help your baby develop healthy sleep habits regardless of whether you breast or bottle feed. Check out this post to learn more about sleep shaping – aka helping set the foundation for healthy sleep habits from the beginning.
Most babies ages 3-4 months will not sleep more than 4-5 consecutive hours at nighttime. It is normal for her to wake up and cry out and need a feeding. At this age, she often needs to be fed in the middle of the night. This is expected, normal, and okay. Once a baby is 6 months old, she can often sleep 7+ hours uninterrupted at night. Knowing this information, you begin to realize that wake ups at night are normal and expected. When helping infants develop healthy sleep habits, we must understand what’s normal.
No matter how you choose to feed your baby, your little one can have healthy sleep habits with your help!
Today, I’m answering two of the most common questions I get around sleep and breastfeeding.
I’d like to share my top 5 tips to build a good foundation of healthy sleep habits for your infant.
A safe sleep environment helps reduce Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), a leading cause of injury death in infants. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, babies should always be placed on their back to sleep. They should sleep alone in a crib or bassinet with a firm, flat mattress and fitted sheet. There should be nothing in the crib including blankets, crib bumpers, or stuffed animals.
Babies begin to recognize routine starting at age 3 months. That being said, it’s never too early to create a bedtime routine. For infants approaching the 3 month mark, I recommend a short and simple bedtime routine. A good bedtime routine will have several sleep cues aka signals to your little one it’s almost sleeping time. For most infants this age, I recommend changing his diaper and putting him into pajamas. Next feed him in a well lit space. Now, transition the room to dim light, place him in a sleep sack, and sing a song before placing him into his bassinet or crib.
Try your best to follow an eat, play and then sleep routine. By not feeding your infant to sleep, it will give you and your baby the chance to practice other age appropriate methods of self-soothing. Feeding to sleep can be a very difficult association to end when your baby is ready to sleep through the night down the road.
The other advantage of the eat, play, and sleep routine is a better understanding of your infant’s cries. By separating feeding from sleeping you will better understand what each cry means. For example, if you are feeding your baby to sleep and she begins crying, it is difficult to know whether she is crying because she is still hungry or if she is just tired. On the other hand, if you separate feeding from sleeping and your baby is crying when they wake up, you can pretty safely guess they need a diaper change and a feed.
Sleep associations are basically anything that helps your baby to fall asleep. This includes the items, movements, or your presence that help your little one to fall asleep more quickly at bedtime. In the first three months of life, I recommend creating positive sleep associations. Positive sleep associations refer not only to something that your child can do to comfort and help themselves back to sleep but also refer to sleep cues that indicate it’s time to sleep. For infants and newborns this can include swaddling, a sleep sack, singing a song before bed, and white noise.
Most babies will spend the first weeks of their lives napping in the arms of loved ones. This is called contact napping. Babies absolutely love this as it feels safe and cozy. During the first three months it’s absolutely okay to rock your baby to sleep or to contact nap. The goal is to gradually wean them from the need to be assisted to and back to sleep as they as they approach three months of age. The best way to do this is to allow your baby to nap horizontally as often as possible.
As you can imagine, going from napping on mom or dad or in a carrier to being put on a firm mattress is a tough transition for an infant. They will be frustrated and have a hard time falling asleep. In the first three months, practice the skill of falling asleep in the bassinet, crib or other safe sleep surface when possible. Once your baby is calm but awake or drifting off to sleep and swaddled, place her in the bassinet or crib to give her a chance to sleep there. Practicing this skill in the first three months will lay a great foundation when you’re ready to help your little one develop more independent sleep skills.
Yes, you 100% can. Sleep training and night weaning are not the same thing. You can continue to breastfeed your baby at night and sleep train. Sleep training basically means your little one learns to fall asleep on her own without you feeding her to sleep. You can still breastfeed before bedtime and in the middle of the night while teaching your baby to fall asleep on his or her own. One fun fact is that breast milk contains melatonin, aka a hormone that signals to our body it’s time to sleep. So breastfeeding your baby before bed actually helps signal to baby it’s sleepy time.
I typically recommend separating feeding from sleep aka not letting your little one fall asleep while breastfeeding. This usually entails feeding in a well lit space early in the bedtime routine. Similarly in the middle of the night, if your baby wakes up, you will determine whether he is waking up hungry versus wishing for comfort. If baby wakes up out of hunger, feed your baby and then give him the opportunity to practice falling asleep again on his own. If it is the latter, you would use whichever method you choose for “sleep training” and give your little one the opportunity to fall asleep on his own.
You can sleep train while breastfeeding. I welcome families who are breastfeeding but also desire helping their little one learn healthy, age-appropriate sleep habits to reach out to me. I’d love to help!