Should I give my breastfed baby formula at night/before bed?

By Andrina Wilson, Sleep Coach & Midwife.

Every sleep deprived parent is searching for the magic bullet that will help their baby to sleep through the night so they can get some much needed ZZZ’s. You’ve mentally prepared yourself for the lack of sleep that comes with having a newborn, but then the fourth trimester is over and you’re still a walking zombie!

One topic that pops up frequently on our Sleep Store Facebook group is giving a bottle before bed to help baby sleep through the night. Surely this must help, right?! If they’re full to the brim, they’ll sleep for longer, right?!

Will giving my baby formula keep them fuller for longer?

Short answer – yes and no.

Breastmilk and formula both contain carbohydrates, fats, protein and minerals which babies need for physical and mental growth and development. Aside from the obvious differences, breastmilk and formula contain differing types of these components which significantly sets them apart.

Protein is the molecule in milk which we consider to be important for satiety (feeling full). Breastmilk protein consists primarily of whey. Whey is easily absorbed by the baby’s immature gut and provides important nutritional factors which contribute to overall gut health. It also contains sleep inducing factors which actually encourage babies to sleep. However, because breastmilk is so easily digested, babies wake to feed more frequently. Formula protein consists primarily of casein which is harder for babies to digest and therefore, keeps them fuller for longer. However, formula increases the risk of an inflammatory response in the gut which can give babies excess wind, bloating and pain – all of this means no extra sleep for poor mum and dad.

Will giving my baby formula help them sleep longer?

Short answer – no.

As mentioned above, breastmilk is so easily digested that breastfed babies will wake frequently to feed in the early months. They are biologically programmed this way for their survival. However, it is possible to reduce the amount of night waking and eventually, help baby sleep through the night. All babies will need to feed during the night for the first few months. However, once babies are over five months old, their stomachs are larger and they are able to last longer stretches without milk. Also, sleep patterns change considerably and ALL babies will wake 4-6 times during the night. The key here is to teach baby to settle without needing to feed (and ideally without your help). For more information on teaching your baby to self settle, click here.  In fact, a recent Harvard University study has shown that babies who are breastfed but do not wake to feed during the night sleep significantly longer than breastfed babies who wake to feed during the night.

Giving formula as an alternative when breastmilk is available is no guarantee that your baby will sleep longer. In reality, you’re playing Russian roulette as it could potentially have unwanted side effects for your baby and cause them to wake even more frequently for comfort.

It’s also worth mentioning here that whether babies are breastfed or formula fed, night waking in the early months is a protective factor against Sudden Unexpected Death of an Infant (SUDI).

I’m confused, should I do it or not?

Short answer – if you feel it’s the right decision for you and your baby, go for it!

Only you know what is best for you and your baby, it is no one’s place to judge you for any decision you make. Now you have the information, you can make an informed choice.

References:

Ask Dr Sears. Comparison of human milk and formula. Retrieved from http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/feeding-eating/breastfeeding/why-breast-is-best/comparison-human-milk-and-formula

Brown, A., & Harries, V. Breastfeeding Medicine. June 2015, 10(5): 246-252. doi:10.1089/bfm.2014.0153

Haig, D. Troubled Sleep: Night waking, breastfeeding and parent-offspring conflict. Evolution, Medicine and Public Health. March, 2014. doi: 10.1093/emph/eou005

McKenna, J. Night waking among breastfeeding mothers and infants: Conflict, congruence or both? Evolution, Medicine and Public Health. March, 2013. doi: 10.1093/emph/eou006

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