Breast or Bottle? Which is better for Baby Sleep?
Parents often ask me if having a bottle before bed will help their little one sleep better. Food is just one piece of the bigger sleep picture. The biggest factor in having a great sleeper is a child who has independent sleep skills. Independent sleep skills are the ability to be put down completely awake: no rocking, feeding, or pacifier is part of the bedtime routine. They can put themselves to sleep by doing something repetitive that soothes them. That might be sucking a thumb, rolling onto their tummy, moaning or groaning, or taking a little lovey blanket, and rubbing it on their face or between their fingers. Those are gonna be the kids who sleep the best. The bottle itself is not the thing.
However, if your child has great sleeping skills, having a bottle in the mix might help your little one sleep through the night sooner. And what that might look like is, let's say you can put your five-month-old exclusively breastfed kiddo down completely awake and they put themselves to sleep. It's very common at five months exclusively breastfed to still need one night feed over 11 - 12 hours of sleep. It'll probably fall around 2am to 4am, when your milk supply is the highest. Most exclusively breastfed kiddos, very average, don't sleep through the night until close to eight or nine months when they have three meals and two snacks well established. Can it happen earlier? Absolutely! But is that average? Yes, it is!
How does a bottle play into all of this? In general, bottle-fed kids do have the potential to sleep those 11 hours without needing to eat in the night earlier because:
- Quantify Food Intake in the Daytime and Shifting Calories Out of the Night : parents can quantify how much their littlest person has eaten in the daytime, and then they're able to say: "okay, you had 20 ounces today, you really only need five ounces tonight" and then can use other tools to help their little ones back to sleep vs continuing to have calories in the night. The next night they can offer 4 oz and move that 1 oz to the morning and so on.
- Parental Confidence: For a parent to be able to say: "I know you ate all your calories in the time today when you wake up tonight I'm not feeding you. I may offer some other sort of acknowledgement"
- Delayed gratification: It's very easy to mute the tears quickly by whipping out a boob. That's what I did for months :) It takes longer to go prepare a bottle -- whether or not that's breast milk or formula, it takes longer. That’s delayed gratification. I often hear from parents who say: "I actually went to prepare the bottle, and by the time I got back she had fallen asleep."
- Transit time of food: Formula has a slower transit time than breast milk. Formula fed babies can feel fuller, longer in the night. I've worked with cases before where we have exclusively breastfed kiddos but the parents really need to be sleeping through the night for demanding jobs or medical conditions. We have given 6 oz bottles of formula before bed and that can last the child the whole night, as long as they also have self-soothing skills. Meaning these babies can be put down to bed completely awake and put themselves to sleep because they have self soothing skills. If you don’t have those skills, formula won’t help in the night.
In summary, do bottle-fed babies sleep better than exclusively breastfed kids? And if so, why? Well, it kind of depends. Having a bottle can help parents shift the calories from the night into the daytime, give them more confidence on how to respond in the night but your baby still needs strong self soothing skills to be a great sleeper.
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