Baby sleep can be a controversial issue, however, it’s something I’m asked about all the time by my followers on Instagram and the readers of this blog.
Therefore, I decided to team up with Baby Sleep Expert Lucy from The Sleep Nanny to help answer questions, mainly in relation to baby sleep habits and weaning.
This blog is super long and comprehensive, as we wanted to cover the full works. If you want to go to sections relevant to you, clink on the appropriate section below!
Section 1: Who this blog is for…
First of all, however, a caveat!!!
This blog is intended to be a guide and support for anyone who, for any reason, is wanting to help guide their little ones into a structured pattern of sleep throughout the night. Some parents might do shift work or might need to return to work early or just can’t face the sleepless nights. On top of this, a lack of sleep can heavily impact so many aspects of our lives from mental health and relationship issues, to physical issues such as being so tired that they cannot safely operate a car or take care of their baby. Not to mention to help an exhausted baby to develop healthily and be happy and rested during the day.
For these reasons, many parents might need support to encourage a more beneficial pattern of sleep for them.
A note on Breastfeeding and Baby’s sleep:
However, importantly, recommendations from the World Health Organisation are that breastfeeding should be on demand, day and night and that baby can be breastfed until they are 2 years of age and beyond. Therefore, for anyone breastfeeding, who is comfortable with feeding baby during the night, on demand, there is no reason that you need to change anything!
Breastfeeding is also not just about sustenance, it’s also about comfort, warmth and bonding with a parent too.
Every baby is different. Some babies sleep through the night from as young as 3 months of age, some don’t sleep through the night until they are well into their toddler years – and this variation is perfectly normal. However, from around 6 months of age, if babies are getting enough solid foods during the day, they may not need to wake during the night in order to combat hunger anymore. That’s not, however, to dismiss the fact that babies might wake up for other reasons such as comfort, security, warmth and bonding that breastfeeding may also provide.
However, if you’re your current sleep situation is not working for you and your family, then you might want to look at how you could possibly do things differently and this is where advice from Lucy can come into play. Please remember there is no right or wrong and this is a judgement free zone!!
Breast vs formula milk for sleep habits:
Many parents ask if their baby will sleep better if they give formula milk instead of breast milk. The misconception here is that formula will help a baby to sleep longer but in fact, a breastfed baby is just as capable of sleeping as well as a formula fed baby.
The reason this misconception exists is because formula milk does take longer to digest and can therefore sustain a baby for longer between feeds. If a baby is only waking due to hunger, this COULD mean you get a longer stretch of sleep before the next feed is required. However, when you help a baby to master the ability to get themselves to sleep, which both breast and formula fed babies are equally capable of learning, you’ll find you don’t need to use formula as a means to keep your baby asleep for longer.
It’s really important to remember that this information is general guidance and that all babies, situations and families are very different. It’s not always black and white and if you’re ever unsure, always have a chat with your health visitor or GP to get specific support for you and your baby, first and foremost.
Section 2: Baby Sleep Patterns Intro
Baby Sleep Patterns:
During the early weeks of their lives, babies need to sleep and feed A LOT! They tend to do this around the clock, day and night with little in the way of patterns initially! Some babies naturally get into an early rhythm with feeding/sleeping while for others, sleep patterns can be quite disorganised for a long while.
Understandably, some parents may want babies to establish a pattern and routine around day and night fairly early on, but how soon this happens is likely to vary from baby to baby. Even when babies begin to sleep more through the night, they may still wake fairly frequently.
Why babies wake in the night?
All babies wake in the night. In fact, all human beings wake to some degree multiple times each night. Sleep works in cycles and if we are even slightly disturbed when we are close to the surface of a sleep cycle, we are likely to wake. Sleep has always been segmented for our species and it’s only since industrialisation that we’ve come to expect to condense our sleep into an 8 hour block at night.
So, if we are supposed to wake in the night from time to time, why do we try to teach our babies to sleep through?
Being able to put oneself to sleep is a learned skill. Meaning we learn it rather than are born knowing how to do it. Much like walking and talking, pottying and later on, riding a bike, we learn by example and guidance. Sleep is no different.
Once we know how to put ourselves to sleep and back to sleep after waking, we can cycle through sleep all night long without needing any assistance from anyone or anything to get us back to sleep.
Of course, a baby will wake for many reasons, including:
- Teething or illness
- Wet or dirty nappies
If your little one is waking a lot at night, trying to get to the bottom of what it is for might help you understand baby’s waking patterns a little more. This can also allow you to respond by meeting their specific needs, whenever possible.
It is also a good idea to try to recognise when baby is just waking as part of their natural sleep cycle, rather than for any specific need. In these situations, responding with a little comforting, may be all they need to help them get back to sleep.
Section 3: Is my baby waking for hunger?
Is my baby hungry when waking during the night?
When we refer to ‘night feeds’ we are talking about the milk feeds that happen throughout the night either by breastfeeding or by bottle (with either breast milk or formula milk).
How often a baby can feed in the night and how often they need to feed for hunger are completely different things. Some babies can wake and feed every hour, whether they are hungry or just need something else such as comforting. It is common for parents to respond to every wake up with a feed.
How often your baby waking will be due to a need for milk or hunger varies, and is dependant on a number of factors.
Factors such as:
- Length of baby’s feed
- Amount that baby takes
- Reflux issues
- Baby’s body size
- Baby’s growth patterns
- How efficient your baby is at feeding
- And, later on, the weaning diet
Are just some of the things that might affect night-time hunger.
Typically, in the early days, new babies can wake due to hunger every 2-4 hours and this is important as it ensures that your little one is getting the calories they need throughout the day and night. There is no set amount of night feeding to expect a baby to need at any particular age.
I would advise any new parent to visit their health visitors for regular weight checks to ensure that baby is following the right patterns of growth, as this is the best measure that your little one is getting enough.
What changes during weaning?
Weaning a baby onto solids during the day tends to happen at around six months of age, and therefore a baby’s calorie intake inevitably increases during the day, meaning that some babies may not be waking due to hunger during the night anymore.
The NHS states “For babies aged 6 months to a year, night feeds may no longer be necessary and some babies will sleep for up to 12 hours at night.”
However, babies can still wake fairly frequently due to other reasons that aren’t necessarily related to hunger (see list above).
How to tell if baby is waking for hunger?
First of all, it’s important to clarify that the World Health Organisation recommend that babies can breastfeed on demand morning and night. However, for whatever reason, some parents might want or need to reduce night feeding and encourage baby to sleep through the night.
For anyone who is quite happy with the amount your child sleeps and/or feeds through the night, then there’s no reason to try to change anything.
When it comes to whether baby is waking for hunger, there are some tell-tale questions that might help you to get to the bottom of whether baby needs to be fed, or whether they may just need gentle comforting to get back to sleep.
- Firstly, use the checklist above (under “why babies wake in the night”) to check for other reasons as to why baby might wake…e.g. Have they been disturbed? Do they have a dirty nappy? Do they just want comforting?
- Next you want to look at the full picture to work out if baby is waking because they are actually hungry at night. So, ask yourself the following questions:
- Have they had a low calorie intake during the day?
- Do they have reflux causing milk to be brought back up and not ingested?
- Are they feeding little and often during the day?
- Did they have a low birth weight?
- Have you been absent during the day for long periods?
- And, of course, are they simply a newborn? (Newborn babies need to feed for hunger and calories – day and night).
If any of the above are relevant, your baby may end up hungry during the night, so plan how you will meet that need with responsive feeding and decide whether you feel that one, two or more feeds are needed to help your baby get the calories and nutrients that they need. This will vary dependent on their intakes during the day.
It’s also good to ask yourself if every waking is hunger related, or if there are other reasons for baby waking. It might be that you can use another response to help soothe baby back to sleep.
Section 4: Encouraging baby sleep
What if baby isn’t actually hungry?
Is your baby growing steadily and taking on substantial calories during the day?
If your baby is growing steadily and seems to be eating and feeding well during the day, there is a good chance your baby is not hungry at night, so let’s explore this further…
Does your baby currently receive a feed every time he wakes in the night?
How many wakings does your baby have which require a response from you?
If you only get two wakings and feed both times, do you believe it to be hunger both times?
If you get multiple wakings and you feed every time, how efficient is the feeding? Does it appear to be pacifying some of the time? Could one or two of the wakings be hunger and the other wakings are just natural cycle wakings?
Trust your instincts. You know how your baby operates through the day and night, how much she is consuming and how much she is waking. You’ll get a sense for whether it is really hunger or not even though it can be tricky to tell for sure.
Sleeping through the night?
At six months a baby is potentially both developmentally ready and still malleable enough for a parent to help guide them into a healthy and long-term sustainable sleep habit, if that’s required.
Under 18 weeks a baby is not ready to learn sleep habits, and so simply having a simple bedroom routine and rhythm to activities during the day will lay some great foundations for sleep.
From six months, the way your baby learns to get to sleep and back to sleep after waking will become more ingrained, which is why this is a great time to steer them onto a path of healthy sleeping habits, if this is something you’re wanting or needing to do.
Section 5: Stopping night feeds
Is it OK to feed baby to sleep, when should this stop?
This depends. It is perfectly normal if a baby falls asleep while feeding in the early months and will be inevitable with a newborn. New babies feed and sleep frequently and the calming, suckling of feeding is likely to lull them off to sleep.
When Lucy feels it is less helpful to continually feed baby to sleep, is if you are using feeding as an intentional means to put a baby to sleep (past the newborn stage) and where more rhythmic feeding patterns are already established. This is when it can become less helpful, because a baby may become reliant on using milk feeds to get off to sleep, rather than developing their own settling skills.
When is right time to stop night feeding?
There is no right or wrong with this, but if you’re wanting to change sleep habits and help baby fall into a night/day routine then the right time to stop giving milk feeds in the night is either when you decide to as a parent, or when you feel that your baby is no longer hungry in the night.
It can be difficult to determine when a baby reaches this stage and it is most definitely not something you can set by age. Some babies no longer need milk in the night from around 3 months and will sleep through, while others might need some night time milk up until closer to 12 months or beyond.
The reason it is not obvious to us as parents is because babies will continue to take the milk if it is offered even when they are not hungry and/or they may fuss or cry until milk is given because they have come to use it as a means to get back to sleep.
A baby waking up and crying out does not automatically mean she is hungry and a baby accepting and enjoying milk given in the night does not tell us for certain that it is hunger either. So, it is very difficult to tell when it is hunger, when it is comfort and when it is just a big challenge for a baby to resettle themselves to sleep.
Please remember for anyone who is quite happy with the amount your child sleeps and/or feeds through the night, then there’s no reason to try to change anything.
How to stop night feeding if you are at the stage that your baby is ready and you want to stop?
Please note the information above. This is only for parents who really want to stop night feedings and guide babies into a longer night time sleeping pattern as long as they know that baby isn’t hungry anymore. You can always soothe and calm babies in other ways (see above) and this is recommended here too.
The first step is to get down to just the one night feed. If you are still feeding more than once and you are confident that it is not hunger both times, drop one of the feeds and have an alternative response planned so that you can meet any ‘non-hunger’ wakings with this soothing response, consistently.
Once you are down to just the one night feed and hopefully getting some practice at resettling your baby without a feed at other times in the night, you now have a few options to wean that remaining night feed when the time is right…
If you are unsure whether or not your baby might still be hungry for that one night feed, a great way to test this is by doing that feed as a dream-feed. They work well between 10-11p.m, roughly 3-4 hours after your baby had his bedtime feed and ideally before the parent settles off to sleep themselves.
A dream feed – Is where you proactively take the feed to the baby, usually at around 10-11pm at night, without the baby waking, crying out or ‘asking for it’. Typically, you feed them in their sleep without waking although baby may wake up and that’s fine too. The feed wasn’t asked for, but you have addressed the potential up-coming hunger. This might help both baby and parent to get a longer, more restorative stretch of sleep.
The reason this approach is effective is because you will meet the potential hunger need but not respond to wakings with a feed. Your baby will take on the calories and you can rest assured any potential hunger need is met and so if baby is waking, it’s unlikely to be hunger related.
Once this is established and your baby is resettling without a milk response to any other wakings in the night, you can then try just not giving the dream feed and see if it makes any difference to the night. You will soon know if it was meeting a hunger need – This method subtly ‘reveals’ whether or not there is night-time hunger for your baby.
If you are certain it is time to drop the last night feed and your baby is not hungry in the night, there are a few ways you can do this;
- Reduce the amount of milk in the bottle or time at the breast by a few minutes each night until your down to 2 minutes or a couple of ounces then stop the feed completely. This works well over 4-5 nights
- Water down milk in a bottle to dilute the taste. As your baby loses interest, the ‘want’ factor will decrease until you no longer need to feed. Again move through this process over 4-5 nights.
- Go cold turkey and simply stop the night feed. You will need to be prepared with your soothing response to any night wakings and be certain that you are ready to commit to being consistent with this response without caving in when the going gets tough at around 4a.m! This is one for those who are completely certain that there is no hunger in the night and that they want to stop night feeding. Remember that babies can feed for comfort, bonding and many other reasons, but there are other ways you can offer those responses to your little one if you’ve decided you want to stop feeds at night.
It is really important to remember that a baby or young child will protest with fussing and crying if they have been used to a particular response to a night waking and then it changes.
Importantly, if you are second guessing the hunger question, go back and assess this because you need to feel confident your child is not hungry in order to have the strength as a parent to persist with responding without a feed.
If you are responding with soothing reassurance and encouraging your baby back to sleep without feeding and then, after a while, you find it too tough and you give a feed, this will just teach your baby to hold out longer and harder or cry more and it will make things worse for everyone involved. It is kinder on your baby to be consistent and your child will have a stronger sense of security if you are not wavering in your responses.
Section 6: Final Thoughts & Summary
If you have a baby in the newborn stage, you’re going to need to feed your baby in the night and you need not worry about how you do this or getting into any so called ‘bad habits’. Learning about your baby’s feeding and sleeping needs now will equip you well so that when your baby is ready, you will know what to do.
If you are unsure whether your baby is hungry at night or certain he is not and you want to work on reducing or eliminating night feeds, the key thing to remember is to feed a hungry baby to meet the hunger need but not to use the feeding simply as a means to put your baby to sleep.
The best place to start is bedtime. After the bedtime routine and the last milk feed of the day, ensure your little one is awake, perhaps a calm story and then put him down into his sleep space. The practice of settling to sleep at bedtime will be the best practice he gets and make it far easier for him to resettle to sleep when he wakes in the night.