Top 3 Myths About Sleep Training and Breastfeeding Babies

Learn from guest writer and certified Pediatric and Adult Sleep Consultant, Kelly Murray, how to maintain a strong breastfeeding relationship with your little one - while encouraging consistent sleep training for restful nights and sound slumber for both you and your baby!

Authored By:

Kelly Murray, certified Pediatric and Adult Sleep Consultant

Kelly Murray is a certified Pediatric and Adult Sleep Consultant based in Chicago, where she lives with her husband, two children under 6, and fur baby. She and her team, The Sleep Squad, specialize in helping families worldwide obtain the restful sleep they so desperately need through holistic, mindful, and customized sleep programs and support. 

For more sleep tips, follow Kelly @kellymurraysleep or visit www.kellymurraysleep.com.

Sleep Training and Breastfeeding - It Can Be Done!

As a certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant and breastfeeding advocate, the breastfeeding relationship between baby and mama is one I care deeply about. After all, I worked at Medela for over 5 years before becoming a sleep consultant!

Which is why when I hear a lot of myths surrounding breastfeeding babies and their sleep habits, it leaves me shaking my head. So, today, I want to clear up the top 3 myths that I most commonly hear.

Why is Sleep - and Sleep Training - Important?

It's important that we clear these myths up, because getting adequate sleep is just as important for the health and development of a baby as the benefits that are received from breastfeeding and providing your little one with your liquid gold.

Sleep isn't just about restoration of energy. There's a lot happening behind the scenes when we sleep. For example, when it comes to immune support, our bodies are releasing antibodies, T-cells, and cytokines that help to fight infection, viruses, and inflammation. Research shows that adults that sleep less than 7 hours per night are 3x more likely to catch a cold. We also know that vaccines are 11x more effective when adults are getting adequate sleep.

Sleep is also important for cognitive development. While babies (and adults!) are in REM sleep, their brains are taking in all the information from the day, organizing it, storing it, and forming memories. Also, a process called neuroplasticity, where new neural pathways are formed that facilitates future learning, happens during REM sleep.

When it comes to growth, sleep matters. 75% of growth hormone is produced while babies are in non-REM sleep, which is a deep state of sleep. We know that children who have sleep apnea typically have stunted growth because they miss out on some deep sleep.

Getting adequate sleep isn't just important for the health of babies, but also for parents for all the same reasons mentioned above. In addition, sleep is extremely important during the postpartum period because sleep deprivation increases the risk of developing postpartum depression and anxiety.

Let's Dispel the Top 3 Myths About Sleep Training and Breastfeeding Babies

Myth #1: "Breastfed babies don't sleep as well as bottle-fed babies."

Now, I can say anecdotally that that is not true. 50% of my clients breastfeed their babies and I see no difference in terms of their baby's ability to sleep well versus their bottle-fed counterparts. If you think about it, the act of physically sleeping has nothing to do with the act of feeding. Yes, they are interrelated to some extent as your baby will not be able to sleep long stretches if they aren’t feeding well, but their physical ability to sleep doesn't fully depend on how they’re eating.

If a baby has a feeding-to-sleep association — regardless of whether they’re breastfed or bottle-fed to sleep — and wakes up in the middle of the night between sleep cycles (we all wake up briefly about 5 times per night between sleep cycles) and they’re no longer in their parents arms, that’s going to trigger a wake-up. It would be like you falling asleep in your bed and then waking up on the front lawn in the middle of the night. That would be alarming, right?  It would cause you to wake up and you wouldn’t be able to fall back to sleep until you were back in your bed.

I’m not saying that this is the case with all babies. Some babies are able to be fed to sleep and still sleep well overnight and connect sleep cycles on their own when they need to. If that is the case with your baby — for example, your baby wakes up once or twice in the middle of the night to feed and goes back to bed with no problem — then feeding them to sleep isn’t causing a problem. However, if your baby is waking up every 90 minutes (the length of a sleep cycle), or more than twice per night and you know that they're not hungry, then it's a good idea to stop the practice and teach your baby to sleep independently.

And that's basically what sleep training is: the process of teaching your baby to fall asleep without a sleep prop (feeding, rocking, holding, etc.) so that they can then connect sleep cycles on their own in the middle of the night. It works because their environment stays consistent, so there's no cause for them to become alarmed, and they're able to naturally connect to the next sleep cycle and get consolidated, restorative sleep.

If you're interested in learning more about how to sleep train your baby, check out my blog post titled, "What the heck is sleep training anyway?" It summarizes the four main methods of sleep training, which will give you a good jumping off point in deciding what method you want to follow. All sleep training methods work. What's most important is that you find a method that you're going to be able to stick with because it's all about consistency. And don’t worry — you don't need to let your baby cry it out. As you will see on my blog post, there are plenty of gentle methods.

Myth #2: "Breastfed babies can't be sleep trained because they still need overnight feeds."

The good news is that you can sleep train your baby and still feed them overnight because sleeping and feeding will be two separate events. The key is that when you feed them at bedtime and overnight, you're not feeding them to sleep, so there isn't a feeding-to-sleep association. If they wake up in the middle of the night and they feed – then they go back down awake – there’s nothing wrong with that and it won’t interfere with sleep training.

What you want to try to avoid if you are going to sleep train your baby is feeding your child back to sleep overnight, because then that's going to maintain that feeding-to-sleep association that you're trying to break and that's going to create confusion.

As long as your baby is taking a full feed (not just a little snack) when being fed overnight, they’re staying awake, you’re able to put your little one down drowsy but awake, and he or she isn’t waking more than once or twice, then it’s absolutely fine to feed your baby overnight while sleep training.

I do recommend, though, to try giving your baby at least 5 minutes after they wake up to first see if they’ll fall back asleep on their own before giving them a feed. Your child is still going to wake up in between sleep cycles just like adults do and it could take them, as research shows, close to 10 minutes to fall back to sleep.  Therefore, you don't want to rush in and think that you need to feed your baby when they're just naturally having a brief wake up.  You want to give your baby plenty of opportunity to work on falling back to sleep independently.

Myth #3: "Sleep training will ruin your breastfeeding relationship."

I actually find in my practice the opposite to be true - if baby's sleeping better and mom's sleeping better, it actually improves the breastfeeding relationship. This is because:

1) Breastfeeding is hard work for babies and if they're not getting the rest they need, they may not be as effective at nursing;

2) If mom's not getting enough rest, it can negatively impact her milk supply;

3) If mom doesn’t have to nurse every hour on the hour throughout the night, she's actually going to enjoy nursing even more and it isn't going to be viewed as a chore that's leaving herself and her baby exhausted.

The One Difference

I have worked with moms who were ready to give up on breastfeeding as they thought it was causing their babies’ sleep issues. However, once the babies (and moms) were sleeping better, the moms felt more motivated and capable of continuing the nursing relationship.

If you are a nursing mom who is sleep training, the one thing you should be mindful of is that your baby may go from waking up every hour on the hour to nurse to sleeping through the night, or close to it (maybe waking up once or twice). This could wreak havoc on your milk supply because the change is so abrupt. As a result, you are at risk of engorgement, which could lead to mastitis, and that’s going to negatively impact your milk supply and put your nursing relationship at risk. No need to worry! With a little bit of preparation and effort, you can help your body to gradually adjust.

My recommendation to my nursing mothers who experience a big shift in their night feeds is to:

  • Make sure you are pumping before bedtime.
    I highly recommend the Medela Freestyle Flex™ 2-Phase Double Electric Breast Pump because the 2-Phase Expression® technology mimics a nursing baby and it helps to illicit a letdown to ensure that you are expressing all of your available milk before bed, which is going to help prevent engorgement. 

    I encourage moms to continue pumping every night before bed to build up a breast milk stash, but if you already have a stockpile then you may wish to gradually eliminate this pumping session. To do so safely, shorten the pumping session by 5 minutes every couple of nights so your body adjusts accordingly. Be sure to make up for this by nursing your little one as often and as long as they wish during the day after dropping your night feeds to avoid drastically altering your breast milk supply.
  • If you wake up in the middle of the night and are feeling engorged, pump to comfort.
    A convenient way to do this is to have the Medela Harmony® Breast Pump with PersonalFit Flex™ and a cooler with ice packs nearby, so you don’t have to worry about plugging anything in or venturing to the refrigerator or freezer. Instead, you can simply pump on each side to comfort, which releases the pressure and allows you to drift back to sleep after placing the pumped milk in your bedside cooler – all while preventing any engorgement you may experience overnight before your body adjusts!
  • Consider incorporating power pumping.
    If you do find that your milk supply takes a hit once your baby starts sleeping through the night after sleep training, you may want to consider incorporating some power pumping. Again, this can be done easily with any Medela double-electric breast pump.

Your milk production is based on supply and demand. The more your baby demands milk out of your breasts, the more breast milk you will produce. That is why a baby will cluster feed (feed frequently over the course of an hour or so) when they are going through a growth spurt. 

With power pumping, you mimic a cluster-feeding baby so that your breasts will produce more milk. Here is one of the ways it can be done:

  • Pump for 20 minutes
  • Rest for 10 minutes (do not pump)
  • Pump for 10 minutes 
  • Rest for 10 minutes
  • Pump for 10 minutes

I find that nap time is a good time to kick up your feet and turn up that pump! Also, if you want to use that time to get some stuff done, I highly recommend investing in a hands-free pumping bra, like the Medela Easy Expression® Busier.

Please be aware that it takes a few days to see a difference in your supply. So, I would give it at least 3 – 5 days before you decide if power pumping is effective. I know it can be hard to be patient, but the results are worth it. I exclusively pumped for both of my children due to breastfeeding difficulties and would incorporate a power pumping session into my day each time I saw my milk production start to take a dip. So, I can tell you from experience that it can work like a charm.

Once your supply rebounds, you can wean off power pumping by skipping a “pumping step” every day or two until you are no longer pumping.

You Can Have Both Sleep and a Breastfeeding Relationship!

If you're a breastfeeding mother and your baby isn't sleeping well, it isn't something that you just need to accept. Your baby can – and will – learn to fall asleep independently and snooze for long stretches overnight. Best of all, you don’t have to jeopardize your breastfeeding relationship to encourage and help your little one do this. I want you to be able to have it all — a long-lasting breastfeeding relationship and sufficient sleep!