Why Does Baby wake at 3 AM?

When I was pregnant with my first child, I did so much reading. I was determined to know everything there was to know about having a baby, getting the baby sleeping and everything that had anything at all to do with parenting. That was 13 years ago and since then things have changed drastically in regards to how much information is available to us. Back then there were really only books I had to purchase in hard copy.

There is so much information out there, and the most challenging decision for a new mum is what method to follow, as each expert has such different opinions/methods than each other. Even among medical professionals, the number of times I read one expert say that something was absolutely essential, just to have it criticized as objectively wrong or harmful by another.

As most parents do, I took that information, analysed it, made my decision on how I was going to approach motherhood and with a combination of common sense and personal beliefs then came up with a strategy I was comfortable with. But one thing I was never sure about, mainly because nobody seemed to have a clear answer, was whether I could sleep train while I was breastfeeding.

The basic argument against the idea, so far as I understood it, was that breast milk gets digested faster than formula, and therefore babies who are breastfed need to wakeup several times a night in order to feed. Otherwise, they will feel hungry throughout the night and be unable to sleep.

Like nearly everything relating to parenting, there is not so much of a “right and wrong,” rather “right for your child.” But there are a few facts that you should know if you are breastfeeding and trying to decide whether or not to sleep train your child.

So here is an interesting fact. Nobody sleeps through the night!

You might think you do, or that you did before you had kids, or that your partner does, but I guarantee you, unless you are heavily sedated, you wake up at least a few times during the night, every night, and you always have.

When we sleep, we go through what are called “sleep cycles,” and these cycles go from light sleep to deep sleep and back again, typically about four or five times a night. When we get to the end of a cycle and enter into that really light stage of sleep, we often wake up. People who think they sleep straight through the night typically don’t remember these little wakings, but they experience them nevertheless.

Babies’ sleep cycles are shorter than adult ones, so they wake up more often in the night. Babies who are said to sleep through the night are still waking up, but they manage to get themselves back to sleep on their own without any help from Mummy and Daddy.

So when we talk about sleeping through the night, in terms of babies anyway, what we are really talking about is that they are able to get to sleep on their own, or come in and out of sleep cycles and be able to go back to sleep by themselves, they have “independent sleep skills.”

So it does not really matter if baby is breastfed or formula fed, or eating. They are going to wake up at night, several times, for the rest of their lives, just like everyone else.

Now, as for the idea that breast milk digests faster than formula, that is actually true, but not to the degree that people think.

Newborns can go approximately 2 1/2 – 3 hours between feeds if they are breastfeeding. If they are drinking formula, that number is closer to 4 hours. So it is not like formula is some kind of magical elixir

That is going to keep your little one full and for 10 or 11 hours. Their stomachs are small and they are going to digest liquid food quickly, whether it comes in the form of a bottle or a boob.

What does that mean for parents of newborns in regards to their newborn babies sleeping 11 – 12 hours through the night? Well, simply put, forget it!. Chances are, you are going to have to get up a couple of times a night to feed your little one until they are about 6 months old. Between 3 – 6 months of age, if they have learnt independent sleep skills it is possible for them to do 10 – 11 hour stretches, which would mean an early morning feed then back down till a reasonable hour in the morning.

Now, that does not mean that you should put your baby’s sleep training on a back burner until they hit 6 months of age. Quite the opposite, in fact. Teaching your baby to fall asleep independently and setting up great sleep strategies is something you cannot start too early. I just want you to understand that if they are under 6 months old, you may not get a full night’s sleep just yet, but it doesn’t have anything to do with whether they are breastfed or formula fed . Both are going to have similar results when it comes to keeping baby feeling full.

After the six month mark, your baby SHOULD/COULD be able to start sleeping through the night without a feed, and that includes babies who are breastfed.

Let’s say you breastfeed on demand, which is a very popular approach and one that I fully support if it works for you, your baby, and your schedule. If baby is waking up five times a night for a feed, the principle of feeding on demand would require you to get up and feed baby five times a night, right?

Technically, yes. But if baby is six months of age, gaining weight at a normal rate, and able to eat as many calories as they need during the day, then the chances are that baby is, in fact, not waking in the night due to hunger. The most common reason for waking at night past the six month mark is because feeding/sucking is part of their sleep strategy to help them fall asleep. That the feed is not for hunger, they are using the sucking for soothing, effectively mummy is their dummy.

As adults we all have strategies for getting to sleep. As grown ups, we establish our own little bedtime routine. We might get a glass of water and put it on the nightstand, brush our teeth, get into a specific position, or read a book for a little while, put ear plugs in, eye masks etc etc but in the end, it is a strategy that helps to signal our brains and bodies that it is time for sleep.

Baby sleep strategies are less refined, but they still serve the same purpose. They help baby get into a familiar, comfortable place where their system recognizes what it’s supposed to do, and they nod off.

So if feeding is part of their strategy, then it does not matter to them if there is actual food coming their way. It is the sucking motion, the feel of mum next to them, the familiarity of the situation, that helps them to get to sleep, and they can get very dependent on it.

Obviously, every baby is different, and some may actually still be getting hungry enough during the night to need a feed. With that in mind, there are a few indicators that can help let you know if those nighttime wake ups are the result of hunger or a lack of independent sleep skills.

Does baby only take a small amount when they feed in the night?
Do they fall asleep within five minutes of starting their feed?
Does baby eventually go back to sleep if they don’t get fed?
Do they only sleep for 45 minutes to an hour after a nighttime feed?
If you answered yes to most or all of those, then your little one probably falls into the “feeding as a sleep strategy” camp, and could benefit significantly from learning a few independent sleep skills. It does not mean that you cannot breast feed on demand, just that you will have to reassess when exactly baby is demanding a feed and when they are looking for help getting to sleep. If the waking doesn’t fall into the feed window (approx 3 – 4 hours from last feed, less if under 3 months), possibly offer them other support to calm them down, be there for them and see if they can independently fall back to sleep without a feed. And preferably not on you either.

So to answer the question, is sleep training and breastfeeding mutually exclusive, my personal opinion and with my sleep training experience with breastfeeding mummy’s is a straight-up no. Breastfeeding is an absolutely wonderful experience for both mother and baby, and I support it 100%. Having a baby who sleeps through the night is maybe not quite as magical, but it sure comes close, and there is absolutely no reason why you can’t have both together.

And, as always, if you need a little help guiding you through the process of being able to support and guide your baby to sleep through the night, I’ve got you covered.