by Heidi Green
April 24, 2012
It’s a common old wives’ tale that a bottle of formula before bedtime will help a baby sleep through the night. A night of uninterrupted sleep can sound really appealing to a new parent but formula won’t change your baby’s sleep habits.
A recent study of infant feeding (exclusive breastfeeding, exclusive formula-feeding, or a combination of the two) and sleep found no difference in sleep for mothers who fed their babies formula before bedtime and those who breastfed.
“Efforts to encourage women to breastfeed,” the authors suggest, “should include information about sleep. Specifically, … that choosing formula does not equate with improved sleep.” (A summary of this study is available elsewhere on baby gooroo.)
A similar, earlier study showed that giving formula in the evening can actually lead to less sleep for babies—and, therefore, less sleep for parents. Parents of infants who were breastfed in the evening and/or at night “slept an average of 40–45 minutes more than parents of infants given formula.” Parents of infants who received formula at night also reported “more sleep disturbances” than parents of those who were exclusively breastfed. It’s unclear why, but it may be related to breast milk being easier to digest and causing less gastrointestinal upset than formula.
Baby sleep habits
Most babies are wired to sleep for short periods of time. Frequent night awakenings is a sleep pattern shared by all babies during their first year of life, and likely protects against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
During the first few months, babies tend to awaken frequently during the night, as they shift between quiet sleep and active sleep, then back to quiet sleep. During extended periods of sleep, infants are less responsive to biological cues, such as low oxygen and increased carbon dioxide. While the cause of SIDS remains unknown, many experts believe it is related to a disruption in the baby’s breathing during sleep. In fact, the peak incidence of SIDS occurs at about 3 months of age—around the same time when most babies seem to start sleeping for longer periods of time. Many researchers hypothesize that awakenings from sleep may be essential for proper breathing in babies whose breathing mechanisms are not yet fully developed at birth. In other words, frequent awakenings are a biological necessity for infants and—as tired as parents may feel as a result—they are a positive sign of your baby’s overall health and safety.
Since breastfeeding is also protective against SIDS, for the safest sleep possible, all mothers are urged to breastfeed.
To learn more about babies and their sleep habits, read “Good Night, Sleep Tight”.
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