Baby Sleep Advice That Can Lower Your Milk Supply

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Wondering how to keep up your milk supply when baby sleeps through the night? Or perhaps you’re noticing that your milk supply has dropped after sleep training? You might have been given sleep advice that can lower milk supply. Here’s what you need to know.

We all want sleep.

I don’t begrudge you your eight hours, I promise. And I understand what it feels like to miss the uninterrupted nights you took for granted before you had kids.

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I also take it (given that you’re reading this) that you’re breastfeeding, and maybe even having milk supply issues, sleep frustrations, or both. So you should know:

There are a lot of different “tricks” out there to get your baby to sleep. But not all of them are developmentally appropriate, and none of them are actually guaranteed to get you more sleep! 

If you don’t want to fall for sleep advice that can lower your milk supply, this post is for you. Here is some common sleep advice you might want to take a critical look at if you are a breastfeeding parent:

We are obsessed with making babies sleep through the night early on, and it's causing moms to have low milk supply issues. Here's what you need to know.

BAD ADVICE: “GIVE FORMULA AT NIGHT OR A ‘TOP-OFF’ BOTTLE”

First of all, there is simply no research to support that formula-fed babies sleep better than breastfed babies. Overall, they wake the same amount (source)!

Although formula-fed babies do tend wake a bit less frequently in the first few weeks, differences disappear quickly. Regardless of feeding style, research has shown both formula fed and breastfed babies get the same amount of sleep in a 24 hour period and are equally capable of developing sleep skills (source).

I know the prospect of there being even a chance that formula will help your baby sleep more soundly makes the idea of offering it tempting, especially when you’re tired.

However, infant sleep researchers hypothesize that this deep sleep early in life might make some babies more vulnerable to SIDS (sourcesource). In other words, a deep sleeping infant isn’t necessarily a desirable goal. Night-waking actually protects babies.

But if you’re breastfeeding, perhaps the biggest issue with offering formula at night is the impact it can have on your milk supply.

Mom feeding her young baby a bottle before bed. Sometimes this can cause low milk supply issues.

You’ve probably heard it said that milk production is a matter of supply and demand, and this is true (source). When your body detects demand–through nursing or pumping–your body continues to make milk. If the demand decreases, supply decreases.

When baby gets a bottle of formula at night, your body gets no signal (demand) that it needs to produce more milk. In order to protect your overall milk supply, you need to give your body this signal. In other words, if you need to give baby a bottle, you can protect your milk supply by pumping a full session (about 20 minutes typically) every time baby gets a bottle.

And this doesn’t only apply to formula bottles: Relying on a frozen milk “stash,” or offering a “top off” bottle of formula or breast milk before bed to promote sleep can also lower milk supply.

READ MORE: Why Paced Bottle Feeding is Important (And How to Do It)

As you can imagine, pumping at night every time baby gets a bottle of formula or frozen breast milk is actually more work for you, not less. Not only do you need to sit there to pump, but now you have pump parts to sterilize and bottles to wash.

Mom washing bottle parts

Now if exclusive breastfeeding is not your goal, then this may not be a huge concern for you. You can combination feed if that’s what you’d like to do! Just be prepared for a decrease in milk supply, and remember that you’ll be making up for that decrease with formula.

What if you need to supplement? If you are needing to supplement, speak with a qualified lactation professional (usually an IBCLC, since most pediatricians have little to no lactation training) about how to protect your milk supply in the meantime. An IBCLC can help you build your supply so that supplementation is no longer necessary, or she can help you maintain your current supply so that you do not eventually need to transition exclusively to formula. Every situation will be unique.

BAD ADVICE: “TRY CEREAL IN A BOTTLE”

This is problematic advice for several reasons, the first being that it is an outdated practice, one that is no longer recommended due to being a choking hazard (source).

The second reason has to do, once again, with your milk supply: Any food that baby gets without needing to stimulate the breast has the potential to lower your milk supply.

On top of that, most infant cereal has fewer calories, less fat and fewer vitamins and minerals than human breast milk anyway, so cereal would be filling up the valuable real estate of a baby’s tiny tummy with a food substance that is less nutritionally dense than breast milk. Not to even mention that there is no research to support that cereal actually helps babies sleep (source).

And finally, there is the issue of early solids. All major health organizations now recommend waiting to at least six months of age–no longer 4-6 months–before introducing foods other than breast milk or formula. If baby is older than 6 months of age, he or she doesn’t need to take cereal in a bottle. And if baby is younger than that, they probably shouldn’t be eating cereal period.

Did you know? It is no longer recommended to introduce solids at 4-6 months. Introducing solids too early can also result in low milk supply.

Bad Advice: “PUT BABY ON AN FEEDING SCHEDULE”

While it seems like a nice way to encourage “good” sleep habits, promote longer sleep stretches at night, and make your life a little simpler, feeding a breastfed baby on a schedule is not recommended by anyone who has really studied lactation.

Again, it all goes back to milk supply.

Breastfed babies are excellent at regulating their own milk intake, but how much they can drink at one time is limited by a mother’s unique milk storage capacity. Milk storage capacity refers to the amount of milk storage tissue you have in your breast.

Some breastfeeding parents have a larger milk storage capacity, and others have a smaller milk storage capacity. But no matter what size storage capacity you have, if you drain your breasts often enough, you’ll be able to make plenty of milk for your baby.

Because this is how milk supply works:

If your breasts are full, milk production slows down, and if your breasts are drained, more milk is made.

If you have a smaller milk storage capacity and you don’t drain your breasts often enough (via nursing or pumping), your breasts will become fuller faster, and your body will get the signal to slow down milk production. Letting this happen often enough can cause low milk supply over time.

Unfortunately, you can’t tell if you have a large or small storage capacity by just looking at your breasts. And you can’t determine milk storage capacity based on how much milk you can pump, either. Large breasts are sometimes large because they have a lot of fatty tissue, but not a lot of milk storage tissue. Small breasts can sometimes have a shockingly large amount of milk storage tissue. And sometimes breasts with a huge storage capacity might not be very responsive to a breast pump.

Mother sleeping near baby in bed feeding on demand.

So what does this all have to do with feeding schedules, you ask?

If a mother with a small storage capacity tries to get her baby on a feeding schedule, that schedule might not allow her breasts to drain often enough. This can cause her supply to decrease over time.

In other words, stretching out time between nursing sessions–or nursing less often than whenever baby cues–to encourage baby to sleep longer can have a negative impact on milk supply.

In fact, new research has found that breastfeeding mothers who nurse according to a schedule nurse noticeably less frequently–closer to 6-8 times a day compared to around 10-12+ (source). So it’s not surprising, then, that mothers who follow parent-led schedules tend to quit breastfeeding sooner than mothers who don’t (source).

People who tell you parent-led schedules didn’t cause a supply issue either lucked out by having a large storage capacity (one not as easily affected by a schedule) or never nursed long enough for the issue to surface (think back-to-back pregnancies).

Help! My supply is already low! What do I do? If you suspect you have low supply, speak with a lactation professional, usually an IBCLC, as soon as possible. Remember that milk production is a matter of supply and demand, so to increase supply the best course of action is to nurse and/or pump more frequently. In-person assistance may be needed and is always recommended.

MIGHT BE BAD ADVICE: “START SLEEP TRAINING”

Most run-of-the-mill, traditional sleep training methods (think cry-it-out, graduated extinction, controlled crying, and other variations of the Ferber method, etc.) strongly encourage baby to go long stretches at night without nursing. As we just learned, this can be problematic for milk supply.

Some people can make it work, while others–who may already be struggling to find time to pump while working or who may be dealing with latch or weight gain issues, for example–won’t be so lucky.

But there’s good news: You are not doomed to experience sleepless nights just because you’re a breastfeeding parent! (In fact, many breastfeeding parents report getting more sleep, not less [source]).

YOU CAN ENCOURAGE SLEEP WITHOUT SACRIFICING YOUR MILK SUPPLY!

Many of these techniques require more information than I can flesh out in a few paragraphs at the bottom of this article, so this topic will eventually get its own post. But until then…

Here’s What I Recommend:

I am extremely picky about sleep programs for babies. Because the truth is, many courses that are marketed as “gentle” still involve leaving baby to cry for periods of time. And many courses marketed as “breastfeeding friendly” still encourage night weaning by arbitrary ages and schedules that can interfere with on-demand nursing. So what do I recommend instead, you ask?

  • These courses by Lauren at Isla Grace. Her programs are attachment-focused and about as breastfeeding-friendly as they come.
  • These guides by Lyndsey Hookway. Lyndsey is an IBCLC and infant sleep expert who focuses on whole-family sleep solutions.
  • These books (click the image to find them on Amazon):

And don’t forget to grab this free resource:

IS YOUR BABY'S SLEEP NORMAL?

Worried your baby isn’t sleeping long enough? Our FREE guide will give you 10 baby sleep facts all parents need to know. Get some peace of mind about your baby’s sleep!

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out our digital library of helpful resources that quickly teach how to avoid common breastfeeding problems and give you the peace of mind and confidence you need to meet your breastfeeding goals.