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Do Formula and Solids Really Make Babies Sleep Better?

By babbleeditors |

While discussing baby’s sleep with fellow moms, you’ve probably heard the idea that formula-fed babies tend to be better sleepers — dozing for longer stretches at night than their breastfed counterparts. But is there any truth to this notion, or is it nothing but a tempting tale for sleep-deprived nursing moms?

The thought behind formula’s sleep-inducing powers is that breast milk is easily and quickly digested by babies, making for more cycles of hunger and satiety throughout the night, while formula’s greater staying power keeps the tummy fuller for longer periods. There is some truth to this: formula is harder for babies to break down, moves more slowly through the digestive system, and uses up more energy in doing so.

Indeed, some studies show that moms with breastfed infants report waking up more at night than those with formula-fed babies, and one study of preterm infants found that those who were bottle fed woke less frequently overall. There is reason to think that formula affects a baby’s “sleep architecture,” (the pattern and structure of sleep) with formula-fed babies spending proportionally more time in REM, while breastfed babies spend more time in non-REM.

But overall, the link between good sleep and formula feeding is weak. For every study noting its soporific effects, there’s at least one countering the idea. For example, in a recent study, researchers had new moms wear a wrist actigraph to objectively measure sleep around the clock and found that exclusively breastfeeding moms slept just as much and felt equally rested (or drowsy) as moms who were exclusively formula-feeding or doing a mixture of both. Another study using the same methods found that breastfeeding parents got about 40 minutes more sleep per night. And contrary to popular belief, rice cereal before bed doesn’t help a baby sleep either.

Though the commonly held belief is that formula tends to help baby snooze, breast milk may actually be the one with sleep-inducing properties. Scientists have seen that it contains certain nucleotides (the building blocks of proteins) that are connected to mom’s circadian rhythm and could have a hypnotic effect in babies. And the boost in prolactin (which peaks at night) has been associated with important slow wave sleep for mom.

Another way to look at this question is to consider that it might not be a question of formula vs. breast milk. The drowsy formula myth comes in part from a misunderstanding about infant sleep — namely, that waking up equals hunger. This is true for the first couple of months, when young babies with tiny bellies need to eat frequently and wake up to do so. But around three or four months of age, infants go through surges in brain development that make them more aware, engaged, and ready to practice their new skills in the wee hours. Babies start to wake up more because of their primed and excited brains than their empty stomachs.

This isn’t to say that older infants aren’t hungry at night, especially if they’re used to being fed. But it’s still only one of many reasons to call out for mom. A breast, a big bottle of formula, a hefty meal of cereal — none of these will change that fact.


Heather Turgeon is a psychotherapist and science writer. She authors the weekly “science of kids” column for Babble and is a regular contributor to Strollerderby. Follow the science of kids to keep up with the latest research in child development and parenting.



More on Babble:

The top 7 baby sleep myths: Sleeping through the night, long naps, late bedtimes and more
Sweet dreams, baby! 10 things to know about infant sleep
Putting baby to sleep: 8 nighttime mistakes to avoid

More on Babble

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16 thoughts on “Do Formula and Solids Really Make Babies Sleep Better?

  1. Nicole says:

    Thank you for posting this! It seems to have become popular belief that formula will help a baby sleep longer and deeper but in fact it’s undigestibility and pieced together ingredients are doing significant harm to babies little bodies as they struggle to pass formula (and grains-which their bodies aren’t ready for) through their intestinal tracts. This common misinformation is taking it’s tole on our babies.

  2. Rachel says:

    I was formula fed. I didn’t sleep through the night until I was three years old. I know one anecdote means nothing, but that’s my experience with it.

  3. The Mommy Psychologist says:

    Well, here’s the deal. I don’t think how a baby sleeps has anything to do with formula vs. breastfed. If you have a baby who is a good sleeper they will always be a good sleeper and if a baby is a poor sleeper well, sorry. My son was a terrible sleeper from the moment he was born until about age 2. I tried EVERYTHING.

    “The child psychologist who thought she had all the answers to parenting until she became one herself.”

  4. Nicole, do you have a source for that? Because it sounds like proselytizing, not science. Breast may be best, but formula is fine. It’s not rat poison.

  5. Ashli says:

    Both my babies have been exclusively breastfed from day one, my now 20 month old didnt sleep thru the night till 13 months my 10 week old has been sleeping consistently 10pm-5am uninterrupted since 4 weeks. Every baby is different.

  6. Samantha says:

    My baby needed a formula supplement at two weeks because he was losing weight (i.e. failing to thrive). He went from a very fussy (hungry!) baby to a much much happier one.

    At the time, rather than being happy about the fact that a miracle product (formula!) exists that let my baby develop properly, I suffered terrible guilt as a new mother precisely because I encountered the sort of attitude that Nicole is espousing.

    So please, as Tragic Sandwich asks, point to the scientific studies that demonstrate the harm formula did to my baby. After all, formula has been fed to babies for several generations now. The gastrointestinal damage Nicole is suggesting has been done should be well documented by now.

    For the anecdotal record, my baby was/is an excellent sleeper.

  7. Julia says:

    I breastfed both my babies…DS (now 2.5) did not sleep through consistently til after 6 months, DD (now 3.5 months and still feeding) slept through the first night home from hospital and hasn’t woken up to be fed (or for any other reason) since…she now sleeps 11 or so hours at night…both breastfed, both different.

  8. Amy B. says:

    Because of some feeding issues, my son went on formula and cereals at a very young age (just a few weeks old). He also started sleeping through the night (9+ hours) at the exact same time. While it may not have been the formula, per se, that made him sleep, I (and his doctors) have no doubt that it was the satisfaction, relief and comfort the formula provided that helped him be such a good sleeper. Formula was a miracle for him, and I have absolutely no regrets about formula feeding him. Formula isn’t poison, and breast isn’t always best.

  9. JRmomof2boys says:

    Both my boys were exclusively breastfed for the first 6 mths before I introduced solids. My now 3.5yr old didn’t start to sleep through the night until he was 13 mths (still not a great sleeper). My 10 mth old has been a great sleeper since he was born, 4-5 hrs at a time and has been sleeping 10-12hrs since 9 mths.

    Introducing solids didn’t not make either of mine sleep better.

  10. tabitha says:

    the hole thing about babies hew dont thrive off of brest milk hasto do alot with moms calorie intake or lack of vitamins formula is ment to mimick brest milk and has bin prooven in many studdies to not properly break dawn causing constipation gass and outher intestinal problems and giving babies grains to early can cause intestinal problams too
    if you can’t brest feed there are better natural alternatives to formula do you realy want man made chemically alterd things being feed to your baby its bad enuff some of the hormones they put in foods theas days

  11. jellybean says:

    My son was breastfed and then supplemented with formula after four weeks. Every baby is different. Their food needs go through a lot of different stages. My son never slept well at night. My mother-in-law thought my son was to small and the reason he was not sleeping well was because I wasn’t feeding him enough. She would come into town basically to force me to start putting rice cereal in my sons bottles at night. She would be nice and offer to make him a bottle while I was getting him ready for bed and slip the cereal in the bottle. Even though I told her he didn’t need the extra calories and that he was to young. He would sleep longer the first two nights but after that he would get awful gas and get really cranky. I thought it was because he was off his schedule since we were more active with company until I caught her putting the cereal in the bottle one night. I was furious and she didn’t do it again to my knowledge. Just pay attention to them and they will let you know what they need from you.

  12. annie says:

    My daughter was breastfed and she slept 6 hrs at a stretch from day one. My son was a preemie and we had to wake him up every 3 hours and feed him so I think he got in the habit of waking up that often. He is almost 3 months old and breastfed and has only slept a 6 hour stretch once. While he was in the NICU and when we first brought him home, they made me pump and bottle feed him my breastmilk fortified with neosure to make it 22 calories. In the 3 weeks time he was in the NICU he only gained 6 oz. I wish they hadn’t doubted mine and his ability to nurse. He gained a whole pound in a week when I cut the bottles out, and has been growing at a much faster, healthier pace since. Hopefully he will start sleeping soon!

  13. notlikemyopinionmatters says:

    To the people who are against formula feeding i cant say i agree breast is always best since hospitals dont drug test new mothers and i honestly think they should it would be more harmful if they allowed those mothers with drug addictions to breast feed. im not against breast feeding but all 3 of my boys digestive tracks and immune systems are fine and they were formula fed yet a friend who breast feds baby has a major immune deficiency so i believe if a child is going to be unhealthy or have problems its the child not how you fed them every child is different some benefit some dont.

  14. Anna says:

    I always wondered if this originated from women who were trying to breastfeed and were exhausted who then switched to formula and felt like their babies were sleeping more because someone else (husband, mother’s mom) could help out and give the baby a bottle at night.

  15. Merle H. says:

    I like how the author brings attention to the brain development that happens around 3-4 months, which can make babies more wakeful. My son is almost four months and the last week or two his sleep has been terrible! He has woken up between 2-4am and stayed awake for two hours simply because he does not want to be asleep (I feed him/change him and he just wants loving). I think it has little to do with what he eats (I still exclusively breastfeed) since he used to sleep for 6 hour runs regularly.

  16. Rosana says:

    My two kids were fed breastmilk exclusively for a year. My son did not sleep through the night until he was 14 months old (he only got fed when it was time not every time he woke up) and my daughter did not sleep through the night until she was 2 years old (same eating pattern as her brother). I just came to the conclusion that they are bad sleepers like their father.

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