Sleepless nights: New research finds babies should wake at night

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New research from Swansea University challenges the idea that babies should be sleeping through the night and also disproves the myth that stopping breastfeeding or giving more solid food to babies helps them to sleep longer at night.

Sleeping baby

The study led by the Department of Public Health, Policy and Social Sciences asked 715 mothers with a baby aged 6 – 12 months how often their baby usually woke in the night and whether they fed their baby when it woke. It also examined whether they were breastfeeding, how many milk feeds they gave their baby in the day and how often they gave their baby solid foods. The findings firstly showed that 78% of babies at this age still regularly woke at least once in the night with 61% having at least one milk feed during the night.

The study also showed that although mums who were breastfeeding tended to feed their baby more at night, there was no difference in the number of times babies woke up dependent on whether they were breast or formula fed, how many feeds they had in the day or how many solid meals they ate.

Dr Amy Brown, programme director for the MSc Child Public Health who led the study said: “The findings are very interesting as they firstly challenge the idea that babies should be sleeping through the night once they are past a few weeks old and secondly that what you feed babies will help their sleep. There is a common belief that formula milk or giving more solid foods will help your baby sleep better and this study shows this isn’t true. We did find that mothers who were breastfeeding fed their baby more at night but this could be because breastfeeding is a simple way to get your baby back to sleep quickly! The babies who were formula fed still woke up, they just weren’t fed.”

Baby feeding research

Victoria Harries, MSc student on the MSc in Child Public Health noted: "Interestingly we found that the more milk or solids the baby had during the day, the less likely the baby was to be fed at night, although these babies still woke up just as frequently as those who ate less during the day. It shows that babies continue to wake in the night for reasons other than hunger, and stopping formula feeding or trying to give your baby more solids during the day does not stop your baby waking at night. Trying to overfeed a baby during the day in the hope it will sleep at night may encourage overfeeding and risk of obesity and as we have shown does not stop your baby from waking."

Dr Brown said: “There is a lot of pressure on new mums to get their babies to sleep through the night and a multimillion pound market trying to sell them ways of doing this. We hope that our findings are of comfort to new mothers who have a baby who is still waking in the night, in showing them that many other babies are waking too. We hope that it will also give new mothers confidence to continue breastfeeding and introducing solids gradually as they know stopping will not magically make their baby sleep.”

Victoria Harries added: “We know that breastfeeding and introducing solids slowly continue to be important for the health of both babies and mothers during later infancy but many mothers tell us that they face pressure to give their baby formula or lots of food, particularly if their baby isn’t sleeping through the night. Our findings show that it is normal for babies to wake and instead those supporting the mother should find other ways of helping her rather than trying to affect how she feeds her baby.”

The research published in Breastfeeding Medicine can be read here