“I gave her formula and she settled right to sleep.”
“We breastfed every evening and she still woke several times at night. One evening we offered her some formula and she slept a nice stretch. I think she wasn't getting enough milk.”
New parents have a lot of concerns. A common concern is whether or not baby is getting enough milk.
In fact, one of the leading causes of breastfeeding cessation is a concern about low milk supply.
You may have heard other parents say the things above, or maybe you've experienced them yourself.
It can be stressful to worry about your baby's milk intake.
Even if you know these things, being a new parent can be an exhausting and emotional time and you might still have moments of doubt.
If your baby settles easily and sleeps for a lengthy period of time after being given a bottle of formula, it can reinforce your doubts. Surely this means that your baby isn’t getting enough from your milk alone? Or does it?
Why Is My Breastfed Baby More Settled After Formula?
Why might your baby seem more settled after a bottle of formula?
#1: Formula Is Harder To Digest
Most formulas are derived from cows’ milk. Some are derived from soy milk, goats milk etc. Regardless of what formula is derived from, it is not derived from human milk and hence it is not species specific.
The fats, proteins and carbohydrates in formula are not as easily digested by babies as those in breastmilk. When a food is not easily digested it can leave you feeling fuller for longer.
For this reason, formula fed babies may not need to feed as often and may sleep longer (and deeper) stretches in between feeds. Sleep can be a wonderful thing, but are these longer stretches beneficial for young babies? Or, could they potentially be harmful?
#2: Frequent Waking Is Normal And Beneficial
When your baby is unsettled, she is more likely to have more time in close physical contact with you. Waking often ensures she gets lots of regular contact with you too.
Close physical contact between you and your baby is good for her. Human babies are born the most neurologically immature primate of all, with only one quarter of an adult’s brain volume. Lots of close physical contact with your baby helps her brain develop optimally.
It seems that babies are wired to find a way to have their needs met, even the need for close physical contact. With breast milk being species specific, the way it is digested doesn't interfere with a baby's natural pattern and instincts.
#3: Frequent Waking May Be Important To Reduce SIDS Risk
Waking frequently and rousing more easily from sleep may also be important factors to help reduce the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).
Research shows that formula fed babies are at increased risk of SIDS when compared to breastfed babies. One of the reasons for this may be that formula fed babies are less easily aroused from sleep than breastfed babies at 2-3 months of age, which is within the 2-4 month peak age for SIDS.
It is important to note that while it is normal for breastfed babies to wake often to feed at night, and for breastfeeding mothers to experience more frequent night-waking than formula feeding mothers, formula feeding mothers tend to experience longer periods of wakefulness. The result is that the net outcome in terms of sleep duration is the same regardless of how a mother feeds her baby, or may even favour breastfeeding mothers.
#4: Big Meals Might Induce Sleep
Have you ever had a big feast (e.g. a Christmas dinner) and then felt like doing absolutely nothing but planting yourself on the sofa?
After we eat, our bodies need rest so that energy can be directed towards digesting the food we’ve eaten. Once digested, our bodies can metabolise nutrients to replenish that energy. The larger the meal we have, the more rest our bodies need. This effect is more noticeable if we eat foods that are more difficult to digest.
After a baby drinks formula, particularly a large volume, this may cause her to fall asleep and sleep for a lengthy period of time -not because she is ‘better-fed’ but rather because she cannot digest formula as easily.
When something cannot be digested as well, digestive upsets such as wind, bloating or constipation are more likely.
While formula fed babies may not appear as hungry as often as breastfed babies due to the slowed digestion, it doesn’t mean they get more nutrition. There is also a risk of over-feeding.
#5: More Doesn’t Always Mean Better
Regardless how a baby is fed, feeding according to need is appropriate. That is, feeding according to your baby’s feeding cues.
All babies are individuals with individual needs. As such, different babies need different volumes. Feeding a baby according to need helps ensure she gets what she needs.
On a population level, formula feeding is associated with an increased risk of obesity. Some reasons for this could include:
- Because formula tins come with instructions about how much and how often to feed a baby, a parent may encourage their baby to finish the bottle.
- Formula does not contain leptin, a hormone that helps to regulate food intake. Hence a baby’s self-regulation may be reduced.
- Formula has a higher protein content which may facilitate more rapid growth.
If formula feeding, feeding your baby according to need, choosing a formula with a lower protein content and using a paced bottle feeding method can help.
Breastfeeding can be challenging. Feeling uncertain about your baby's intake can be worrisome, especially if they feel settled after a bottle of formula. However, we know that the perceived satiation after formula is rarely due to inadequate breast milk intake.
If you have breastfeeding concerns, remember that there are many resources available to help you. For example, see a lactation consultant or call an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor. They are there to help and support you no matter what.