This is one of the oldest tricks in the book when it comes to getting babies to sleep through the night. Mixing baby cereal with breastmilk or formula and giving it to your child in the bottle as a means for them to become more full.
It has been recommended by doctors and used by parents for generations. I have a close friend who was given cereal at the ripe age of 4 WEEKS OLD. Not only is cereal not suitable for babies so young, their stomach is not prepared for anything other than milk at that age. (Read more about this here)
As adults, we know that sleeping on an empty stomach is challenging, but we also know that staying awake after a big, hearty meal is also next to impossible. Thinking this doesn’t apply to you…where were you after Thanksgiving Dinner? Christmas Dinner? I know where I was…rubbing my eyes and yawning on the couch. Overstuffed and very satisfied.
So, the notion that a little cereal in a baby’s bottle should take longer to digest than breastmilk or formula, which will keep them feeling full for longer periods, and therefore help them sleep through the night, seems reasonable at face value.
Any parent (myself included) who has experienced a baby who isn’t sleeping well is probably anxious to find the reason why, and is likely to try anything they deem as safe and potentially effective in order to remedy the situation. Even sometimes when we look back into the “newborn stages” of our child’s life, we realize that sometimes what we thought was safe, really wasn’t.
(Side note – I recently saw a picture of a baby sleeping in a vibrating chair on top of a stove…*shudder*. That’s called desperation)
Unfortunately, the vast majority of parents who use this trick find that, even if it’s successful at first, the results are only temporary, and here’s the reason why…
Once your baby reaches a certain age and weight, (I’ll just use the 6 month mark here as a happy medium) waking in the night isn’t about food, it’s about sleep! I’ve heard from parents who were getting up with their little ones 5-10 times a night, claiming that their baby was waking that often to eat.
Sure, baby might have nursed a little every time they were offered the breast, but that doesn’t mean that they were hungry. One sleep cue that newborns show, is often mistaken for “rooting” even after a full feed. This is simply because your newborn baby is rooting their head into your chest to find a dark place to rest. The darkness of their eyes on your chest is exactly what they are looking for. This means – time for bed!
I have also had worried moms come to me saying that their baby must not be getting any milk as she feels like her breasts are empty after feeding on demand all day and all night. This makes sense! If you aren’t giving your own body the proper rest it deserves, it can’t produce effectively and efficiently!
So this being said, what is much more likely is that babies become dependant on nursing as a method to get to sleep.
After all, if they’ve nursed to sleep every time they’ve woken up for the first six months of their lives, it only makes sense that they won’t be able to get to sleep without that familiar routine.
The cereal in the bottle works on the idea that babies fall asleep at bedtime and don’t wake up until morning, assuming there’s nothing bothering them, but that’s not how sleep works. Not for babies, and not for adults. We all cycle in and out of deep sleep, and at the end of every cycle, we tend to wake up. Maybe not fully, but we do attain a certain level of consciousness.
In babies, that cycle is usually about 45 minutes, so even on a good night, they’re going to wake up a lot. And if the only way they know how to get to sleep is by nursing, they’re going to cry to get your attention, and wait for you to come in and help them out.
So if it’s got nothing to do with hunger, how can you help them sleep through the night?
The solution to the issue, not the “hack” or quick fix, but the actual remedy, is teaching your baby to fall asleep independently.
That might seem like a tall order for a 6 month old, but I assure you, they’re fully capable of learning this invaluable skill, even at an earlier age. It’s natural, and they typically take to it faster than you would expect.
Lots of babies will babble to themselves for a bit, or rub their feet together, or suck on their fingers, or some combination of all three. Almost every client I’ve worked with has had some new (and often amusing) trick that their baby has adopted as a sleep strategy. Let them discover these strategies on their own, and then let them practice them a little. It’s a skill, and skills take time to master. My own son loves to suck his thumb and snuggle into his bunny, to fall asleep.
Now, I’m not saying that you should leave a crying baby to sort themselves out without any comfort or attention. You should feel free to attend to them, let them know you’re nearby and available, but don’t rock, nurse, or cuddle them until they fall asleep. Let them find a way to do it on their own. That way, when they wake in the night, they’ll have the skills they need to settle back down on their own.
These skills will help them throughout their entire life! A baby who sleeps well becomes a child who sleeps well, who becomes a teenager, and then an adult who sleeps well. It is the gift that keeps on giving!
Definitely one that I’m grateful to pass on.