Breastfeeding is best for babies, but what about their sleep-deprived parents?

Breast is still best, but can feeding young babies some solid food mean more sleep for parents?

A new study from British researchers published this week in JAMA Pediatrics supports what caregivers have thought for generations – that some solids in an infant’s diet may result in a little more rest for parents.

“To our knowledge, we show for the first time in a randomized clinical trial setting that, consistent with the belief of many parents, the early introduction of solids does have a small but significant effect on sleep characteristics,” said study author Gideon Lack, a pediatric allergy professor with King’s College London, and colleagues.

But that doesn’t mean you should do it.

The researchers’ findings were limited to babies’ sleep duration, not on what is nutritionally best for babies. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, British health officials and many other childcare experts around the globe advise mothers to try to exclusively breastfeed babies up to age 6 months.

In addition to decades of research finding breast milk to be nutritionally complete, breastfeeding also has been linked to stronger immunity, healthy brain development, lower obesity risk, reduced Sudden Infant Death Syndrome rates, higher educational achievement and also various maternal health benefits.

“All new parents want their babies to sleep,” said University of Pennsylvania nursing professor Diane L. Spatz, who also is a researcher and manager of the lactation program at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“However, the study findings are concerning, especially in light of the obesity epidemic,” and the connection between early introduction of solids and food allergies.

Her recommendation: “Breastfeed on cue around the clock. This may mean the infant would be breastfeeding frequently between 10 p.m. and  4 a.m. when prolactin [the milk-making hormone] is highest.”

Not great for Mom’s sleep.

“But then the baby may have a longer period of rest in the early morning,” Spatz explained. She suggests maintaining a safe sleep space for baby by using a co-sleeper (which attaches to the parents’ bed) so that it’s easier for moms to get back to sleep after nursing.

Plus, the added sleep time associated with solid food may not be as much as some parents think.

The British study found that introducing solid food to babies younger than six months was associated with babies sleeping an average of about seven minutes more a night than their exclusively breastfed peers, peaking at almost 17 minutes more a night at age 6 months. That amounted to about two extra hours of sleep a week at age 6 months and waking two less times a night.

The early solid food eaters overall also had about 9 percent fewer night feedings. Parents of exclusively breastfed babies were more likely to perceive their babies as having sleep problems, researchers found.

There was, however, no difference in the amount of daytime sleep between the two groups of infants. The authors also found that the introduction of formula before 6 months of age was minimal for both groups and did not explain the sleep differences.

The sleep data came out of a study that was originally designed to examine the effect of early food introduction on the development of food allergies. It involved more than 1,200 children from England and Wales from age 3 months through 3 years. All the babies were breastfed, but about half started getting certain solid foods in addition to breast milk from age 3 months or somewhat later, but before they were 6 months old.

While childcare experts urge mothers to maximize breastfeeding benefits, even shorter nursing durations are beneficial to babies.