Dream feeding is a current, popular technique in which the parent slightly rouses their little one to feed again two to three hours after bedtime in the hopes their baby will sleep longer stretches at night; however, does it actually work?
What is a Dream Feed?
The most popular definition of a ‘dream feed’ is a parent initiated feeding while the baby remains in a partial sleeping state between 10pm to midnight. The intended purpose of the dream feed is to extend a baby's sleep and get longer stretches overnight. While dream feeds are most commonly implemented in the first 4-6 months of a baby’s life, many parents will spontaneously add a dream feed at any point during the first 12 months in hopes of achieving longer overnight stretches of sleep. When properly implemented for babies that need the extra feeding, the baby will often sleep 5-6 hours more, waking for a feeding in the early morning hours between 4-6am, feed, and easily return to sleeping until they are ready to start their day. Sounds great, right? However, for many families I work with, the dream feed often does not result in longer stretches of sleep and actually results in additional sleep issues in the long run.
Why Does a Dream Feed Often Not Work?
When discussing a baby’s sleep it is important to understand proper sleep education and healthy sleep foundations that help a baby achieve peaceful, restorative sleep overnight. Babies grow and change rapidly so our sleep expectations for a 1 month old are going to be very different than say a 4-6 month old. When considering a dream feed, let’s look at the feeding expectations at night according to Dr. Weissbluth:
Newborn to 3 Months: Feeding every 2-3 hours, on demand
3-4 Months: 1-2 on demand feedings, with many babies dropping to 1 feeding
5-6 Months: 0-1 feedings with many often dropping their overnight feedings around 6 months
7-12 Months: Often 0 overnight feedings, but some require 1 feeding pending their nutritional needs
When working with families, we often discuss ensuring that their little one is on a consistent daytime schedule, feeding every 3-4 hours, in order to make sure their nutritional needs are being meet and their body is beginning to form an internal rhythm with hunger cues.The daytime schedule helps parents recognize when their little one wakes up if it’s
a.) a nutritional need or b.) a sleep association that their little one needs to connect sleep cycles. Oftentimes the dream feed becomes a habitual waking because it has been reinforced by the parents consistently waking the baby vs. the baby waking on their own out of a nutritional need, and this can be a tough pattern for the body to break.
It’s also important to note that the most restorative sleep occurs prior to midnight so by introducing a dream feed it can be disturbing important sleep for your baby. Even if a baby is not fully awake for the feeding it can disturb the vital sleep taking place and also it can add into a place the habitual wakings that we want to avoid.
Alternatives to the Dream Feed:
When working with families we focus on individual baby needs, as well as putting into place healthy sleep foundations, without implementing an unnecessary dream feed. Again, it is normal for some babies to continue to need a nutritional feeding during the night until 6 months of age; however, we want to set the baby up for sleep success by giving them the tools to connect sleep cycles so it is easier to wean the overnight feed when it is time.
There are 4 key tips to helping your little one lay a healthy sleep foundation.
A Consistent Routine:
Make feeding times predictable, every 3-4 hours during the day for our infants and establish feeding times for our toddlers, which will also help reduce picky eating from happening in the future!
Have a bedtime routine, even if it's singing a song or reading a book.
Talk to your toddler, especially those over 3, about any changes that may be occurring to their typical schedule so they can be prepared. Children do need to learn how to be flexible and deal with minor changes and talking with them is the best way to help learn this skill.
Maintaining Proper Wake Windows: Wake windows is the term we use to describe the time between naps, from wake up to back to sleep, that your little one should be awake and engaged in order to fill up their little tired tank and get good sleep. Little ones that are overtired at bedtime will often wake more frequently in the night, resulting in many parents thinking they are hungry.
Practicing Putting Self to Sleep: This is where you 𝙘𝙤𝙖𝙘𝙝 or 𝙩𝙚𝙖𝙘𝙝 your little ones on the right path to peaceful sleeping. Sleep is a learned skill that can begin to be taught around 4-6 months when a sleep schedule begins to form; however, you can begin implementing good sleep practices from the very day your little one is born.
Connecting Sleep Cycles: This is a big one! Babies have shorter sleep cycles than adults and they move from light sleep to deep sleep every 45-60 minutes, and this is often where we see wake-ups happening around 4 months. There are many methods on how to help your little one connect their sleep cycles, but they all have a universal theme: allowing your little one 5-7 minutes before intervening in order to see if they are able to self soothe and return to sleep.
It is possible to set healthy sleep foundations and education at any age.