You rocked, swaddled, and shushed your baby off into dreamland, and you finally have a few moments to yourself. Should you shower? Eat a hot meal? Or just veg out on Netflix? When your head finally hits the pillow a few hours later, you crash hard into deep sleep—only to be startled awake by a shrill piercing cry.
Yes, babies need to be fed around the clock, but parents need some shut-eye too! What if there was a way to accomplish both?
Let’s explore what dream feeding is and how it may be the solution to getting you some much needed zzz’s.
What Is a Dream Feed?
A dream feed is a feeding that happens when your little one is asleep—usually between 10 PM and midnight.
This last nursing or bottle feed is to “tank up the engine” so that your baby will sleep three to four hours longer, giving you the opportunity for some much-needed rest. Some experts say it doesn’t matter if your tiny tot is sleeping or awake for this final feed as long as it happens before parents go to bed.
Sleep deprivation is extremely hard on the body and mind and can increase the risk of postpartum depression. But the body also has some pretty amazing mechanisms to prioritize the most restorative stages of sleep, even when your overall shut-eye is lacking.
Stages 3 and 4 are the deepest stages where most people spend 20% of the night. When you’re not getting ample rest, the body skimps on other stages and soaks in as much stage 3 and 4 slow-wave sleep as possible in the earlier part of the night. That’s why giving your body a solid three to four hours of uninterrupted zzz’s earlier on should help you feel more rested than if you get a stretch in the early morning hours.
Pros and Cons of Dream Feeding Your Baby
Before you jump on board, it’s important to consider the pros and cons to decide whether this is right for your family.
- Your Infant Might Sleep Longer
Most newborns need to eat every 2 to 3 hours, or at least 8 to 12 times in a 24 hour period. If you do the math, you’ll quickly realize that means waking to eat throughout the night too.
If your baby goes to bed between 6-8 PM and you go to bed around 10 PM, your sleep will likely be interrupted shortly after you hit those deeper stages.
One of the most common reasons newborns wake in the night is hunger. If you fill that tiny belly before you hit the sack, your baby may stay asleep for a few extra hours. And as long as your little one sleeps through this feed, you may be training her to sleep longer stretches.
This means that once your infant is capable of going longer stretches without food, he’ll already be accustomed to sleeping six to eight hours without waking. That’s a win-win!
- Nursing While Asleep Creates Fewer Distractions for Your Baby
Infants are fascinated by the new world around them. More than anything, they love faces—especially yours (the one matched to that mysterious voice they heard for nine months in the womb).While they’re awake, nursing or drinking an entire bottle could take as long as an hour because of how distracted your baby becomes. You may be shocked by how fast your baby can complete an entire feeding while asleep.
- It Could Limit Nursing Associations for Your Newborn
Nursing is such a comforting experience for newborns that they can’t help but fall asleep. This can be convenient in the early days when you want to get your infant down so you can sneak in a shower. But over time, it can also lead to suck-to-sleep associations that can be difficult to break.
Most sleep experts agree that it’s important for babies to learn to fall asleep in different ways. Once they’re capable of self-soothing, this helps them to fall asleep on their own without needing your assistance (you can see how to stop nursing here). How a baby falls asleep is how they want to fall back asleep during their many night wakings.
If your little one always needs to nurse to fall asleep, she’ll be demanding multiple feedings a night, even when she isn’t hungry. Dream feeds happen when your baby is already asleep, eliminating the potential for a suck-to-sleep association.
- It May Help You Wean Night Feedings
Somewhere between 6 to 12 months of age, babies become biologically capable of going without food for longer periods during the night. For many lucky parents, this means their little one may hit the coveted milestone of “sleeping through the night.” Before you get too excited, it’s important to understand that this milestone refers to sleeping a 6 to 8 hour stretch, not the 12 hours that most parents are hoping for.
Also, keep in mind that every child is different. A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that only 57% of infants were sleeping 8-hour stretches by their first birthday. What we don’t know is if those night wakings were due to hunger or habit.
Starting dream feeds in the early days may help to establish longer sleep patterns by eliminating wakings due to a rumbly tummy. As your little one gets older, dropping this dream feed should be easier since your baby won’t be accustomed to waking for it.
- Your Baby Might Wake Up
One of the downsides is that your little one may wake up when you pick them up to drink. Infants have short sleep cycles and spend up to 50% of the night in REM sleep during the first 6 months. This means they spend a lot of time in lighter sleep with more opportunities for awakening.
Depending on where your baby is in his sleep cycle, he may wake up when you go to nurse him. If this only happens occasionally, it shouldn’t be a problem. But if your infant becomes accustomed to waking up to feed night after night, it may make weaning night feeds harder later on.
- You Might Have More Diapers on Your Hands
What goes in must come out, so you may end up with a few more diapers. Choosing whether to change a wet diaper in the middle of the night is entirely up to you.
Dirty diapers should always be changed immediately to prevent rashes and to keep your little one comfortable. If your little one doesn’t wake up during the dream feed, it’s best to just put her back in her crib and save the diaper change for when she wakes up on her own.
Signs Sleep Feeding Could Be Good for Your Baby
Still not sure if squeezing in this final meal before you go to bed is right for you and your little one? Are any of these true?
Your Baby Wakes Up to Feed Early in the Morning
If your tiny tot typically wakes up before the sun to eat but won’t fall back asleep, shifting his mealtimes may help. Resetting his internal clock may take some time, but eventually, his body should adjust. Most newborns will continue to wake a second time in the early morning hours, but older infants may be able to last from the dream feed until morning.
You Wake Your Baby to Feed
Newborns should eat every three to four hours, even during the night. If you’re already having to wake up your sweet babe to eat, why not try dream feeding instead?
Newborns love to suck, so chances are you’ll be able to sneak in a feeding while your child is none the wiser. This will help to train your little one to sleep longer stretches but without compromising her nutritional needs for growth and development.
Your Breasts Feel Too Full Before Bed
Another huge benefit for mamas who have an overabundant milk supply is that you’ll be able to sleep a little more comfortably after nursing. If your breasts always feel too full before bed, squeezing in an extra nursing session should help to alleviate that uncomfortable feeling so you can fall asleep. This is a common problem many new mothers face when their milk comes in but should regulate over time.
Your Newborn Struggles to Sleep Through the Night
We talked earlier about how “sleeping through the night” usually means staying asleep for a stretch of six to eight hours. For newborns, this would mean missing out on feedings since they need to eat every two to three hours both day and night in the early days. Incorporating a dream feed can encourage your little one to stay asleep longer without missing out on essential nutrition.
How to Dream Feed
There’s really no right or wrong way to do this, and a lot depends on where your little one sleeps at night. If you’ve chosen to room-share, your infant will probably be either next to you or in her own little bed within arms reach. In this case, you simply nurse or bottle-feed your baby with as little disturbance as possible.
Babies who are in a separate room can be fed in a rocking chair or somewhere close by that’s dark and quiet. It’s important to try to minimize any disruptions that could wake your baby. If he’s swaddled or in a sleep sack, it’s fine to feed him that way.
Infants have a rooting reflex which means that when you gently touch your breast or bottle to their cheek, they’ll automatically turn their head to look for the nipple. If this doesn’t work, try placing your breast/bottle on her lower lip and she should latch on instinctively.
Some infants who are sleeping deeply may not latch, so you’ll have to either rouse them slightly or wait a few minutes and try again. I suggest the latter so you can avoid waking them entirely. Within 15 to 20 minutes, she’ll probably be in a lighter stage and will be able to latch successfully.
What’s an Ideal Dream Feeding Schedule?
textContent:The exact schedule will vary depending on when everyone goes to bed at night as well as how old your infant is. Newborns may wake several times a night because of their tiny tummies that can only hold so much milk. Older infants may only need to eat once or twice a night.
In both situations, scheduling a feed right before you turn in at night should give you anywhere from three to eight hours of blissful rest before your sweet cherub wakes. For younger babes, expect at least one to two additional awakenings. For older infants, a dream feed may be all you need.
Here’s a sample schedule of what your night could look like:
When Should I Start Sleep Feeding My Newborn?
Newborns often have their days and nights mixed up so they may be waking every hour or two at first. Once your babe can go longer stretches of three to four hours between nighttime feeds, it’s time to introduce sleep feeding. For most infants, this ends up being at one to four months of age.
It helps to prepare your baby by establishing a regular bedtime routine and teaching him to fall asleep in different ways. Also, make sure your little one is growing appropriately on breastmilk or formula before encouraging longer stretches at night.
When Can I Stop Night Feeding?
Once again, this will really depend on your individual circumstances. As infants grow, they’re able to sleep longer stretches without needing to eat. If dream feeding is working for you, you can keep it up.
As your baby gets older (six to nine months), you can try skipping the dream feed to see if they’ll continue sleeping without it. Some babies continue to need one night-nursing session until their first birthday. But if you can sneak it in while they’re still asleep, you’ll be setting yourself up for success later on when they no longer need to eat at night.
How to Tell When Your Baby is Full
Let your little one nurse for as long as she likes on the first side, then offer her the second side if she still seems hungry. When she unlatches and turns her head, you’ll know she’s full. For bottle-fed babies, they will typically slow down drinking or stop sucking completely when they’re full.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Dream Feeding Safe?
Yes, in most cases it’s safe to feed your babe while they’re still asleep. Keep in mind that if your infant has had difficulty with latching or problems meeting growth milestones, it’s important to consult your pediatrician before starting.
Never force the breast or bottle in your baby’s mouth if they won’t latch. Pick your baby up to feed—don’t try to feed them in their crib or bassinet. Also, if your little one frequently wakes up for his feeding, you may be reinforcing a pattern of waking at night that will be difficult to break.
What if My Baby is Too Tired to Latch?
Some babies will happily latch in their sleep while others may be so sleepy that they won’t latch at all. If you’re having difficulty getting your little one to drink, don’t fret. You can either try to carefully rouse her slightly (just enough to eat but not fully wake up) or you can wait and try again a few minutes later.
Remember—babies have shorter sleep cycles than adults, so chances are she’ll be in a lighter stage if you just wait 15 to 20 minutes longer. The wait will be well worth it if she stays asleep long enough for you to get a solid uninterrupted stretch.
Some tricks for slightly rousing include:
- Undress from sleepsack/swaddle
- Tickle feet or under the chin
- Run a wipe or wet cloth across the cheek
- Put a couple of drops of milk on the lips .
Do I Need to Burp My Baby After Dream Feeding?
Every baby is unique and their individual needs will vary. Some take in a lot of air while drinking and are more prone to gas; others can nurse from both sides or down an entire bottle and not need to burp at all. One randomized control trial found that burping didn’t reduce colic and actually increased the number of spit ups.
Babies tend to take in less air when they’re more relaxed, so they may not even need to burp. If your little one is prone to gas or has colic, you may want to consider some gentle methods for releasing air that won’t disrupt sleep. Rubbing the back in circles can help or just gently patting the lower back.
If you feel certain that your little one needs to burp before going back to bed, go ahead and burp him. The worst-case scenario is that he wakes up and you have to soothe him back to sleep.
New parents are often bombarded by advice—some good and some bad. If you’re lucky, you get one little word of wisdom that makes all the difference in surviving those early days. For many, dream feeding is that golden nugget.
Squeezing in one final meal for your sleeping babe before turning in may give you the chance to catch up on some much needed zzz’s. It also has the benefit of training your little one to stay asleep for longer stretches. Later on, when your baby no longer needs to eat at night, she’ll already know how to stay in dreamland (so you can too).
Jill Zwarensteyn is the Editor for Sleep Advisor and a Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.