What if there was a way to get better sleep while still ensuring your newborn baby gets fed? There is, and it’s called dream feeding … but there’s more to the practice than you might think.
While some experts recommend dream feeding, others suggest there are more disadvantages than benefits. With that kind of contradicting advice, who should you believe?
There are also many misconceptions surrounding dream feeding, which is why we’ve created this guide to clear it all up.
Whether you breastfeed, bottle feed or incorporate a combination of the two, this parenting trick might help you get more sleep while growing a healthy baby.
Read on to learn what dream feeding is, how it works, how to do it properly and safely, whether you should try it and why, who should avoid doing it, and how to stop when it’s time.
What is Dream Feeding?
“Dream feeding” may evoke an image of snoozing parents lazily handing their babies a bottle. But it’s more hands-on than you might imagine.
In fact, it’s the other way around – parents are doing the work while babies get to snooze. Here’s more about what dream feeding is and what it isn’t.
What it Is
Babies are biologically built to eat in nearly any situation, including when they’re asleep. Therefore, dream feeds take advantage of this fact.
Babies feed in their sleep with much less fussing than when they’re awake. Dream feeds avoid wakeful crying episodes due to a baby being hungry at night since they’ve eaten without waking, and can continue to sleep comfortably.
What it Isn’t
Some “experts” and bloggers define dream feeding as waking your baby to “tank them up” before you go to bed, or at another time which is more convenient for the parent. However, this is inaccurate, since the baby would then technically be awake for the feeding.
Dream feeding is also not simply “tanking” baby up before you head to bed yourself. Rather, this would count as a regular feeding, not a “dream” one.
After all, the strategy in dream feeding is to feed your little one while they’re asleep, avoiding the process of waking them up to eat and subsequently settling them back down afterward.
How Does Dream Feeding Work?
The biggest question parents have about dream feeding is, how do babies eat while they’re asleep? Is this even possible?
And while this process involves letting your baby sleep rather than completely rousing them to eat, babies will still be sleeping “lightly.” Therefore, babies aren’t truly sleeping deeply; if they are sleeping deeply, getting them awake enough to eat could be difficult.
The bottom line is, babies are biologically wired to eat when presented with a nipple—whether they’re fully awake or not.
At the same time, babies remain relaxed in a sleep state and are less likely to cry or fuss, meaning you can get things done and get back to sleep yourself as soon as possible.
Dream feeding can even avoid night waking entirely since babies don’t ever feel hungry.
How to Dream Feed Your Baby
If you want to feed your baby while they’re sleeping, the process is simple. However, the process isn’t quite as easy as you might hope!
This section will talk all about how to dream feed your baby, including what to do and why you should do it, what to avoid and why it should be avoided, and tips and tricks for maximum chances of success.
Starting a Dream Feed
To initiate dream feeding, you’ll want to hold your baby in a usual feeding position. Of course, this means retrieving your baby from her crib, bassinet, or sleeping area.
Moving a sleeping baby can prove difficult, especially if your infant is a light sleeper, so be careful when doing this.
Ideally, you would already have your baby in a co-sleeper near your bed, or even bed-sharing with you. This setup makes for easy access to your baby whether you’re breastfeeding or bottle feeding.
Of course, co-sleeping isn’t for every family, so you may have to try other ways to get your little one in a desirable feeding position.
If you bottle feed, you could “hover” over your baby’s crib or bassinet to feed. Then again, standing up while your baby eats doesn’t sound very appealing, especially if you’re doing this in the middle of the night.
Regardless, once you have your baby in the ideal feeding position, you’ll take advantage of their instinct to “root” for food. You can encourage them to begin rooting for the breast or bottle by stroking their cheek. Even in their sleep, your baby should begin “searching” for the food.
Make sure to have either a bottle or the breast ready at this point. Most babies will latch on and begin eating with little effort. Of course, if yours is a struggling or reluctant eater, you may need a nipple shield or other assistance to begin feeding.
Once your baby begins eating, you can stroke her cheek if she starts to slow down, and this should keep her suckling.
Do You Need to Burp Your Baby Afterwards?
Many sources suggest burping is not necessary after feeding babies. And while parents may feel like burping their babies reduces the odds of colic or other tummy troubles, studies show this isn’t always the case.
Of course, if you feel like burping your baby is a necessity, you can risk waking them for it, or just let them sleep and trust in the researchers’ conclusions.
Also, a lightly sleeping and relaxed baby is less likely to swallow air during feedings, anyway.
What To Avoid Doing
Although there are no studies examining dream feeding in comparison with a control group, some studies have covered infant sleep tools including night feeds.
And those studies found positive results regarding baby sleep patterns when parents did these three things:
- Giving a “big feed” between 10 pm and midnight
- Lengthening intervals between night feeding by stalling with re-swaddling, changing diapers, and walking
- Keeping lights on the low while feeding
- Keeping noise on the low while feeding
The study suggests keeping nighttime feeds dark, soothing, and calm, so you should avoid doing stuff such as turning on lights, talking a lot to your baby or partner, or using devices like your phone or the TV.
Of course, all these steps aim to avoid waking your baby, which is the top no-no when attempting to dream feed.
You’ll also want to skip moving around too much both while positioning your baby for a feed and putting them back to bed afterward. However, some babies will wake up regardless—and in these cases, dream feeding may not be the right strategy for you after all.
Benefits of Dream Feeding
Now you know what dream feeding is and how to do it, but hey – wait up a second … why would you want to give it a try, anyways?
Here are a few of the benefits dream feeding can offer to parents and babies alike.
1) Reduces Stress for Baby
If your baby often wakes up to scream for food, it’s likely she’s experiencing a lot of stress. After all, being hungry is indeed an emergency for young ones.
Dream feeding eliminates those painful awakenings and keeps your baby’s tummy full for most – if not all – of the night.
Another way dream feeding reduces stress for your baby is with breastfeeding. Many infants, especially older babies, who are struggling with breastfeeding often develop aversions to the breast. While this is tough on moms who are desperate to nurse, it’s also difficult for the baby.
When babies are awake, they can understand the expectations placed on them to nurse at the breast. They may fight against the correct position for nursing or even cry when presented with a nipple. Sleeping babies, however, rely on instinct alone to find and latch onto a food source.
Therefore, nursing your baby at night while he’s still asleep can help improve your nursing relationship—at least until he wakes in the morning! At the same time, it also helps make nursing feel instinctual, so a baby who is resistant may soon “give in” during the day, too.
2) Boost Mom’s Milk Supply
For moms who struggle with or worry about their breastmilk supply, dream feeds are a helpful solution.
Instead of waking up and expressing milk manually or with a pump, moms can have their babies drink the milk without waking up.
It’s a win-win for mom’s milk production and baby’s tummy. Plus, moms don’t have to deal with storing milk and feeding bottles later.
3) Baby Gets Better Sleep
The biggest benefit might be regarding the baby’s sleep habits.
Babies who dream feed don’t wake up, and if they do, it’s usually only for a brief period before they doze right back off.
Shorter wakeful periods means less putting the baby to sleep and more deep rest for the little one.
4) Parents Get Better Sleep
Although parents still must wake up to feed the baby with dream feeds, they can usually avoid those middle of the night parties infants enjoy so much.
Plus, if you do a dream feed when you’re ready to go to bed, your baby might sleep for a stretch of time more consistent with your sleep schedule.
By letting your baby remain asleep, you avoid the ritual of burping, rocking, singing, and more to get them back to sleep. The entire feeding process takes less time, meaning you can return to bed faster.
5) Cutting Out Unpredictable Timing
Because parents initiate dream feeding, you choose the timing and avoid unpredictable sleep patterns.
Plus, dream feeding reduces the chances of babies developing sleep associations. Because your baby sleeps throughout the feeding, they aren’t being reprogrammed to wake up to eat.
Disadvantages to Dream Feeding
While this method isn’t truly “bad” for anyone, there are a few noteworthy disadvantages for everyone to consider before choosing to feed this way.
1) Parents Still Miss Sleep
The term “dream” feeding may be a bit misleading since it’s only the babies who don’t have to wake up. Parents must still wake at night to either prepare bottles or nurse the baby, so feeding this way is not a cure-all for sleep troubles.
However, dream feeding should take less time, when done properly, than regular night feedings.
If the baby keeps snoozing, there’s less time spent rocking, singing, or patting them back to sleep. And, these top-up feedings can help extend baby’s natural sleep pattern.
2) Studies Haven’t Explored It Yet
While many parents report promising results from adding dream feeds to their babies’ schedules, the science is still out on this one. And there are no studies thus far which examine babies’ sleep patterns regarding dream feeding.
Plus, it’s practically impossible to gauge the effectiveness of dream feeding as a means of “training” babies to sleep. This is because babies tend to develop more solid sleep patterns as they grow and develop, regardless of whether they’re eating while asleep or not.
3) It Doesn’t Always Work for Everyone
Some babies will begin waking for night feedings, even if they didn’t before, because they learn to wake up for the dream feeds.
This depends on your baby’s habits and personality, of course – but for some infants, dream feeding becomes nightly feeding, and you might just be waking your baby for no reason at all!
When to Start Dream Feeding
If this sounds like something you’d like to try, it’s important to consider your baby’s age, developmental stage, individual personality and needs. In general, the younger a baby is, the more likely dream feeding will be successful.
Of course, every baby is different, so there are no guarantees.
Still, there are some guidelines for when to start dream feeding and when the best time is to stop, for maximum chances of success.
Best Ages To Start
Ideally, parents should use dream feeding for younger babies who have the biological need to eat throughout the night.
Since this method minimizes wakeful periods while ensuring babies get the nutrition they need, starting at birth is the best-case scenario for many families.
Starting dream feeding in the newborn stage may also help smooth out your baby’s sleep patterns in the long run. After all, once their bellies can go all night without a feed, there’s less chance of them waking up since there’s no precedent for night waking.
When to Stop Dream Feeding
Once you’ve started out, you may find you’re getting better and more restful sleep. Your baby may also be sleeping better … win-win!
But, it can’t last forever—at some point, you’ll want to night wean completely, both for your health and your baby’s.
So when should you stop, and how exactly do you go about doing that?
The Ideal Age To Stop
Most experts recommend ceasing dream feeds at around three months of age. By three months old, healthy babies have long since regained their birth weight and are regulating their sleep schedules.
While not every infant will sleep through the night at this age, it’s likely they’ll sleep for longer stretches without waking to feed.
And while dream feeding in general works with both formula fed and breastfed babies, breastfeeding moms can usually expect their milk supply to level out around 12 weeks postpartum. This “settling” means it’s less work for mom to maintain a full milk supply.
After around 12 weeks, nursing moms may be able to skip feeds or space them farther apart without impacting overall production.
Therefore, three months is a favorable time to begin dropping dream feeds—both mom and baby may be able to sleep through the night at this point.
However, it’s important to note; many breastfed babies tend to nurse throughout the night until around one year of age. Of course, every baby is different, so some will be hungry at night while others will sleep six hours or more at a time.
How to Stop Dream Feeding Your Baby
Ceasing dream feeds can be difficult at times because if babies miss a sleepy feed, they may feel hunger shortly after and wake up anyway. This defeats the purpose of dream feeding in the first place.
As Dr. Craig Canapari explains, “learned hunger” is the biggest challenge to stopping nighttime feeds.
However, there are strategies to stop dream feeds without losing much sleep. Most of them mirror recommendations for night weaning itself, except you’re hopefully dealing with a sleepier baby from the start!
1) With Bottle Feeding
For babies who drink from bottles, it’s almost easier to drop dream feeds because you can slowly reduce the amount of formula or breastmilk in their feedings.
You can follow a step-by-step reduction in overall ounces per feeding every night to slowly wean, hopefully without your baby noticing.
Slowly cutting back on bottles means you can soon stop dream feeding altogether. It also means you’re retraining your baby’s tummy to feel less hungry, thus helping them stay asleep for longer.
Every baby is different, so some babies will eat multiple times per night, and some may only have one dream feed. Similarly, total ounces can vary based on your baby’s age and appetite, so it’s hard to give specific advice that applies to all babies alike.
There are a few options when it comes to stopping dream feeds with bottle feeding, such as:
Option #1: Pushing the feeds to a later time to extend the longest stretch of sleep.
Option #2: Moving feeds to an earlier time so the baby is less hungry, then dropping them the closer you get to the nearest feeding.
Option #3: Decreasing the volume of each feeding over time; again, this varies based on how much your baby eats, but you can try reducing one feeding each night by one ounce. If you do multiple dream feeds, cut down each one by one ounce each day. When you reach two-ounce feedings, begin cutting the feedings out.
2) With Breast Feeding
For moms of young babies who want to stop, they’re potentially risking affecting their milk supply by cutting out feeds.
Therefore, moms who get their babies to sleep through the night without dream feeds may want to express breast milk manually or with a pump if they feel concerned about supply issues.
Tips for stopping nighttime feeding without losing your milk supply include:
Nurse more during the day: This helps reduce supply issues and ensures your baby is still getting the nutrients he needs.
Fill baby up before bed: The fuller your baby is before bedtime, the less likely she is to start rooting around for food in the middle of the night at the regular dream feed time.
Consider keeping a night feed: If you cut out dream feeds, a truly hungry baby will wind up waking to eat anyway. If you can handle it, consider keeping just one nighttime feed, both for your baby’s tummy and to keep up your milk production up.
In general, stopping dream feedings can be tougher for nursing moms because it’s difficult to tell how much your baby has eaten. Therefore, some strategies for stopping while breastfeeding are:
Option #1: Moving feedings closer to bedtime and/or morning feed times before dropping them completely.
Option #2: Cutting nursing sessions short by a few minutes each night, then dropping them completely one at a time.
Wrapping It Up
Not every parent will want to dream feed their baby, but there are scenarios when it’s recommended and situations when it’s not.
It can be helpful and beneficial in many scenarios, such as:
- When parents are having trouble regulating their baby’s (and their own) sleep; only five percent of new parents sleep eight hours per night!
- With babies who still need food throughout the night and wake up at unpredictable times.
- If mom’s breast milk supply is stable and she wants to get more sleep at night.
However, some babies will require full-on wakeful night feedings, and typically according to a specific schedule. Situations when dream feeding is not recommended are:
- With babies who are underweight or ill, such as premature babies who need scheduled and wakeful feedings at specific times.
- Older babies who can sleep through the night without waking from hunger.
- Some babies with specific conditions or diseases, such as digestion or swallowing problems.
This method is an innovative yet logical approach to ensuring your baby is fed while keeping sleep patterns predictable.
While it won’t work equally well for every family or every baby out there, this strategy can help smooth out sleep challenges, give babies the nutrition they need, and help the whole family navigate nighttime more easily.
While waking at night to feed your baby is often a tough task, night feeding can take some of the stress and sleeplessness out of the equation. Of course, it also helps your baby feel more comfortable, secure, and full—which, after enough sleep, is the best scenario parents can hope for!