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To Sleep, Perchance to Dreamfeed?

What’s a dreamfeed, you ask? A dreamfeed is a feeding that you offer your baby before you go to bed, by waking her from deep sleep and feeding her in the hope that it will extend her next stretch of sleep. We’ve received a lot of questions about dreamfeeding since we posted our ages and stages sleep chart. In most cases we don’t recommend dreamfeeding, here’s why:

  • A dreamfeed seems intuitive — you feed your baby on your schedule in order to have your baby sleep a long stretch when you are going to sleep. The problem is that a baby who wakes up several times during the night probably isn’t waking due to hunger; she’s probably waking up due to a sleep association. A sleep association with feeding involves eating a little bit to get back to sleep, not to resolve hunger. This means that adding a dreamfeed won’t extend your child’s stretch of sleep; it will just add another feeding into the night.

  • Feeding in the middle or the night and early morning is protective against early and frequent waking. If you want to feed your baby once in the night, then it’s much better to have that feeding happen at 3:00-4:00 AM in order to satiate your baby for those last few hours of sleep. Since sleep is very light in the morning even a little grumble in the tummy will lead to a waking

  • Dreamfeeding disrupts sleep architecture. Although most babies don’t wake fully during a dreamfeed that happens during the beginning of the night, you are disrupting your baby’s natural sleep cycles by waking her to feed her. There isn’t a lot of research on how this impacts sleep stages, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that fragmented sleep leads to feeling unrested during the day.

  • Some babies start to anticipate the dreamfeed and begin waking up before you would initiate the wake up; this is especially true in the early morning hours. Some sleep experts recommend doing dream feeds a few times during the night. On the face of it this does make sense – you teach your baby to go back to sleep at spontaneous wakings without feeding and you control the timing of feeds. The problem is that most babies will adjust their sleep cycles to wake just before the time you’ve scheduled the feedings! In most cases it’s better just to work with your baby’s natural pattern of sleep and feeding needs.

There are a few specific cases when you might consider offering a dreamfeed:

  • If your child doesn’t have a sleep association with feeding, then a dreamfeed could lead to an extension of sleep during the night. A dessert bottle after nursing may serve the same function and help you avoid the disruption to sleep

  • If you are beginning a sleep intervention and your baby has been cleared to go all night without feedings, then you might offer a dreamfeed if you are nervous about your child not eating at night. In this case you might offer a dreamfeed just during your nighttime intervention in order to feel confident that your baby isn’t hungry during the rest of the night. The dreamfeed will typically go away naturally as a child learns to sleep independently.

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