Breaking the cycle of feeding to sleep
There’s something special and awfully sweet about your new little bundle falling asleep in your arms as you’re feeding them – happy, warm, and content with a belly full of milk and a drunk smile on their face… What’s usually not so sweet is when you’re still trying to do that months later.
Falling asleep feeding versus feeding to sleep
The aforementioned scenario is a prime example of falling asleep feeding – but what’s important to understand is that this differs hugely from feeding to sleep. Falling asleep feeding is when your baby has a full feed, unlatches themselves, and nods off dopily and contentedly.
It’s incredibly common in the newborn days but happens among those in older age groups too – especially at that bedtime feed, when their biological drive to sleep is strong and you’ve set the scene for relaxation.
Feeding to sleep on the other hand, is a more conscious decision. Your baby finishes feeding and you stay stock still – sitting and holding them until they’ve well and truly nodded off; only putting them down when they’re fast asleep. That in itself is not necessarily a problem – but many parents feel like they can’t stop with this approach even if they want to as they don’t have any other way to get their babies to sleep.
Creating a feed to sleep association can cause later challenges too, as we’ll explore shortly.
By way of a disclaimer I would say that if feeding to sleep works for you then, by all means, keep doing it. However, if it doesn’t work for you, and you’re tired, there is a better way.
But first, how do we get stuck feeding to sleep?
It can be hard to immediately recognise a feeding to sleep association. It can creep up on us unawares when we’re doing what we’ve always done.
In fact, feeding to sleep only starts to become a problem after the four month mark, as our babies physiologically outgrow it as a strategy. You see, as babies get older, being fed becomes overstimulating and they aren’t able to settle into such a deep sleep.
Sometimes the creation of a problematic feeding to sleep association begins exactly this way; carrying on as a continuation from those newborn days where we focus on feeding lots, responding immediately, and not giving a lot of space to start learning to settle.
Other times, it’s a result of something external causing frequent waking during the night, whether that be illness, teething, or just the development of baby’s own circadian rhythms. We feed them to get them back to sleep more quickly and easily during the night and, before we know it, we’re stuck in a habit loop.
Signs you might have a ‘feeding to sleep’ association
- If you’re doing frequent feeds during the night beyond the newborn weeks. Once supply is established in breastfeeding, most babies only need feeding 1-2 times during the night. Experts agree that a healthy baby over 4kg can go 4 hours between feeds, so this equates to only a couple of feeds overnight.
- If your baby refuses or only snacks lightly for their first feed of the morning. We’re supposed to wake up hungry, so if your baby doesn’t they are likely getting too much milk overnight.
- If your baby is having bigger feeds at night than they do during the day. This is called ‘reverse cycling’ and it’s where babies get their calorie consumption around the wrong way.
Reversing the cycle
Reverse cycling as a result of feeding to sleep can be a difficult challenge to change. It’s not just as simple as dropping or refusing to give night feeds, as babies in a reverse cycle are dependent on these to make up their intake.
Nor can you simply feed your baby up more during the day, as some suggest. Babies are perfect little calorie controllers and they won’t overeat, so it’s not possible to overfeed them to see them through.
So how do you break the association? Simply by teaching them to self-settle to sleep on their own. However, this is best done gently.
If you’ve been feeding to sleep for some time, you have been a massive part of how your baby settles to sleep. Just removing you cold turkey – as in a cry it out method – is often too extreme.
Gentler, hands-off methods are generally more successful. And we say hands-off so that we’re not replacing one sleep prop (feeding) with another (patting or rocking).
The benefits of breaking the ‘feed to sleep’ association
We likely don’t need to tell you this first one; consolidating your baby’s night sleeps leads to longer stretches of sleep for them, which means longer stretches of sleep for you.
That makes for a happier household all round! You and your baby are both likely to wake up happier. Once they learn to link their sleep cycles at night, your baby will also start to nap better during the day.
The benefits aren’t just sleep-related though. Babies who don’t rely on feeding to sleep (nor wake to be fed back to sleep several times overnight) eat better during the day.
They’re less fussy on the breast during the day, and the road to starting solids is smoother. Babies who are taking in more of their calories in their overnight feeding parties can be tricky to take to solids.
This means they often miss out on the extra iron and protein their growing bodies and brains need and the chewing practice that aids in speech development.
While it’s normal for babies to fall asleep feeding, a feed to sleep association is best avoided once babies get past the newborn stage. While you don’t have to vigorously wake them after their bedtime feed, you also shouldn’t have to treat them like a china doll.
Prop them up for a burp (however dopily they do it) and then tuck them into bed as you normally would. The frequent overnight wakings can employ another strategy. Give one of our consultants a call to talk through the right approach for your family – and your unique small human. Happy sleeping!
Emma is the owner and founder of Baby Sleep Consultant, she is a certified infant and child sleep consultant, Happiest Baby on the block educator, has a Bachelor of Science, and Diploma in Education. Emma is a mother to 3 children, and loves writing when she isn't working with tired clients and cheering on her team helping thousands of mums just like you.
Our Baby Sleep Program helps tired parents TO DEVELOP HEALTHY SLEEP HABITS BY FOCUSING ON NAPS, SETTLING AND NIGHT SLEEP.
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- Simple effective settling: Gentle, proven self settling, evidence based techniques.
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- Work with your babies circadian rhythm: Work with your babies biological clock for faster easier results.
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My baby has reflux can you help?
When your baby has reflux, feeds can be difficult and your baby can be in a lot of pain both during and after feeds. This pain can cause feeding aversions and failure to thrive. This is why true GERD (Gastroesophageal reflux disease) needs to be treated by a doctor. Once your baby's doctor is satisfied your baby is feeding well, and you have the right medication or formula then we can start a sleep plan and you will be successful.
My baby has colic will this help?
Colic is defined as 3 or more hours of crying per day in infants. Crying subsides in the second second trimester. If you are still experiencing colic symptoms speak to your baby's doctor about whether this could be reflux, an allergy, or over tiredness. We can help you work on better sleep with this program at the same time as your doctor investigates the pain and crying.
What if the program isn't working?
We have a dedicated help line to ensure your success. Just email our team via the details in your program and a certified, experienced and friendly sleep consultant is ready to stare you in the right direction to ensure your success!
My baby was born early, can you help?
Sleep is neurological so we always work off your babies neurological age, that is their corrected age. When you look at our sleep programs purchase the program that your babies corrected age fits into.
What if I have questions or need more help?
Our sleep programs come with private email support. You don’t have to post in any public forums or groups, just email the exclusive helpline that our team of certified sleep consultants look after and we’ll answer all your questions and help you on your way.
Can this program help with my babies night sleep?
Yes, all our online sleep programs contain night sleep plans. We will teach you how to move from multiple night feeds to 2 or 1 or none (depending on what is age appropriate and appropriate for your baby.) Don’t worry we will show you to figure this out too. If your baby is unsettled at night but not feeding, our plans will help you with consolidate night sleep and self settling when age appropriate.
My baby is cat napping can you help?
Cat napping is a very normal physiological stage that your baby goes through. At this stage (3-8 months old), cat napping can start to be a long term issue and compound into over tiredness and affect night sleep and your babies happiness. Good news, this is a great age to work on re-settling, self settling and better longer naps!
I have 3 children, can this work with my family?
I totally understand how busy life is with 2, 3 or more children! Even if you need a flexible schedule we can still work on settling regular naps (some on the go!), and better evenings and night. Flick our consultants any specific questions about your family's schedule of activities and we can help you work out what is possible nap wise.
I don't want a fixed routine, can you still help?
Yes. A fixed routine is one option, regular naps and regular awake times is another. Both are valid and you are welcome to do what works for your family. We understand you are all different and what works best for one family won't be best for another.
I'm formula feeding, can you still help?
Yes we have specific advice for formula feeding parents, and we support your decision to feed any way you choose. We even have a special video series on formula feeding and everything you need to know. Just ask our consultants about this extra if you need it.
I'm exclusively breastfeeding, can I follow your plans?
Yes! While breastfeeding babies need to feed frequently they still need quality sleep day and night. We have specific advice for breastfeeding mums and an exclusive discount on Julia Daleys breastfeeding course if you need extra help.
I'm bed sharing, can your program help me stop?
Yes. We often fall into bed sharing, we call this reactive bed sharing. Or we have simply changed our mind, and moving on from bed sharing we need some support. Our programs and consults will guide you through gentle sleep methods, which are more appropriate for most bed sharing babies who are moving towards independent sleep in the cot.
I'm feeding to sleep, can you help me stop?
Yes. Feeding to sleep is a common sleep association and one that works well for lots of newborns. Often we need to move on from feeding to sleep when it starts to cause short naps, or prolonged settling or frequent night wake ups as baby looks for their association to go back to sleep over and over again at night. We can teach you how to teach your baby to self settle and move on from feeding to sleep when the time is right.
I'm rocking to sleep, is their a solution?
Yes. These are common sleep associations, we refer to this as assisting to sleep. Let us show you ways you can develop independent sleep and settling strategies with our online sleep program, or one on one consult.
Is this program based on Cry It Out?
No. Cry it out is the common name for a sleep training method where you put baby down and don’t respond or check until they are fast asleep. There is no CIO involved in this program as we feel this should be only done under proper supervision. Instead we have included all our very gentle approaches and more mainstream techniques for you to choose from.
Is this based on Science or Art?
Both! As a scientist I (Emma) have spent over 8 years researching the science of sleep. I have educated and certified over 500 consultants around the world as sleep consultants, and have worked with thousands of clients. I love the scientific explanations of why we see the sleep patterns we see, and this science helps us to shape plans and solutions that we know will work. But there's an element of art to getting a baby to sleep, understanding the right combination of things that will work best, and this is where your instinct comes in.
Read about normal biological sleep patterns HERE
Read about gentle but effective sleep training HERE
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