Breaking the feeding through the night association
Your baby is born neurologically very immature, they don’t know the difference between night and day, and thus round the clock feeding and napping without any decent blocks of night sleep is pretty normal and to be expected.
As your newborn moves through those early months, their circadian rhythm develops, they know the difference between night and day, and lots of babies start to sleep 6-8 hours in a row around three to four months old.
This feels like bliss compared to the broken night sleep of a newborn, and as parents we breathe a sigh of relief, this is a sleeping pattern we can cope with!
But what to do when suddenly between 4-6 months your baby reverts back to waking every 2 hours overnight!
This is such a common situation and almost predictable, especially in those babies who are still cat napping in this 4-6 month period.
Why does their sleep revert back?
Your baby’s night sleep becomes more organized by 4 months old, they move from awake to REM sleep, then into Light non – REM sleep, and further into Deep non REM sleep back to awake, every 2-4 hours.
Often your baby will drift from Deep sleep, into REM, have a brief awakening you are not aware of and go back to sleep. Or they will move from that Deep sleep, all the way to full awake and possibly cry out for you here.
If your baby relies on feeding to get from that awake phase back to sleep, then every time their sleep cycle phase enters that awake period they will cry out for you to feed them back to sleep.
This could be as frequently as every 2-4 hours throughout the night, often more frequently after midnight.
As these nighttime cycles emerge around 4-6 months old we can be caught off guard and think our babies are going through a short-term growth spurt, so quickly fall into the habit of feeding back to sleep as frequently as every 2 hours.
Days turn into weeks, and we realise perhaps this wasn’t a growth spurt, or what started out as a growth spurt is now a habit.
These frequent overnight feeds can then result in what we call reverse cycling.
Reverse cycling is when a baby is taking in more calories overnight, than they are throughout the day. The symptoms we see of this are babies not interested in feeding throughout the day, appearing fussy or distracted at the breast or bottle, or simply refusing feeds.
Ideally, we are working towards a feeding balance where most calories are consumed throughout the day, and less so at night. This helps support the bodies circadian rhythm and work towards better more restorative night sleep by babies first birthday.
If you have found yourself stuck in the situation where you are feeding back to sleep every 2 hours overnight, then understanding that its normal for your baby to wake frequently overnight is important.
The goal is not to somehow change their naturally occurring sleep cycles and phases, but to encourage your baby to get from that awake phase, back to their sleeping phases without a feed from Mum.
Knowing your baby is reverse cycling with these 2 hourly feeds helps us to know that we can’t drop all these night feeds at once.
When we plan to tackle 2 hourly feeding to sleep overnight, we need to make changes gradually and give your baby a chance to increase their calories and feeding throughout the day in order to successfully change their night sleep feeding patterns.
How do we do it?
I have the most success by aiming for 4 hourly feeds for the first few nights. This gives baby enough time to increase their day feeds, and 4 hours overnight is not an unrealistic time to go between feeds as long as your baby is thriving and gaining weight.
In between these 4 hourly feeds your baby will go through phases of REM sleep, non REM sleep, and awake. When they reach the awake phase, they will be looking for that feed to get back to sleep, this is because the feed has become a sleep association for your baby. It is here where the change occurs.
We need to teach your baby a new way to fall back to sleep, which doesn’t rely on a feed.
This can be done gently by sitting by your child and soothing them with your voice, try shushing or singing. If they are upset, pick them up and soothe them with a cuddle, maybe pat their back. Be patient as they will probably be rooting looking for that feed to get back to sleep.
Once they are calmer in your arms you can put them back down and continue to use your voice and gentle touch to help them as they go back to sleep. If they get upset again, repeat and pick baby up again. This might happen several times, be very patient and calm with your baby.
Remember they are used to being fed back to sleep, so this change is not easy for them. It is your job to support them and not get frustrated with them.
After 2-3 days of doing this you should notice baby is settling much faster without a feed, and everyone is getting more sleep. You will need to gradually reduce how much assistance you provide over the coming days. Less touch, less voice, and fewer pick ups.
This will gradually support your baby to learn to put themselves back to sleep without your help.
If you want to change this feeding association quicker, you can try leaving your baby to cry, grizzle or fuss for 5-10 minutes before going in and using your voice to soothe them.
Again, I suggest shushing or singing depending on what your baby likes. Use your voice and some gentle touch for a few minutes, then retreat and give your baby another 5-10 minutes to try and go back to sleep without your feed. If your baby is still upset you try to soothe as described again.
Continue with this sequence until baby falls back to sleep, it shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes on average for the first night, and it will become quicker and quicker as the days move on.
Gently changing a feed to sleep association overnight can take 1-3 weeks to fully successful, and letting your baby grizzle or cry might take 7-10 days to fully change babies sleep association.
Both will work, the best option is simply the one which you feel most comfortable with, and which doesn’t compromise your parenting style.
Once you have managed to get your baby down to 4 hourly feeds throughout the night, they will be taking bigger longer feeds through the day, and if your baby is showing signs they are not hungry in the morning you can work on dropping down to one feed.
I would only recommend this if your baby is gaining good amounts of weight, is not hungry at 7am, and your naps are going well. You can use the same settling method you used to change your babies feed to sleep association, to drop one of those night feeds.
Other factors which contribute to your baby crying out every 2 hours at night.
- Short naps throughout the day
- Over tiredness
- Late bed times
- Short distracted day time feeds
- Lack of positive sleep associations
Things you can do to support baby’s night sleep
- Encourage at least 1 long nap throughout the day
- More frequent naps if they are short (45 minutes)
- Early bed times
- Remove distractions and encourage full feeds
- Introduce positive sleep association such as white noise, sleeping bags, swaddles and sleep rituals
- Try our online sleep program with our sleeping through the night plans and FREE email support! Click HERE.
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.
- Content happy baby and parents: Better sleep creates content babies & happy parents.
- Freedom: Predictable routines and longer nights creates freedom. Solve your sleep problems for more freedom.
- Work with your babies circadian rhythm: Work with your babies biological clock for faster easier results.
- Awesome naps & nights: You'll create consistent naps and nights with our support.
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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.
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