Why excessive night feeds promote and encourage further night time disturbance’s…
We all dream of the day our baby will sleep that golden 6-8 hours, so that we as new parents can get some much needed quality shut eye at night.
For some parents this occurs as early as 6-8 weeks, others around 12 weeks, or for some people, once solids are introduced at 6 months.
If you have a baby over 3 months old who is not managing to last longer than 4 hours between feeds at night, you might be beginning to wonder when this will let up?
You may have even noticed if your evening starts out rocky your night often turns to custard. For whatever reason your baby wakes as early as 2-3 hours after going to bed for the night, you might think “oh I’ll just feed him”, since you are still awake – this is not an inconvenience. They may then wake again at midnight, and since it still isn’t the wee hours of the morning yet – you feed them again. Now where previously they may have been sleeping for 6 hours; because tonight you fed them at 9pm and midnight, suddenly they wake again at 3 or 4am demanding to be fed. You’re confused; you know previously they have slept for longer than this. Maybe it is a growth spurt, so you feed again, and again at 6am when they wake ……again.
Maybe it is a growth spurt………
Two weeks later you are now feeding your over 3 month old baby 3-4 times a night and this cycle is not showing any signs of changing.
Maybe instead of feeding after midnight you decide no he’s not hungry and you settle your baby back to sleep, then he sleeps until 6am without a further feed, but wakes and grizzles on and off between 3 and 5am………why is this?
Perhaps you have a 7 or 8 month old who is still waking 2-3 times a night for a feed, and also not showing any signs of sleeping for longer at night, he might be losing interest in solids during the day, so you're concerned he is hungry at night…………..how do I know if he genuinely hungry at night?
Your baby probably is genuinely hungry at night; you have used external cues (breast milk or formula) known in the science world as zeitgebers to entrain your baby’s internal biological clock to expect a feed at this time of night.
The classic example of this is the “early bird who gets the worm.” How does it “know” to wake up at the hour most advantageous? The bird doesn’t actively plan to wake up at a certain time and head out for worms. The availability of the food entrains (conditions) the bird’s circadian rhythm (biological clock) to wake at 5am for that worm.
So this circadian rhythm - what controls this in babies and when is it developed?
While your darling 6 week old baby has no idea about day or night, and has no 24 hour rhythm, by 3 months (12 weeks) this rhythm is developed or developing. Hormones are beginning to shape your baby’s day and night.
This internal biological clock is controlled by a part of the brain called the hypothalamus – in a small section known as the SCN, the SCN receives information from the eyes (light – which is why I recommend a red or orange night light, not a blue or white light), and from temperature, social cues and food availability.
So if food is always available from 7pm to 7am, you are en-training your baby’s circadian rhythm to be awake at night expecting food.
These late night milk feeds have other physiological effects on babies, when babies consume milk, their bodies produce insulin in response to this. Insulin secretion has actually been shown to block the production of melatonin. This is the hormone responsible for that sleepy feeling you get at night when you are in a dark space.
These lowered levels of melatonin are what then create a fitful night’s sleep for your baby as they struggle to get into a nice deep sleep cycle without this hormone. This is why if you resisted that feed after midnight, your baby eventually settled until morning – even if you heard them wake and re-settle a few times.
If you were not confused enough already – excessive night time feeding also delays the production of another hormone called ghrelin, this hormone helps control appetite. Studies show as the number of hours of sleep increase, ghrelin concentrations decreases, thereby reducing appetite. This reduced appetite allows your baby to sleep for longer period without waking hungry.
So not only are there hormones disrupting his sleep, the excessive fluid intake can cause him to wake up wet and uncomfortable, and the milk in his digestive tract is sending information to tiny little biological clock controls, to tell his body to wake up, as food available = day time!
Finally social cues; each time your baby sees your beautiful face at night – this contributes by sending messages to that SCN in the brain that this is a social time of day and not a time to be sleeping. Further confusing your baby’s circadian rhythm. So, some truth behind the strict “no eye contact no smiles at night” some sleep expects encourage. But seriously who can resist smiling at their little cherub at 3am when you haven’t seen them for at least ….oh 2 hours….
So what to do… what to do?
Excessive night time feeds in my baby over 3 months old is causing excessive night time wake ups, but how to a change this pattern?
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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- Champney T.H., Steger R.W., Christie D.S., Reiter R.J. Alterations in components of the pineal melatonin synthetic pathway by acute insulin stress in the rat and Syrian hamster. Brain Res. 1985;338:25–32. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
- Champney T.H., Brainard G.C., Richardson B.A., Reiter R.J. Experimentally-induced diabetes reduces nocturnal pineal melatonin content in the Syrian hamster. Comp. Biochem. Physiol. A. 1983;76:199–201. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
- Peschke E, Bähr I, Mühlbauer E. Melatonin and pancreatic islets: interrelationships between melatonin, insulin and glucagon. Int J Mol Sci. 2013;14(4):6981-7015. Published 2013 Mar 27. doi:10.3390/ijms14046981
- Schmid SM, Hallschmid M, Jauch-Chara K, Born J, Schultes B. A single night of sleep deprivation increases ghrelin levels and feelings of hunger in normal-weight healthy men. J Sleep Res. 2008 Sep;17(3):331-4. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2869.2008.00662.x. Epub 2008 Jun 28. PMID: 18564298.
- Weikel JC, Wichniak A, Ising M, Brunner H, Friess E, Held K, Mathias S, Schmid DA, Uhr M, Steiger A. Ghrelin promotes slow-wave sleep in humans. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 2003 Feb;284(2):E407-15. doi: 10.1152/ajpendo.00184.2002. Epub 2002 Oct 15. PMID: 12388174.
- Hosoda H, Kojima M, Kangawa K. Ghrelin and the regulation of food intake and energy balance. Mol Interv. 2002 Dec;2(8):494-503. doi: 10.1124/mi.2.8.494. PMID: 14993401.
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.
NB: Excessive is open to interpretation, if you are happy with your night time feeding situation, you have no problem. Happy mum = happy baby.
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