All About Dream Feeds and Why I Don’t Recommend ThemMay 24, 2023
It’s no secret that nighttime sleep during the newborn stage (for both you and baby) can feel non-existent. You’ve just brought this new baby home and while it may be newborn bliss, sleep deprivation can quickly creep in.
Many parents begin researching all the ways they can possibly get a few extra minutes of sleep during this time, and may come across the option to offer a “dream feed.”
Is it bad to offer a dream feed? No! Certainly not. There’s nothing “wrong” with it. It’s simply just not a requirement for baby sleep, nor does it guarantee your baby will begin sleeping longer stretches through the night like other tools I would recommend!
This is why if you haven’t already introduced a dream feed, I wouldn’t recommend it. Keep reading to learn what a dream feed is (and isn’t), as well as why I don’t personally recommend them, and what you can do instead!
What is a “Dream Feed”?
If you don’t know what a dream feed is, it basically means feeding a baby (usually under 3 months old) who is asleep or waking a sleeping baby just slightly to feed them after you’ve put them to sleep for the night, but before they have woken to indicate they’re hungry again.
A dream feed is done in hopes of getting your baby to sleep a longer stretch, and get one last feed in before you, as the parent, go to sleep. For example: If you are planning on going to sleep at 10 pm, you would wake your baby just before that time to feed them, hoping that it will prevent them from waking 2 hours later, so you can get a longer stretch of sleep.
I’ll admit, a long stretch of sleep sounds great! And while this seems to have become a piece of “must-do” advice for baby sleep, I actually don’t recommend it.
I think it’s also important to keep in mind that this is not the same thing as an overnight feed for your baby. A dream feed is a separate thing from a regular night feed. When newborn babies wake in the night on their own and they’re hungry, you should feed them!
Feeding a small baby when they are showing hunger cues is different than waking a baby to feed them in hopes of getting more sleep. And again, I want to reiterate that giving a baby a dream feed is not wrong and many people feel that it works well for them and for their baby! So, if you’re already doing one and you feel like it’s working well for you, don’t panic. I’ll go more into removing a dream feed later on if that’s something you’re looking for.
Why I Don’t Recommend a Dream Feed
Through experience, I have found that one of the main concerns a dream feed presents is that it doesn’t help babies learn to rely on their own hunger cues. Why is this important?
When your newborn wakes in the night, it’s most often from hunger (as newborns must eat every 2-3 hours around the clock, and sometimes more), so the majority of wakings will result in a feed. During the day though, it’s common for hunger and tired cues to look very similar! Allowing your baby to learn over time when they are hungry rather than just being fed every time they show any kind of fussiness can be helpful in determining whether your baby needs a feed or if it’s time for a nap (or even if they are overstimulated or, even bored!). Babies can get fussy for a variety of reasons other than hunger. An eat-play-sleep flow in your day can be really helpful for this.
Check out this blog for more on following an eat-play-sleep flow and why it’s useful at any age!
Essentially, what babies often learn from a dream feed is that you know when they’re hungry better when they know when they’re hungry and that they must need a feed at that time. And that dream feed often continues on as a habit long after the early infancy phase, as opposed to a feed they need because they’re actually hungry.
What Can I Do Instead of a Dream Feed?
Instead, I prefer to allow babies to wake on their own, signal that they are hungry, and then receive a feed at that time. In fact, when babies wake on their own to eat, they often naturally wean their own night feeds as they’re ready (which makes your life easier!) and begin to stretch their overnight sleep by longer and longer stretches as they wean those feeds!
When you wake your little one out of a sleep cycle, not only can it inhibit consolidating sleep naturally, but it may strengthen a feed-to-sleep dependency. This is common when a baby is being fed to sleep every time and is learning that they must NEED to be fed in order to fall asleep. While sleep dependencies like this aren’t bad or wrong (and if this works well for you and your baby, that’s totally okay!).
So, why do I bring this up as a concern if it’s not bad or wrong? The reason is that babies don’t tend to drop these dependencies on their own, or easily. And sometimes, it can stop working altogether (a baby is easily fed to sleep and placed down, then all of a sudden this stops working and the baby wakes back up the moment they’re placed down - and the parent is struggling to figure out how to get them to sleep). So, I like to bring this up as something to be aware of so parents can make the best choice for their situation and their baby’s needs!
And this tends to be the case with the dream feed. Usually, if a dream feed is implemented, there’s going to come a time when it needs to be removed by the parent (just like any other sleep dependency). This isn’t impossible to do, however, babies only get used to what they are introduced to, and never starting it to begin with means never having to remove it!
Dream feeds may work for some parents, but the truth is, they’re only minimally effective as far as getting a longer stretch of sleep out of your infant goes (especially because newborns have to eat so often, anyway!). And in some cases (usually when bottle feeding), they can lead to your baby being overfed, causing an upset tummy.
Keep in mind though that if your baby’s pediatrician has determined that your baby has a weight concern, a dream feed may be recommended by them to increase your baby’s weight or your milk supply. If this is the case, always follow your pediatrician’s advice! Or, as I said earlier in this post - it’s always ok to continue something that is working for you now and stop doing that thing if it stops working for you later!
Removing the Dream Feed
I’m often asked whether night wakings like this will just automatically work themselves out over time. And the answer to that is maybe, but there’s no guarantee. Of course, your 5-year-old won’t be waking up for a dream feed, specifically, but continued night wakings and fragmented sleep in young children are generally not out of nowhere, they have transitioned from previous months and years of not sleeping well. Some children grow out of sleep issues naturally, and some continue to wake up all night through early childhood and beyond.
It’s important to note, I am not saying that giving your child a dream feed will lead to continued fragmented sleep for your child. However, it’s important to be aware of what habits and skills we choose to work on with our children in terms of sleep because it’s not always guaranteed that sleep improved solely because a child is getting older. So, it’s always a great idea to practice healthy sleep hygiene and independent sleep skills, as well as encourage our little ones to listen to their own bodies and cue what they need from us as they grow and develop!
If you’re already in a place where you are looking to remove the dream feed, I recommend just cutting it cold turkey. What does that mean? It means don’t wake your baby at the usual time of the dream feed and allow them to wake naturally and signal that they are hungry before feeding them. If they continue to wake at that same time each night for a feed and you feel it has become a habit, I still recommend just staying consistent with what you are doing and giving it a few weeks to see if they naturally begin to wean that feed.
If your baby is under 4 months of age, don’t worry too much about this. If your baby is over 4 months and the waking is lingering, I recommend talking it through with your pediatrician to determine whether or how many night feeds your baby needs, and comforting in other ways than a feed when the wake-ups happen. If you need more step-by-step assistance, I recommend checking out my sleep training guide, it has everything you need to know!
If you’d like some extra support during the newborn phase, or you’d like to learn the basics of baby sleep that remain important into toddlerhood, don’t miss learning about my Ultimate Baby Sleep Bundle Guide. Or check out my 1-on-1 email support package for personalized troubleshooting guidance on one-off sleep issues with more hand-holding through the sleep training process.
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