One of the most common sleep associations that I run into when working with a family is feeding to sleep – whether it’s nursing or relying on a bottle. Often times, families are worried that starting a sleep coaching plan means they will have to eliminate nighttime feeds altogether. I am quick to remind them that we have to build a plan that creates consistency, even with feeding overnight if that is something that they will continue. You can map out a plan that allows flexibility in the number feedings that you offer, and also one that can help to wean feedings if you decide to go that route.
First and foremost, it is important to consult with your doctor and get their guidance on what they believe is appropriate for overnight feeding based on your child’s growth and age. This also has to be a transition that will be comfortable for the mother if she is nursing throughout the night before coaching. You should also wait until a minimum of 18 weeks (adjusted age) to begin any sort of gentle sleep coaching plan.
Here are a few options to consider when developing your plan that includes feeding overnight.
1. Dream Feed
Planning a dream feed works for those families who see a waking from the baby early on in the night, which usually triggers a waking every 2-3 hours thereafter for another feed or nursing session to help them fall back asleep. That is a lot of up and down for the parents and baby all throughout the night. In this situation, a dream feed might be a good approach try. A dream feed is when you offer a feeding to your sleeping baby around 10-11pm at night, before you go to bed yourself. The goal would be to create a longer stretch in the back half of the night (6-8 hours) before their next feeding.
Keep your interaction at a minimum when you enter to feed and immediately put them back in their crib for sleep. Dream feeds do not work for every baby or every parent. If you find that they are overly stimulated or they are still waking only a few hours after that feed, you may want to switch tactics.
2. Set-Time Feed
The other option would be to map out the night and develop a plan for a set-time feed for your child. This approach allows you to pick a time on the clock and you would enter to feed the child the first time they wake after that set-time.
Example of set-time feed for a 6 month old and moving to one feeding a night: Child’s bedtime is 6:30-7pm. Set-time feed splits the night at 1am. If the baby wakes anytime before 1am, you would coach your child back to sleep (Sleep Lady Shuffle, Time Checks, etc.). If your child wakes at 2am, you would immediately respond with a feeding and then put them right back down to sleep in their crib. You would then coach the baby back to sleep for any additional wakings in the middle of the night if they occur before 6am.
A few caveats with this approach:
- It is very important that if you set a time for feeding, let’s say 1am, and if baby wakes at 12:45am, you do not want them to cry until 1am and then offer a feeding. That will cause them to be trained to cry until they get that responses. Instead, you will want to make sure you coach them back to sleep before offering the feeding (coached back to sleep at 1:15am, baby slept until 1:30am, then you offered feeding immediately upon waking).
- Another thing to watch out for is getting stuck in an early morning feeding cycle. When deciding on a set-time, I often encourage families to have a range in the back-half of the night and create a limit. Most often this means that they create a range of 1-5am or 2-5am for the back-half of the night for a feeding. If baby wakes after 5am and we offer a feed, it can sometimes create an ongoing demand from baby for this early feeding (and they are still up for the day soon after). Since we consider it time to be awake for the day if baby is up at 6am, try to coach them back to sleep if the waking occurs after 5am and delay feeding until they are awake for the day.
Decide what is right for your family
Each family will have a different approach to feeding overnight and what works for one child and family, might not work for another. Before beginning a sleep coaching plan, I recommend tracking sleep and feeding to see if you can identify any patterns, especially with overnight feedings. You can then blend the two approaches described above (feed twice a night, starting with a dream feed in the first part of the night and then a set-time in the back-half of the night) or choose one or the other method if moving down to one feeding a night. In either case, keep your interaction at a minimum – no talking, dim/red light and put back in crib when feeding is finished.
There are other things to consider when mapping out your sleep coaching plan and I provide some guidance and ideas in the post: 10 Things You Can Focus on Before Starting Sleep Coaching.