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 another 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.
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Read about normal biological sleep patterns
Read about gentle but effective sleep training
Hi my Little one is 4 months old and has a feed to sleep association and is breastfed.. He also won’t take a bottle or a pacifier. He also sleeps in the bed with me because he is constantly waking up looking for my breast.
I’m so exhausted 😩 after a bath once he is half way dressed automatically he goes frantic and cries he wants my breast but only to sooth.
Please can you help.